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Interview. Graphic Designer Meets Ceramics: Jonathan Yamakami

Interview. Graphic Designer Meets Ceramics: Jonathan Yamakami
Using the Raku technique. Courtesy of Jonathan Yamakami.

The production of this Los Angeles-based, 38-year-old ceramist is catching the attention of art galleries and specialized shops.

Born in Brazil and of Japanese descent, Jonathan Yamakami graduated as a journalist at Universidade de São Paulo and built a career as a graphic designer. By 2013, he was already living in the United States and had just obtained an MFA in Graphic Design from the Rhode Island School of Design. Since then, he has had his work featured by the National Public Radio (NPR), The New York Times and AIGA 50 Books | 50 Covers. But another enterprise has been gaining more and more space in his life: ceramics.

It all started in 2017, at the University of Oregon, where his husband had been appointed a professor. There, in one of the several studios dedicated to a variety of activities open to the whole university community, Jonathan discovered ceramics through pottery lessons – more specifically, the pottery wheel. 

“As a graphic designer, I was used to working in front of a computer the whole time. Doing ceramics allows you to make something three-dimensional, palpable and which can be finished at that same moment. This was something completely different to me,” he says.

How a Hobby Can Turn into a Professional Journey

In 2019, Jonathan became a member of a ceramics studio in Culver City, California. There, the hobby gradually became another profession as other members began asking ever more frequently to purchase his items. Later, orders from friends and other people who were contacting him through his Instagram account started to build up. More recently, Jonathan established a partnership with In Various Forms, a gallery that will be selling part of his products and has just opened to visitors. In addition, some of Jonathan’s items will be available at the Craft Contemporary museum store in Los Angeles.

Processed with VSCO with a5 preset. Courtesy of Jonathan Yamakami.

Jonathan intends to keep developing his technique as a ceramist while continuing his work as a freelance graphic designer – but in a much more selective way. 

“I realized time is precious. If I am going to devote ten or twenty hours to design, that means ten or twenty hours less to do other things, including ceramics. So I have been doing less but better design work,” he explains. 

Also, it is no surprise that a graphic designer brings his original skills to ceramics making. 

“I think my graphic designer side can be seen in my search for textures, in my techniques for surface decorating and so on,” he says.

Courtesy of Jonathan Yamakami.

Producing Functional Objects and Mastering the Raku Technique

When Jonathan started his pottery production, his focus was on functional objects such as cups and bowls. Later, he started making more vases than anything else. 

“I think vases are pieces that offer more creative possibilities. And more recently, I’ve switched to more, let’s say, sculptural work. Vases that don’t have a very clear function, but can be used in some way, even if that purpose is holding one flower only, for example. That makes it more than ‘just’ an ornament,” he explains.

Among his sources of inspiration is nature, especially marine animals. 

“There are also memories, images that come from my childhood. Like some faces in my family which became portraits I used in a few items. That’s a very personal part of my inspiration,” he says.

Another curious fact is that he avoids mixing activities at the pottery wheel with hand-building. 

Courtesy of Jonathan Yamakami.

“I like both things, but when I spend a lot of time doing hand-building, it takes me a while to get used to the pottery wheel again,” he explains. 

Since last year he has been mastering a firing technique called Raku, which can have unexpected results and produces items with a more metallic aspect and more organic surfaces

Raku is a Japanese, five-centuries-old technique that consists of getting glazed or unglazed ceramics out of the kiln while they are still glowing red hot and placing them in a material that can catch fire – sawdust and newspaper, for example. This way the piece is starved of oxygen, and that creates a myriad of colors within the glaze, generating unpredictable results. 

This method is far quicker than the normal firing as it takes one or two hours in comparison to the typical 24 hours. Items that go through this are best when coated with a specific Raku glaze, giving them a lower melting point and therefore allowing the ceramicist to do the firing much quicker. This technique can only be used when the items are being forged manually.

Using the Raku technique. Courtesy of Jonathan Yamakami.
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