Dressed in a neat black skirt, white blouse and wraparound apron, Joy Suzuki offers a bow of welcome from her kitchen, where she is preparing lunch with raw materials from her wild garden near Kamakura-gu Shrine.
“It’s true,” she laughs at my surprise. “I’m not the apron type, it’s just that I’m such a slob.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. For in her work — blowing and sandblasting glass for clear, opaque and frosted vases, and other containers for flowers — Joy is the ultimate perfectionist.
It shows in the meal she lays out on carefully chosen ceramics on the table outside: “mitsuba” (wild chervil), “takenoko” (bamboo sprouts), “fuki” (butterbur), cooked two different ways, a “weed” that looks like groundsel but isn’t, and some leaves even she doesn’t know the name of. “All I do know is they taste delicious and don’t kill you.”
Asked for the recipe to cook the fuki stems, she reveals that she’s thinking about doing a book about grandparents teaching children how to make traditional dishes. “Children like to learn from much older people. I know I always did.”
Joy’s grandparents — her grandfather from Hiroshima, and grandmother from Wakayama — were California immigrants. “My mother was ‘kibei nisei,’ meaning that her parents brought her back to Japan for the duration of the war.”
Joy disappears, returning minutes later sans apron but wearing a rough-woven waistcoat of what looks like cotton, but is in fact raw silk.
“Junior high school girls used to weave them for kamikaze pilots. My father was trained as kamikaze — we even have his ‘tokutai,’ the Japanese national flag with everyone’s signatures on it that pilots carried into battle. Luckily he survived and after the war emigrated to the U.S., where he met my mother.”
When Joy was young, she wanted to be a social worker. “Elderly people are often so connected, have great wisdom. I loved being around elderly people like my grandparents as a small child.”
Interested in fashion, Joy went to business school, but (in her usual self-deprecating manner), says she was hopeless. She had a good eye, but business? Forget it. Rather she was inspired by her brother, who came to Japan as an architect and studied ceramics, ikebana and other Japanese arts. “Now he’s a house dad. I’m so proud of him. He shows me that there are other ways to live.”
While on campus in California, she was drawn one day to a festival, where students from San Francisco State University’s glass department were showing and selling work to supplement their funding. “Thinking that great, I swapped courses.”
Joy had remembered her mother having pieces of Swedish glass lying around the house, and how she had always loved the feel of it. “Back then I had no idea how it was made. Now I think fire brings out the pyro in all of us.”
She came to Japan because there is more exposure here to crafts. Also she thought that if her brother could go knocking on doors asking to study, so could she. But all she got was no, no, no. Eventually relatives in Hiroshima got her an introduction, and she worked there for a year. But it was a glass artist in Yamanashi Prefecture who gave her the chance she was looking for.
“He got me a job at a gallery in Tokyo during the week and I worked with him on weekends.” Deciding after two years to go home, she had a sayonara exhibition, and sold everything on display . . . “the only time that’s ever happened” she adds. “The truth is, I was amazed that anyone would want to use what I had made. I still feel this way, even though I’m booked up with shows right through to fall.”
A relationship led her to settle in Kamakura. Having moved on four years ago into her present home, she is now a familiar sight, nipping through the city’s narrow streets in a Mitsubishi Pajero Mini or on her trusty bike, once red but now more red with rust.
Life is now a balance of teaching English locally and blowing glass at a studio in Tokyo. “I prefer to rent space, keeping my work at a distance and my home separate. Sarue Garasu is a great place to work.”
Last year, Joy took a break (no pun intended) from her craft. With her energy restored, she has new ideas. Formerly concentrated on making containers for flowers, she’s keen now to design glass for windows, working in collaboration with architects and manufacturers.
“I decided it was time to stop griping about modern architecture — most pressed glass is so ugly — and do something constructive. Homes and working environments are very important. Making vessels has made me very aware of this.”
Her next exhibition, at Kai Gallery in central Tokyo in June, will therefore show sandblasted and etched pressed glass framed as windows, together with new flower vases. “Of course, the pressed glass will have to be mass-produced to make it feasible to use in housing for the masses. But the gallery owner was enthusiastic, said, ‘Go for it!’ “
Off to Yamanashi to do some cold work (sandblasting for dots and lines and opaque frostings), Joy is stoic rather than enthusiastic. It’s the blowing she loves — picking up a glob of molten glass and using her breath and energy to give it new form and life. Sarue Garasu uses the purest glass available, so her work is not simply crystal clear but full of rainbows.
Glass, she says, is full of challenges, especially in terms of creating containers for flowers. “You don’t always have to show the whole flower. As in nature, a hint is enough. Some of my vases magnify, others make flowers appear as if behind ice. Vessels may be small enough to hold just a simple bud, petal or leaf. In this sense, you could say I’m still in search of a place for a flower.”