A Call to Action: Interview with Ayumi Horie

October 5, 2018 by
 Photo credit: Michael D. Wilson

Fourteen years ago I took my first wheel throwing class, one that changed the course of my artistic career. Ayumi Horie was my instructor, and the assignments and questions she produced for that class awakened me to the potential that the medium had to offer to build community and communicate ideas. A number of years later I began working at WSW and was excited to discover that Ayumi had for a time held the position of ceramic studio manager here. I felt like I had big shoes to fill and she graciously met me for coffee and took some time to mentor me. Her Pots in Action project has so inspired me that it was one of the muses behind the WSW mug library, which will be launching at the workshop next week. 

It would be an understatement to say that I have long admired Ayumi’s work. For this reason it felt surreal to be sitting at my computer with my Ayumi Horie mug working on interview questions. It took me approximately ten hours to come up with these questions. The hard part was paring things down. Each website and page I visited would uncover another layer of rich content. At first glance the work is warm and cuddly, but in addition to being playfully refreshing, there is a surprising depth to the scope of work she has produced throughout the years. Her approach to activism is delightfully disarming, dignifying humanity. Without further ado, let’s sit down and have a conversation.

Ruth McKinney Burket:  Your website describes you as a “potter by trade”. What drew you into becoming a functional potter?

Ayumi Horie: I think of my work in terms a learned craft or trade, like a carpenter or a plumber. I came to making pots from photography, because it felt real. It was physically and intellectually satisfying, grounded in daily living. Making functional work is a kind of service; the meaning that comes from a well-used cup is immensely rewarding and a functional object that might strike someone as simple, is in fact, a confluence of many skills, hopes, and beliefs.

Ruth: In addition to the functional pottery, which is the primary focus of your career, you have often engaged in projects that focus on collaborative efforts to strengthen communities and promote activism. How did you become interested in this type of work? What is the first project or experience that awakened you to the potential of handmade pottery as a vessel for community building and social activism?

Ayumi: The notion of “doing what we do best” as a way to contribute civically and socially was the main motivator to my first activism in craft- Obamaware. It was the first craft fundraiser of its kind online and came out of a deep desire to do something, anything, to contribute to progressive political change in the country. Because it was organized only five weeks before the election in 2008, what most impressed me was the willingness for all the artists involved to shift their focus immediately to make Obama-themed work in the span of a month, which in ceramic terms is lightning fast. In today’s world, raising almost $11,000 isn’t incredible, but it was back then. People were able to celebrate the historic event, not just monetarily, but by supporting artists who made commemorative objects full of hope and meaning.

Ruth: Your pottery is comfortable and human; delightfully playful and warm. That same sentiment has been translated into your activist projects which address serious topics ranging from political issues, natural disaster relief, and gender inequality. Explain why you have taken a seemingly lighthearted approach to addressing such intense issues.

Photo Credit: Ayumi Horie

Ayumi: Great question! While my pots and my activism may seem to come from opposite ends at first glance, both of them come from a similar space. If I trim down the activism layer by layer, I eventually reach a core desire to create frameworks that nurture connections between people. The narratives on the pots and the way in which they’re used and given as gifts create relationships and connections. In the same way, the activism is aimed at getting to a world that is more empathic and human. By building a framework that is often independent to a large degree, interaction can happen more freely and without my interference. I think of my pots this way as they function in kitchens; Portland Brick, where people stumble over them together in a public space; Pots In Action, where other voices have power; and The Democratic Cup, where the project is largely taking place in domestic spaces.

photo credit: Ayumi Horie

Ruth: The Democratic Cup is an ongoing project which began in 2016 in response to the Presidential Campaign. What is the thought process behind that project? What types of conversations or relationships have emerged as a result of it?

Ayumi: What a rollercoaster the past few years have been! Our initial motivation was to use pottery as a catalyst for conversation and to address civility in political discourse. We began planning in the winter of 2016 to launch it before the election. Before long, established norms in both discourse and policy were overrun in the Trump administration and lies became normalized. After a year of soul-searching what our place was within effective forms of activism, we realized that using our craft to make change from within is our most authentic driver. Yes, we support radical activism that takes to the streets and yes, we support legislative grass roots activism like Indivisible. However, activism is necessary at every level, both public and private. The sphere we claim most closely is that of the kitchen, where intimate conversations can happen spontaneously without pretensions. Civility is not about niceties and not raising one’s voice, it’s about respecting someone’s full humanity so that a greater understanding can be reached, whether we agree or not. In the end, we’ve come full circle, back to our mission to promote civility in political discourse, because we’ve devolved into tribalism and are shunning personal connections with the other side. I think if we dialed things back to basic personal connections, people would be accountable again and responsible to the greater good of our communities.

photo credit: Ayumi Horie

Ruth: In 2005, you launched Pots In Action while working at WSW. Then in 2015 you launched an Instagram feed of the same name which has gone viral! Since the inception of the Instagram version, it has generated 115k followers and almost 90,000 tags from followers. Explain what motivated you to start PIA and how it works.

Ayumi: I began Pots in Action as a way to complete the circle between maker and user by having people send me candid and posed pictures of my pots in use and photographed within a real world context. All these pictures were then plotted on a Google map to show where and how they lived all over the world. It was a kind of artistic exchange.

When Instagram came along, it seemed like a natural fit to open it up to a larger audience to see what the social life of pottery is. I also wanted to showcase and educate followers about how to tell a compelling story, and  to help small businesses find their own vision and skills.

Because ceramics is such an interesting material with such a long history, PIA quickly started to cover much more within ceramics and adopted the framework of covering themes within ceramics, whether they were about formal elements or about issues within the field. There are multiple voices from all over the world because guesthosts, who have expertise in their subject, curate a lineup for a two-week run. I work as an editor to help fine tune media and captions, so that quality is high and we have as much representation as possible. It’s become a part-time job and I’ve recently hired a project manager, Kiyona Mizuno, to help me with this project.

Photo credit: Darcy Chenoweth

Ruth: Why do you think Pots in Action has been so successful?

Ayumi: From the beginning, quality of media and education were core values. We have multiple voices who curate what they think is worth seeing. We want to show the breadth of what ceramics has been, is, and can be, so our interpretation of the medium is by definition wide and inclusive. At its best, captions are long and meaty, providing lots of information for professionals, students, and everyone in between. We’re pushing back against the speed of social media by asking people to read the backstory as much they pay attention to the visuals. I think there’s no point of posting something that is navel gazing and doesn’t serve the community in some way. Hopefully, followers are being introduced to new artists and ideas consistently and because I’m not beholden to some larger institution, I feel that I can use the voice of PIA to amplify issues of social justice, such as the #metoo movement. The backlash is that we generally lose followers when we post political work, but this work is crucial in a very necessary dialogue.

Ruth: Last month you introduced the Pots In Action challenge #PIAbadasswomen. This challenge came about in response to #metooceramics. For those of our readers that don’t know, can you briefly explain the situation that led to #metooceramics and what the response has been?

Ayumi: When an Instagram famous potter was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, Pots In Action posted about the issue and took a lead along with many others to raise awareness around #MeToo within the ceramics field. It’s time that we really talk our long history of heroizing men who have created toxic environments for women and behaved abominably. We have people in our field who have walked away with impunity, because we are so bound by personal relationships and the system of legacy. #MeToo took an extra year to reach us and it’s a long overdue conversation for both individuals and institutions. We desperately need systemic change and I’m hopeful it’s coming down the road, though not soon enough by any standard. We began the theme #PIAbadasswomen as a way to celebrate feminism and bring to the forefront the incredible and often overlooked contributions of women in ceramics.

Ruth: #PIAbadasswomen had over 1000 posts within the span of a month. Many of the posts have written responses which are thoughtful and empowering. Would you share one of the statements with us that particularly moved you or made you think?

Ayumi: Our most recent guesthost, Darrah Bowden, who is a grad student in Namita Wiggers’ curatorial craft program, posted about Margaret Ponce Israel, a mid-century sculptor who taught at Greenwich House Pottery. The most interesting photographs we could find about her work were actually taken surreptitiously in her studio by a Harper’s Bazaar photographer at the suggestion of her estranged husband. The question of hidden work, violated space, and women’s art not being taken seriously were discussed and in the end, we opted to post the images with as transparent an explanation as possible. We did not want to be complicit and we wanted to celebrate introducing her work to a new audience. This example, along with the fact that old film footage is often problematic, is a potent reminder that who is behind the lense is just as important as the subject of the media.

Ruth: For the WSW mug library opening event taking place October 10th we will be encouraging conversation geared towards #metoo in the arts. We are compiling a number of compelling questions to ignite these conversations. Would you a share a question with us that we could use as a prompt at this event?

Ayumi: How does legacy within academia impact the MeToo movement?

How do we respond to MeToo in public vs. private and what are some of the ways art can facilitate this?

photo credit: Michael D. Wilson

 Based in Portland, Maine, Ayumi Horie believes that the best handmade pottery encourages connections between people and makes daily life better. Her activism and advocacy promote thoughtful craft practice and support for makers around the world. From 2002-2005 she was Ceramic Program Coordinator at the Women’s Studio Workshop. In 2015, she was awarded a Distinguished Fellow grant by United States Artists. She’s continuing to work on The Democratic Cup, a project that encourages active civic engagement through pottery and Pots In Action, an ongoing curatorial project of Ayumi’s on Instagram where various themes within ceramics are covered.