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Art’s a beach!

A potter breathes new life into stuff stranded on the sands

by Yoko Hani

The studio of potter Shigeaki Higuchi faces the Pacific on the coast at Shirahama in Minami Boso City. Between the shore and his modest atelier there’s only a local road and a line of bushes where deep-blue morning glories were already in full bloom when I visited last month. The sky was clear and the sea breeze there at the southern tip of the Boso Peninsula was a delight as the sun bore down on that early-summer day.

Peaceful as it is — and beautiful, with shirahama literally meaning “white beach” — this remote extremity of Chiba Prefecture is a well-known holiday destination located near Tateyama City.

But Higuchi, a Shirahama resident since 1979, knows another face of the popular beach: its garbage.

“One day about eight years ago,” he recalled, “I found piles of rubbish along the shore, and I was shocked. I thought that something had to be done.”

But instead of campaigning for the environment, Higuchi took an artistic approach to the problem and began collecting junk from the beach and turning it into works of art. Now, his “junk artworks” cover almost all the walls and the limited floor spaces of his studio.

The “genre” started almost by chance, he says.

“I found the sole of a high-heeled shoe on the beach, and it looked like a dead bird,” he says.

“It was spring at the time, when the weather tends to be rough and wild and birds are often killed in storms and then drift ashore. So, when I spotted the shoe lying there, I really thought that it was a dead bird.”

Intrigued, Higuchi took his find home and painted round eyes and a yellow bill on it. “Then it looked more like a real bird,” he said, beaming as he showed off that “first junk artwork” he created.

Higuchi, 66, says that as an artist he has always been inspired by the sea at Shirahama, and he opened his studio there in 1979 because he’d felt “a tremendous energy” in that area years before during a storm. That day, he says, his passion as an artist was so energized that he made up his mind to build his atelier there using the limited savings he had.

Since then, from the home by the ocean he still shares with his wife since their grown-up daughters moved to Tokyo, he has created countless pieces of pottery with marine motifs, as well as the “junk art” with which they are surrounded.

“I like the sea here at Shirahama when it is calm and peaceful, but I also really like it when it gets rough,” Higuchi says. “I have always wanted to create pottery pieces that make people feel the smell of the sea, even though they do not make much money.”

For the last 10 years, though, he has suffered from atopic dermatitis, a skin condition that sometimes makes it difficult for him to even touch water, as he has to when making pottery.

“When I cannot work on my pottery, then I play with junk and make these works,” he says. “Because of the sickness, I was given a different pleasure in life which has made me feel less sad about not being able to make pottery,” he says.

So nowadays, it has become Higuchi’s hobby to collect rubbish from the beach when he takes a walk with his dog each afternoon. It’s only a short stroll along the nearby strand — about 400 meters in all — but few are the days when he doesn’t find some inspiring flotsam or jetsam to excitedly take home.

As a result, his junk collection has gradually grown to gargantuan proportions. On shelves, on the floor and in drawers of his atelier, there are now plastic tanks, buoys, bits of fishing gear, polystyrene chunks, watering cans, eye glasses, scissors, bicycle saddles, dolls, a fire hose, scrubbing brushes, pieces of cutlery, cooking items, a wall clock and loads and loads of assorted driftwood.

And slowly but surely, Higuchi turns each of these found items into lively and colorful artworks — many of them mask-like faces, often made from flippers or plastic tanks, that both make you smile and touch your heart as if they truly have taken on lives of their own.

Not an overly sentimental type, though, Higuchi hasn’t given names or titles to any of the 120 or so “junk artworks” he has created over the last eight years — except one. That work, “Ikareru Hyouchaku Gomi (Angry Garbage Washed Ashore),” has a body made from a plastic chair wearing rubber rain boots and a face made from the lid of a container, fishing floats and a piece of driftwood. Higuchi found the chair on the beach near the remains of a bonfire, and one of its legs had melted away.

“The user must have just dumped the chair after one of the legs caught fire,” he says. “It’s awful. My ‘Ikareru Hyouchaku Gomi’ in a way represents my whole work and expresses the anger of these pieces of garbage on the shore.”

Whatever the anger he feels from within these items, though, Higuchi’s creations certainly give viewers jolly feelings.

“I try to make them humorous,” Higuchi says, “so that people are interested in them.”

But then, in a quiet but firm tone, he says that he wants people to think about whether this “junk” is really junk.

“One day on the beach, I found an orchid in a pot dumped there. It had finished flowering for the season, but it was a nice orchid, the kind people often send as a gift. They are not rubbish. If you take care of them well, they will bloom again. It was painful to see that dumped.

“Obviously every household produces rubbish, but I think if we thought about it a bit more, we could use things longer or recycle them.”

But when it does come time to throw stuff out, he feels strongly that people must dump things in the right places.

“If I had collected stuff from the beach using a car, for example, I would have got much more. But what I want to say is that I found all this in a very small area of the beach.

“It’s scary to imagine how much garbage must be dumped or washed ashore along the coasts all the way around Japan.”

In fact, the government conducted research on shoreline garbage around the country late last year, and as a result estimated the quantity at around 26,000 tons in total.

In the Shirahama area, meanwhile, Higuchi says local people have recently started activities to clean their beaches by collecting junk, such as cans and plastic bottles.

Modestly, Higuchi says that his “junk artworks” should not have price tags. When his friends ask him to sell them some of his works, he advises them to make their own “found” creations.

“For myself, I feel like these works are my family members and I will miss them if I part with them,” he says.

However, as his studio already looks like an exhibition space for his junkworks, this writer was curious whether Higuchi intended to stage exhibitions in the future.

He smiled, and said: “It might be an idea. But I would need to make more if I was going to hold an exhibition, although it would be great if more people, both children and adults, could see and enjoy these works and think about environmental problems as well.”