Florence Roca, 45, is a French mother of three married to a fellow countryman who has lived on and off in Japan for 10 years. Aside from family, she has a passion for painting porcelain and making jewelry.
Her sensibilities, creativity and techniques were fostered and enriched by people she has met in Japan, she says.
Roca, who also goes by her artist name of Fleur d’Huytesa, came to Japan in 2000 when her husband was posted in the country as an executive of a major car manufacturer. At the time, she quit her job in France as a finance manager for a global pharmaceutical company, as the family had three children, aged 1, 3 and 6 — and also because she wanted to explore her artist possibilities here.
In addition, she says she wanted to interact with the Japanese society in ways many people in the expat community would normally not. That was a big challenge, however, because she didn’t speak a word of Japanese back then.
“I badly wanted to learn the language, as I wanted to experience Japan myself, not through books or papers, or anyone else’s previous experiment,” Roca said. “I wanted to meet people, get to know them and share some time with them.”
To learn the language, she needed to find someone to take care of her infant daughter during the day. Instead of hiring a nanny, as many expats do, she started looking for a day care center because she wanted to expose her daughter to the Japanese environment and wanted her to interact with local children. But finding such a facility was not easy at first, as spaces were limited and parents with full-time jobs were given priority, she said.
During her search, she met a woman who eventually became her “mother in Japan,” Roca said. Noriko Ikeda, then the director of a small, public day care facility in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, quickly saw her need for help and offered assistance, and even though there was a language barrier, the two could communicate through “the language of the heart.”
Later, after Ikeda retired, the two became good friends. Ikeda knew Roca was keen to learn Japanese-style ceramic art, and proposed the two take a trip together — and she made all the travel arrangements for the two to go to Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, the home of Kutani ceramics, and then later to the city of Imari in Saga Prefecture, which is famous for the Nabeshima-style ceramics.
It was during that second trip, in 2005, that Roca had her second important encounter in Japan — a prominent ceramic artist named Shinji Hataishi, she said.
On the day the two met at his factory in Imari, Hataishi was amused by her desire to learn enough to let her try painting a plate, even though she did not buy anything. Hataishi has since been helpful whenever she needed advice on her ceramic creations. The two — having come from totally different cultural and social backgrounds — can now talk about many things, driven by their shared passion for art and craftsmanship, Roca said.
“Of course the language — Japanese — is very difficult,” she said. “But when you share the same passion for something, somehow there is communication.”
What Roca appreciates the most is that, despite the gap in skills and experience between the two, Hataishi was always open to collaboration, she said.
“Shinji-san is a master, and I’m nowhere where he is,” she said at her home in Chiyoda Ward, where her ceramic creations and antique collections take up ample space. “He is absolutely fantastic. But he is not despising me. I’m doing my own stuff and he is like, ‘Oh, you did that? How did you do that?’ “
Roca often uses Japanese motifs such as ukiyo-e by Utagawa Hiroshige, Kitagawa Utamaro and Katsushika Hokusai, infusing her own sensibilities and ideas into them.
“It’s very close (to the original ukiyo-e) but the artist would have never done it like that,” she said, showing a leaf-shaped white plate with her version of Hokusai’s sketch of Sumida River in snow — in pink. Roca said she imagined putting green asparagus on the plate while she painted it.
“The proportion (of the drawings) is exactly the same but the touch is different. Also pink. You (normally) don’t use it that way.”
Another mentor is Takashi Kikuchi, who runs a jewelry-making atelier in Tokyo’s Okachimachi district. She was introduced to the craftsman about a year ago through a jewelry-making class she had taken, and he has agreed to let her use his studio whenever she needs to fire and hammer her creations — with no questions or money asked, she said, presumably because he understood her deep artistic motivation.
Through such experiences, Roca said she has realized that, in Japan, you can have an inspiring and fulfilling relationship with people without knowing or understanding everything about them. As an example, she cited a conversation she once had with the former day care director.
“One day I said in poor Japanese that there are so many things I want you to hear from me but I don’t know the words in Japanese so I can’t say,” she said. “My words were so poor and childish. Then she said, ‘Roca-san, I know what’s in your heart.’ And this was enough for me.”
Roca is exhibiting and selling her porcelain works at Iki Iki Plazza, 12 Ichibancho, Chiyoda Ward, from Thursday through Saturday. Visit www.fleurdhuytesa.wordpress.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org