Jewelry of the Imagination. A Conversation with Saya Yamagishi

Published: 11.10.2017
Saya Yamagishi Saya Yamagishi
Makiko Akiyama
Edited by:
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Edited on:
-Wear the Scenery- / Chrysanthemum (2017). Brooch/pendant top. Material: lacquer, magnolia, gold powder, silver-lipped pearl oyster. H 7.7 x W 6.9 x D1.6 cm. Photo by the artist..
-Wear the Scenery- / Chrysanthemum (2017). Brooch/pendant top. Material: lacquer, magnolia, gold powder, silver-lipped pearl oyster. H 7.7 x W 6.9 x D1.6 cm. Photo by the artist.

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A small object always gives the viewer the pleasure of peeking into a compact world. When it comes to jewelry, the artist's imagination concentrates on a small form while, at the same time, it is expected to develop a chemistry with the wearer. Thus, it also has a more expansive nature and the way in which this condensing and expanding coexist in a piece of jewelry can uncover the maker’s idea. Saya Yamagishi’s exquisite urushi (Japanese lacquer) jewelry reveals the part of her imagination that goes beyond the piece, and it has the power to transport the wearer to a scene pictured by the artist. This is made possible by the artist’s passion for jewelry and her idea of its relationship with the wearer.

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How did you first become interested in urushi work and making things? 

Saya Yamagishi: I think my interest in making things is rooted in the environment of my childhood because my father and grandfather were both ceramists. My mother was engaged in textiles and my grandmother Japanese dressmaking. I would see their work every day, so it was only natural for me to eventually start an artistic practice myself.
As a kid, I liked to draw and make things. When I was at junior high school, I started to believe that I would work in an artistic field in future. At first, I aimed to go to an art school to study editorial design, as I liked clothes and was hooked on fashion magazines. Then, I happened to see a poppy-shaped hat pin by René Lalique and it moved me so much. This experience led me to gravitate toward making jewelry and I finally shifted my goal from design to craft.
I originally intended to learn metalwork at college but I had a chance to use urushi in the first year. I was fascinated by this strange material and decided to major in urushi, as I thought that I wouldn't be able to study it again if I missed this opportunity. Urushi work involves various materials, such as metal for Maki-e [1], shell for Raden [2], fabric and paper. This flexibility, an extensive choice of colors – which is essential because color is important to me – and urushi’s unique blackness attracted me. However, I need to express myself through jewelry, which is unchangeable, so all the materials are used as tools to achieve it.
Around that period, I visited several exhibitions of combs, hair sticks and personal ornaments that had been used until the Meiji period (1868-1912) in Japan. These shows also prompted me to major in urushi, as it was a real surprise for me to discover that urushi was once used for a long period of time as a major material for personal ornaments in Japan.

KANZASHI, pine tree, art work (a wall piece shaped like a hair stick) (2014). Material: lacquer, magnolia, silver powder, silver925. H 19.5 x W 23.0 x D 0.9 cm. Photo by the artist.

You also make hair sticks yourself.
Saya Yamagishi: Yes, and it’s to do with what I’ve just mentioned. I started to make hair sticks in 2008. In Japan’s fashion history, combs and hair sticks were common ornaments for women. They were used to decorate women’s hair, which led me to both adore and respect these items. These hair sticks played a big role in my decision to use urushi to make jewelry. That’s probably why I continue to make hair sticks. I initially made them just because I wanted to, but I came to realize about three years ago there were more detailed reasons.

I think urushi jewelry, especially items like hair sticks and sash fasteners, can seem old, which makes them inaccessible to the younger generation. However, you succeed in creating pieces with a contemporary atmosphere while also maintaining urushi’s unique quality. How do you think you manage that, and does urushi require more attention during the design process than other materials?
Saya Yamagishi: When I make works, I start from an image. Then I think about how to realize it by working together with the material, rather than focusing on what I can do with it. Maybe that’s why I manage to do what you’ve just said. I also pay a lot of attention to finding a balance in the shape, the amount of decorations and the coloring. This is my own balance and it is important for me.
In this sense, I might be unwittingly trying hard to get rid of people’s typical impression of urushi as being old. I like something traditional and Japanese, so I sometimes make such pieces. But when I do it, I make sure that I am not too straightforward in my approach and will add a hint of the unexpected or use exaggeration by making large works or blending in a lot of elements.

Workbench. Photo by the artist.

Can you elaborate on what it is like to ‘work together with material’?
Saya Yamagishi: At the beginning, I felt there was a distance between the material and me, but now that distance has shortened and I feel that the material and I are both thinking together. The initial image is realized through urushi, but also through my sensibility. Neither beats the other – it is as if urushi is sitting beside me until I complete the piece. Urushi still possesses a lot of possibilities. I'd like to pursue them and the techniques even further. I take up such new challenges while I try to engage in what I can do now with urushi.
I use urushi and that’s especially why I need to increase or reduce 'urushiness', depending on the concept or what it is I'd like to make. I listen to the material's voice to find the best balance of urushiness. This is one of the most interesting phases of the creative process.

The way you develop your image into a form reminds me of the 'plant collecting' series, which you started in 2013 and have continued to make to this day. The concept is collecting plants in an imaginary forest and turning them into small objects or pieces of jewelry. How did this series come about?
Saya Yamagishi: I used to be inspired by small plants and made works that were shaped like them but were nameless. Then, I became interested in exploring each plant further. That’s how the ‘plant collecting’ series started.
I think everybody has been out into a field or forest and picked up seeds or berries. I try to awaken that feeling of pleasure and surprise when I make a piece for this series. All the plants are fictional but I attempt to make pieces that have a certain realness, instead of them ending up as mere fantasy. I am interested in plants and find beauty in them, as well as in their diversity. This fact makes me avoid reproducing real plants, as they are in nature. Alternatively, I try to make something that is non-existent and then give it a realness, so that the viewer feels as if it really exists.

Plant Collecting _ Yoinoteppou (2015). Pin brooch. Material: lacquer, magnolia, eggshell, gold powder, silver powder, shell. H 6.0 x W 2.2 x D2.2 cm. Photo by the artist.

Plant Collecting _ Nijiajisai (2016). Pin brooch. Material: lacquer, magnolia, silver powder, gold powder, turban shell. H 2.0 x W 1.7 x D 1.0 cm. Photo by the artist.

Recently, you have juxtaposed a detailed explanation of each plant species with an object or piece of jewelry. Viewers are naturally drawn into your imaginary world because the names and explanations are convincing.
Saya Yamagishi: I used to put a label with a plant’s name on top of each piece’s box and then orally explain the meaning or story behind the name. I then started to exhibit the text in 2014. The work is a combination of an object or a piece of jewelry, its name, and the text and image that is stirred up by the piece.
When a viewer faces ‘plant collecting’, he/she shares a scene with a maker, but it only exists in the viewer’s mind. Thus, the way that the scene is imagined is limited, but also limitless – this dual nature intrigues me. Sometimes, people ask me if the name and species’ information precede the work, but the process is the other way around. I first draw a seed or berry in my mind and then give it a three-dimensional form. After that, I name it just like the way people do when they find a new seed or berry in nature, and finally I add the text. That’s how the work is made.

I think the variety of hues, including urushi’s own colors, which are a shimmering Raden and the metallic colors of Maki-e, are other attractions of the ‘plant collecting’ series. Earlier, you mentioned that color is important, but what do colors mean to you?
Saya Yamagishi: For me, color is an element that I use to express myself so, in a way, it is a tool. I use different colors to create diversity in my work. Color is also light and stimulus. It is crucial to convey the sense of time and place, as well as the degree of humidity, temperature and atmosphere. I think that how color is perceived is related to the distance from the sun. For example, if you pick green, each season and place has its own green, which is different in spring and autumn, or Japan and Europe. Also, when it comes to black, it can look different, depending on the texture and material. Making a process includes visualizing an image in my mind through the use of colors.
I’d like to learn what colors can offer and how they affect a person. Ever since I was a child, I’ve had an idea that people see something different, even if they are looking at the same color. I want to explore that idea further. Understanding color from these particular aspects also interests me.

Plant Collecting _ Matou (2016). Object. Material: lacquer, magnolia, gold powder, silver powder. H 3.5 x W 5.0 x D 3.0 cm. Photo by the artist.

Perhaps some readers of this article will be unfamiliar with colored urushi, so let me ask you about its technical aspect. Can you make any color with it? And is it difficult to get the desired color?
Saya Yamagishi: People probably imagine that black and vermilion are the typical colors of urushi. The black is produced by a chemical reaction. The vermilion can be obtained by adding a pigment to amber-colored transparent urushi and you can make other colors through this process. However, every color requires amber urushi, so the result is always an undertone. For instance, pure white pigment becomes beige when mixed with urushi, which is my favorite color. It is also difficult to make green, as it’s urushi’s complementary color.
Getting a desired color can require experience, as the weather and the material’s condition will affect the final color, which makes it difficult to reproduce the same color. Moreover, urushi changes its color due to oxidation during the drying process. For example, the color becomes dull if the material dries quickly, but you get vivid color if it dries slowly. That’s why you need to be experienced. It requires tests to adjust the degree of humidity and temperature.
Unlike paints, you cannot make all kinds of colors, but the subdued hues distinctive to urushi are appealing.

Work in Progress of Maki-e technique. (2017). Photo by the artist.

Now I’d like to look at your own idea of jewelry. You were selected as one of the takumi (master craftsman) of the LEXUS NEW TAKUMI PROJECT in 2016. This project was initiated by the automobile manufacture, Toyota, to support craftsmen who incorporate regionality in their creation. The finalists are promoted as takumi by Lexus, one of Toyota’s brands. For this project, you took the theme of the Japanese original landscape and developed a jewelry series under the concept of ‘Wear the Scenery’. This concept affirms that jewelry is not complete in its physical form but can affect a larger space. This idea also appears to reveal your general perspective on jewelry.
Saya Yamagishi: 'Wear the Scenery' took motifs from different landscapes with a pine tree, bamboo forest and chrysanthemum, which are all familiar to the people of Japan. A small landscape in a square or circle expands beyond its frame and goes out into a larger space on the clothes. It could even connect to a scene in the memory of the wearer or viewer. This expansion of the imagination forms the basis for this series.
I think jewelry could be the closest object to a person. I think it makes a firm connection to a person’s mind by becoming a talisman or a symbol of prayer for the owner’s feelings. I’m both attracted to, and interested in, how jewelry can create an emotional communication between the maker, wearer and viewer. I would be very happy if my piece brought a smile to the receiver's face or helped somebody to relax – this idea runs through all of my works.
Jewelry is small, but it has a large influence on a person's mind and memory. I believe in its power and possibility. That’s probably that's why I chose to express myself through jewelry.

Lastly, can you talk about what’s coming up in the near future?
Saya Yamagishi: There will be a group exhibition of contemporary jewelry at Lesley Kehoe Galleries in Melbourne, Australia from December 5th, 2017 to January 31st, 2018. And I am planning a solo show in Tokyo in the autumn of 2019.


Exhibition view: YUKIKO KOIDE PRESENTS at ART OSAKA 2017. Photo by Yuiko Taiya.


[1] Maki-e: A technique of lacquer work in which gold or silver powder or flakes are sprinkled over the surface as a decoration.
[2] Raden: A technique of lacquerware and woodwork in which inlays of shells (mostly the ones with mother-of-pearl) are applied to decorate the object.


About the Interviewee

Saya Yamagishi, born in 1981, Ishikawa, Japan. Graduated from Kanagawa College of Art, Crafts Department, Urushi Lacquer Course in 2006. After completing traineeship at Kanazawa Udatsuyama Craft Studio in 2013, she creates works with urushi lacquer. Received Encouragement Award in Japan Jewelry Art Competition in 2012. The finalists’ works were exhibited at the Ueno Royal Museum, Tokyo and traveled to several cities in Japan. Her major exhibitions include a solo show, Blooming Voice (2013) at O-Jewel in Tokyo, a solo show, Saya Yamagishi—Wear Scenery (2015) at TAKASHIMAYA Nihonbashi Store in Tokyo, a group show, FIRANDO Japan’s Island of Sweets (2016) at LLOID HOTEL & CULTURAL EMBASSY in Amsterdam, a group show, International Contemporary Lacquer Art Exhibition (2016) at Ottchil Art Museum in Tongyeong, South Korea, a solo show, Saya Yamagishi—Plant Collecting (2016) at Yukiko Koide Presents in Tokyo. Her work has been shown at major art fairs such as YIA ART FAIR (2016) in Paris and Art Fair Tokyo (2017). She was selected as takumi of Ishikawa prefecture in LEXUS NEW TAKUMI PROJECT in 2016.


About the author

Makiko Akiyama
. Writer and translator. Born in 1979 in Osaka, Japan. In 2013 launched a newsletter for Japanese readers featuring translated articles about art jewelry. Contributing writer for klimt02, Current Obsession, Art Jewelry Forum, and Norwegian Crafts.