A Clean Slate

Reiko Miyagi uses a technique known as sgraffito for her striking stoneware. Photo by Matt Rose
Reiko Miyagi uses a technique known as sgraffito for her striking stoneware. Photo by Matt Rose

The mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.” Asheville artist Reiko Miyagi has taken Campbell’s words to heart, not only in her life’s path but also in the subject matter of her most sought-after pottery series. Her fanciful black-and-white drawings on plates, bowls, cups, and tea kettles are functional objects that express her belief that all beings have holiness: “yaoyorozu no kami,” in her native Japanese tongue.

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Reiko-7-ALPHAMiyagi graduated from Tama Art University in Tokyo, later living in the well-known folk pottery town of Mashiko. Mashiko’s lack of a strict artistic style and tradition allowed Miyagi to immerse herself in innovative techniques; she also grew her own food and built living quarters from recycled materials.

She moved to Asheville in 2012, after over a decade in San Francisco. “We [my husband and two sons] were tired of the craziness of the Bay area,” says Miyagi. “Asheville feels like being back home, with the climate and mountains. I don’t have to look for somewhere new anymore.” She maintains her studio, Tabula Rasa, which she began in San Francisco, in the River Arts District.

Miyagi’s primary subject matter is the animal kingdom, featuring a great variety in most of her black-and-white work. “Animals live with their instincts, without the complications and distractions that we humans have,” Miyagi explains. Coyote Jar, a recent work, features the stylized animal on the side of a hill, flora and birds all around. The imagery is concentrated in the body of the pitcher, with the spout falling off into whitespace, imparting a vivid sense of motion.

Music is also a recurring theme; its inherent abstract quality capturing Campbell’s “moment of bliss.” Squirrel Musician Plate features said animal emerging from a lotus, playing a bugle-style instrument. Leaves and flowers that resemble the bugle undulate around the perimeter of the irregular oval-shaped plate. The motion and repetition of the lines and dots complete the illusion of a musical score.

Contrary to the Japanese aesthetic of composing with large amounts of negative space, many of Miyagi’s plates make full use of the surface. “I didn’t realize until I left Japan how unique we are in the world to have that minimal, simplistic sense of beauty,” she says. Her full illustrative style only emerged upon arriving in the United States, perhaps a subconscious reaction to the tradition of her homeland.

Lotus Village, a plate illustrated with a tall thin building balanced on a hill with swirling branches on all sides, exemplifies her approach. Utilizing a technique known as sgraffito (derived from Italian, it means “to scratch”), Miyagi painted black glaze on to white stoneware, then scratched through the glaze to complete the illustration. Miyagi is the sole crafter of every part of the process, allowing herself to be, as Campbell might say, to be “in the moment” for all aspects of creation, from building to drawing to firing.

Miyagi, who also creates custom jewelry, says there’s a noticeable difference between her jewelry and pottery patrons. People tend to come and go more quickly when looking at jewelry, but the pottery leads to longer, deeper conversations. “It’s a lot more personal,” Miyagi says. “Sometimes I feel like a medium making this work, like a spirit is coming out through my hands. I make more connections with people talking about this work.”

Miyagi’s biggest challenge right now is to catch up on her commissions and work for shows, such as one upcoming at the Mint Museum in Charlotte in September. She is considering a shift into more minimal styles, and awaits having the time to be able to explore this. “I just have so many ideas getting built up!” she says.

For details visit studiotabularasa.com.