It is arguably the most instantly recognizable pottery in Britain, possibly the world. Known as jasper ware, it commonly features white sprig decorations on an unglazed, pale blue porcelain, the eponymous color of the company that started it over 250 years ago.
In the workshops of Josiah Wedgwood & Sons today, however, one of the chief inspirations of the globally renowned maker of fine china and porcelain is not from the northwest England city of Stoke-on-Trent, where Josiah Wedgwood and his company were born, nor is she British.
Adding her own unique touch to Wedgwood’s timeless “stoneware” is Japanese contemporary ceramic artist Hitomi Hosono, who has been plying her trade in Britain for over 11 years.
“Even when I was in Japan I was fascinated with Wedgwood,” says Hosono, 39. “Jasper ware seemed to be the quintessential Western ceramics, and it was always a dream that one day I could make it. When I got this opportunity, I literally pinched myself.”
Born into a farming family in Kani, southern Gifu Prefecture, Hosono first became interested in making things out of clay as a child, influenced in part, she says, by her grandfather, who was a plasterer and ceramicist. Everyday objects, such as the porcelain tanuki (raccoon dogs) that are emblematic of Shiga Prefecture’s Shigaraki ware, frequently caught her eye and at 17, she went to study pottery throwing and design at a technical high school in the neighboring city of Tajimi.
It was here that she first heard about Stoke-on-Trent, a place more commonly referred to in the U.K. as “The Potteries” due to its long history of ceramics, made over the centuries by the likes of Royal Doulton, Aynsley China, Spode and Wedgwood.
The similarities between her hometown and The Potteries has led Hosono to refer to Tajimi as “Japan’s Stoke-on-Trent.” “Many people in both places are involved in the ceramics business, and the ceramics culture and communities are very rich,” she says.
Hosono’s path to realizing her dream was not a smooth one. After graduating from high school she went to Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, to learn how to make Kutani ware, another style of porcelain with a rich history, and to create her own Kutani-inspired contemporary works.
“When I moved to Kanazawa I had my first opportunity to meet international students,” she says. “This inspired me to test myself overseas and get my work onto the international stage.”
With her farmer parents unable to fund her plans, Hosono began to apply for scholarships, finally securing one from the Rotary Foundation. In 2005 and still only 26 she set off for Europe to spend the following year in Denmark.
It was during that time that she started to hatch a plan to fulfill her dream of working in Britain. She applied to London’s prestigious Royal College of Art (RCA) and to her delight was accepted. Upon her return to Japan, she applied again for scholarships to fund her studies, this time gaining support from the Ito Foundation for International Education Exchange.
In 2007, Hosono enrolled on a two-year course at the RCA, where the hurdles she faced were both cultural and linguistic.
First, there were some unfamiliar but typical European traits that she knew she would have to adapt to — namely informal greetings, such as hugging and kissing.
“It was a little difficult at the beginning, even though I loved seeing it,” she says. “Now it’s fine — actually, I quite like it.”
Another issue was language.
“I really wanted to make the most of those two years because it had been so hard to get on to the course. I wanted to push myself and experiment and, despite the language problem, I was always given help with whatever I decided to do,” she says. “In Japan, tutors stay in their rooms and are rarely available to talk one on one. At the RCA they were always happy to help.”
She also had to learn to express herself — and be heard.
“I don’t like stereotypes, but (in Britain) if something is wrong people tend to say so. That’s not really in my nature, but I learned that if I didn’t speak up, I couldn’t expect people to understand me.”
Another area she was supported in was securing an internship, and as fate would have it, Hosono found herself on a six-week placement in The Potteries — at Wedgwood, no less.
With her strong knowledge of design software, she was initially placed in the design department. “But as my ideas developed, the studio manager told me I should try working in the factory,” she recalls. “I was given the chance to work in the modeling room, which is where products are developed based on drawings from the design department.
“It was an extraordinary experience because I could feel with my own hands how the reliefs and the sprigs were made. And I realized I could use those kinds of old techniques to make some new products for the company.”
At the end of the internship, the Wedgwood designers, impressed with her ideas, expressed an interest in continuing Hosono’s project.
But then, suddenly, all contact was lost. Eventually, Hosono heard on the news that Wedgwood had been experiencing financial problems, and following the global financial crisis in 2007-08, it was placed into administration.
Fast forward eight years, and the company was bought out by Finnish outfit Fiskars Corporation. One of the first things the Wedgwood design team did was re-establish contact with Hosono.
By then, Hosono’s graduation exhibition had caught the eye of one of London’s top galleries, and her work was already being shown and sold around the world. She opened a studio in London and her skills became much sought-after.
Even the British Museum acquired her work, but since the museum was being sponsored by U.K. charity Art Fund, the curator, Nicole Rousmaniere, had to make a convincing case for the purchase of Hosono’s piece.
“Nicole said I should show them how I made it — how I put the ceramic leaves on. And I used chopsticks to do that. The judge really loved that,” she says.”It was a little embarrassing because sometimes people want to see something in a work as being a product of me being Japanese, as though that alone is the reason I can do something. In the beginning I resisted this a little, but now I really don’t mind. I have never presented myself as being just Japanese, though. I present myself as Hitomi.”
Wedgwood, meanwhile, invited Hosono to join its artist-in-residence program, encouraging her to develop her “Japanese aesthetic” through one of the globe’s most revered porcelain wares.
This she did by replacing jasper ware’s traditional focus on neoclassical designs with ones that depicted nature. With help from other staff, she went through Wedgwood’s archives of sprig molds and selected those that depicted flowers and leaves. She then arranged them in multiple layers to create a stunning 3D effect of nature in motion — of springtime flowers and autumn leaves cascading down the sides of jasper-ware pots and vases.
Ironically, perhaps, her efforts to infuse British tradition with Japanese sensibilities have lead to bouts of homesickness, particularly during the autumn months. “I miss the rice paddies around my home,” she says. “And when we would gather there during harvest time and eat rice balls at the edge of the paddies. I miss that especially.”
Yet Hosono feels settled in Britain, where she feels constantly challenged by a fast-moving ceramic art scene and artists who are “determined to think outside of the box.” Her most recent independent work, eight porcelain versions of takeaway food, including fish and chips, will go on show next year at the Japan Galleries of the British Museum, and she says she hopes one day to settle in The Potteries — the home of Wedgwood, whose new lineup now features her designs.
“Stoke-on-Trent is a true ceramic city,” says Hosono. “Everything you need to make ceramics, you can find there — from the materials to the community. And although they may not seem to be on the outside, the artisans here are very serious about their work. They make efforts to appear relaxed to prevent others from getting stressed. They care and look after others in the workplace. I love that.”
Name: Hitomi Hosono
Profession: Ceramic artist
Hometown: Kani, Gifu Prefecture
Key moments in career:
2004 — Wins First Prize for Graphic Art on Ceramics and Silver Prize for Craft Design, from the Museum of Modern Ceramic Art, Gifu
2005-06 — Awarded a Rotary Foundation scholarship for a year of study at Danmarks Designskole (The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design)
2007-09 — Awarded an Ito Foundation scholarship to fund study at the Royal College of Art in London
2011 — Becomes the Ceramics & Glass Winner of the Homes & Gardens Designer Awards and is a finalist for an Art Foundation Fellowship in Ceramics
2013 — Wins Perrier-Jouet Arts Salon Prize 2013
2014 — Wins 2014 Jerwood Makers Open
2018 — Invited to join Wedgwood’s artist-in-residence program
Words to Live by: “Always show gratitude for others’ help.”
Things you miss about Japan: Family; red miso soup and homegrown rice and vegetables; sounds of the farm, like frogs singing in the paddies on a summer night; harvesting rice with my family and eating packed lunch together on the edge of rice paddies.