Voice of Craftspeople: Eiko Tanaka, Woodturning & Lacquerware Artist

Voice of Craftspeople: Eiko Tanaka, Woodturning & Lacquerware Artist

In December 2022, HULS GALLERY SINGAPORE held a solo exhibition for Eiko Tanaka, a woodturning & lacquerware artist based in Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture. She studied under Torao Nakashima and handles all aspects of the work by herself, from woodturning to lacquer painting. With her unique sensibility, she creates beautiful works that capture the dual nature of phenomena.

Interviewer: Originally, you were from Aichi Prefecture. When did you start working in Ishikawa Prefecture?

I started lacquer work in university and moved to Ishikawa Prefecture after graduating, with the aim to improve the quality of my work.

Interviewer: Ishikawa Prefecture is renowned for its woodturning. Was acquiring this skill your intention when you moved there?

Yes, during my days in school, I was frustrated that I couldn't shape wood on my own. I thought it would be more effective and would bring my senses to life if I could do woodturning independently. That's when I discovered this place.

Interviewer: So you developed your own style by handling every process from woodturning to lacquering. According to your biography, you became independent in 2012 and founded "Koubou" (Studio) Akatoki." Since then, you have been exhibition and providing technical guidance in Tokyo and overseas such as New York and Indonesia. 

Yes, indeed. Introducing traditional Japanese techniques to the outside world can be challenging, but foreign craftspeople have deep interest in it and that offers new possibilities for me. I also got inspired by the interactions that I made with different people. I was only aware of traditional Japanese techniques before I went abroad. Since then, I started to craft free-form lacquerware because I was inspired by the open and boundless ideas discovered in foreign countries. 

Interviewer: In 2019, you started your own "Gallery and Salon Roukoku" in Kaga, Ishikawa Prefecture. What made you decide to do it? 

I started this gallery in order to allow people to experience the essence of Japanese culture in a broader sense. Thus, apart from exhibiting my works in the gallery, I hope to interact with people by amalgamating various Japanese elements such as serving local meals using handcrafted lacquerware so that they can immerse in the culture and experience it as a whole. This building is a traditional Japanese house with a storehouse. And I heard it was about 100 years old. I wanted to create a place that makes Kaga more attractive. 

Interviewer: Are all of your works made from Japanese horse chestnut?

Most of them are made from Japanese horse chestnut. I rarely use other wood materials unless the wood grain is attractive. 

Interviewer: Looking at your work, I feel that you really this wood.

Japanese horse chestnut has a very unique expression of wood which we can't find anything that is similar. I like to pay attention and enjoy observing every single one of them. I spend a lot of time making things that I am particular about, one after another. Thus, I hope the customers will treasure them as much. And I cherish the customers who appreciate every detail that I am particular about. I am grateful when customers are able to find the piece that resonates with them, rather than settling on whichever is available. I want to craft lacquerware with such individuality.

Interviewer: Do you work on lacquering and woodturning in different periods?

The lacquer process begins only after making 30 to 40 pieces of wooden bases which take about a month to prepare. Lacquering is a slow process and therefore, I will work on wood and lacquering concurrently. I allocate certain timings for both lacquering and wood working in a day. And it is a pleasant change of pace.  

Interviewer: Where do you get the inspiration for your work?

Rather than inspiration, my first image of the creation is quite vague but it is the woodturning that helps to project the image quickly. I only think about the curvature but sometimes an image will appear in my mind when I am painting lacquer. And sometimes it could be words that arise during the making process. Instead of having a clear image of how it should be from the beginning, the final shape will be determined along the way. I am mindful of my senses while creating the works. Thus, even if I make the same type of work after six months, it will be different. I am open to changes and I do not think too hard. 

Interviewer: You are probably inspired by various things in your daily life.

In the first place, I became interested in lacquer because of its color. Somehow I found my favorite colors in Japanese lacquer and it all started from there. Maybe that is why I don't sketch. Even when I work unintentionally, I will always cherish the images that I have deep inside my heart. I think the images of colors became the footprints although I do not notice and pay attention to them in my daily life.  

Interviewer: Various new works are showcased in this exhibition and you are expanding your range of expression.

I don't want to set limits on what I can do. I am not a craftsperson but an artist. I decide on the things that I want to uphold and I would like to expand new possibilities based on that. While "diversity" is one of the major themes in today's context, I think most people are getting conscious of "individuality." And if we do not express our individuality, we will be put out of sight. Japanese culture and traditional things have a strong presence, and it is our mission to disseminate them. I think it is a rewarding profession. And I will contemplate these things in relation to what I will do from now on. 

When I was a woodturning artisan, I was told to value the tradition I inherit and to think about how to pass it on to the next generation. I wonder if there are different teaching methods other than what I was taught in the past. Apart from providing only one answer on how things should be made I think it is important to ask this question, "there are styles like this, but what is yours?" Otherwise, we are the same as machines. And I think we have to think about the meaning of crafting by hand.