Mid-February, I decided to make the three-hour drive north to visit glass artist Sayuri Fukuda in Seattle, Washington. Fukuda-san and I communicated for a while over email, collaborating on a few pieces for the shop, so I was incredibly excited to meet my new friend and experience her process first-hand.
Upon arrival at The Pratt Fine Art Institue, where Fukuda-san and assistant glassblower Fumi Amano were renting hot-shop space, they had already been dialing in their workflow for hours. While Fukuda-san was bench blowing and shaping the piece, Amano-san was seamlessly handing her tools at the perfect moment while also capturing molten glass onto new steel blowpipes. The demonstration was like a choreographed dance, where one missed step could hinder the final shape. Though this dance had lasted for hours, it felt like I had only been watching for a few moments.
Not only was I mesmerized by their coordination as a team, but it was their adaptability and devotion as artists that struck me the most. Usually requiring at least two people to pull off the production of a single piece, Covid-19 has drastically affected the glassblowing communities' ability to produce their work, especially those without their own studio space. Just standing next to the 1700 degree furnace is cause for exhaustion, and the use of a face-covering added another element of hardship in an already physically taxing process.
As the studio hours concluded, Fukuda-san graciously offered to show me around Seattle's International District. We shared a laughter-filled meal (and probably the best bowl of Pho I've ever had) and stopped by Kobo, an artisan gallery featuring Japanese and Northwest fine crafts. Binko Bisbee, the owner of Kobo, first introduced me to Fukuda-san's work, so it was a pleasure to meet her in person and experience the tasteful craft she curates there. Our final stop was at the Panama Hotel and Tea House. Through the years, it had served as a home for generations of Japanese immigrants, Alaskan fishermen, and International travelers; and now its walls remain adorned with old photographs and new's paper clippings of its storied history.
There is nothing more inspiring than to spend a day in the life of an artist. Watching how they interact with the material, learning about their history and philosophy on their craft. You can't help but become more connected to the work they create, and for me, I couldn't help but want to share a piece of our time together.
Hello Sayuri! Would you mind telling our readers a bit about how you got started in glass-making?
I was 18… can I go that way back?
18 years old was a long time ago! I always liked making pieces, like drawing pictures, and was always thinking of the focus I would spend my life doing. When I was dancing as a teenager I was debating myself on if I should go professional or not, but I wanted to keep dancing as my hobby. So I started working with some media and one time I went to a glass studio and all of a sudden when I touched the glass I thought "oh my gosh this is so fun" and I started seeing the dynamics of the process. I thought I could use the experience that I had from dancing and also use my interest towards creating. So it matched really well to get into this field.
There are many other more traditional mediums in Japan, such as woodcraft, lacquerware, and ceramics. What attracted you to glass?
My father was always trying a lot of different medias, like ceramics and paintings, so I was already very familiar with those materials. At the moment I felt like I really wanted to discover something I had never experienced, so that was perfect timing to meet glass. And since then, I have kept going with it. When I think about my childhood, I have certain memories where I was always into glass. I would just stare at the glass objects for hours and hours. I completely forgot about it, but when I think about it now I remember how I used to stare at glass. So it's interesting to meet the media again.
There is a wonderful depth to the way you apply color in your work. Almost like an optical illusion where the color is suspended within the clear glass. Can you tell me about some of the characteristics of this technique?
First reason is for the purpose of safety. When we use color in the glass we want to make sure it is safe to use by folding the glass within the clear color. When we talk about the jar (Nero Jar for Storied Objects) that is colored by powdered color, and powder makes the look of almost floating in between. The reason I use the powder is because it looks more sandy and organic. I like the soft form of the powder to share the true atmosphere of the glass.
I know you’re incredibly modest, but what do you think makes your glassware distinct? What characteristics are yours in the glass that you make.
I like very sharp edged shapes, but when I want to enjoy the making time, I enjoy the movement of glass. It's a molten material that freezes all of a sudden and captures some form of movement. When I have the molten glass to play around with I want to keep the natural soft look of the glass. I get so into keeping the atmosphere of the glass or the memory of the movement that glass has.
This is quite random, but it's incredibly hard to find anything about you online. I had to reach out to Binko at Kobo in order to get your contact information. Do you intentionally stay fairly quiet online?
I like keeping my social media as my own friend bubble. I still think that I am a person that needs to train more and learn more about the world, so I have been kind of shy to put myself out there and say “Hey! I’m a glass artist.”
Since moving from Japan, how has living and working in Seattle influenced your work?
I’ve been learning so much about the material because Seattle has such a big glass community, and a lot of people here are very talented and very well educated. There is such a strong community where people support each other, so I learned to work with people. It’s kind of like a fight in my mind because I want to share my work, but making pieces was always my personal thing. I think I am still struggling to connect those two pieces. In Japan, I didn’t have the feeling that I wanted to share with people. I was thinking if I made five cups somebody may find it on the street and they may like it, but I didn’t needed to announce my name with the cups. Coming here I see how people self promote themselves and it is actually a way to self identify. Especially being in a different country, if I can train myself more then I think I can be more confident and feel like I can be supportive to the community as well. That's one thing that changed in my mind. But the making part is still in my own bubble.
While collaborating with you on the decanter for the shop, I was incredibly blown away by your attention to detail; like the balance of the handle and how the spout poured. Is function just as important to you as beauty?
Yes it is definitely important, especially if it is clear, because clear glass has less information but shares everything. It’s a gift to be able to use molten glass and be able to make things. A lot of things are made in factories, which are also the things I appreciate, but being in a studio and connecting to the molten glass directly in my hand is a luxury. When I touch those pieces and the material I want to be able to make that piece have a good function. I think the more simple, the function appears more in the piece too.
Speaking of the decanter, I actually thought of a name for it and wanted to get your thoughts — what do you think about calling it the Uki Pitcher?
I think it’s very charming. I like it!
What type of other passions and interests do you have beyond making glass for yourself? *Pause* If anything… food, maybe?
I do love food! I like learning all different kinds of craft, like learning about local culture, how people make folk art. I also like as my hobby to visit museums and take pictures of nature.
I always like to ask this, but who are some artists, designers, or shops you think more people should know about?
I’m very close to the people at Kobo. The people there have a different story that they went through to get to here. The people at Kobo tried to re-establish a new life in a new country, while keeping the culture where they are from, and also discovering new things for themselves. Like the lady I introduced to you who made the ceramic statues (Tomoko Suzuki,) she is very motivated to make her works. We have more workers there who keep their life and work balance and keep their passion towards art. Sometimes it's a little more challenging for me to speak up like “This is what I do. I am from a different country. Please see my work.” So I admire them for that.
Lastly, where do you see your work heading in the future? Any exciting projects you are working on right now?
I was so focused on building up my working skill since I moved to this country, so I want to add more character to my work. I definitely appreciate the combination of function and beauty together. So many things I have in my mind I have never done! I also like drawing, so I want to transfer some drawing process to my glass sometime. It’s going to be a long-time project!