The ceramics of Ogawa Machiko (b. 1946) reflect a lifetime of engagement with unfamiliar cultures and a mindset free from the constraints of nativist essentialism and workshop-based practice. She was born in Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido, far from Japan's historic centers of ceramic production. Her family, prosperous and talented in art and music, boasted a long history of interaction with the outside world. Her grandfather, a classic Hokkaido immigrant pioneer and entrepreneur, was a protégé of William Smith Clark, a Civil War hero and educator who helped found Sapporo Agricultural College in 1876 and is celebrated there even today for his valedictory words to his students: "Boys, be ambitious!" Her father was a talented weekend artist and her sisters included a Western-style painter and a pianist. Machiko herself was exposed to foreign languages and culture at an early age, taking piano lessons from a young Québécoise nun at age six, then switching her interest to painting and later printmaking as the family moved from Sapporo to Aomori (in the north of Honshu, Japan's main island) and then to Tokyo. She first encountered the world of ceramics during her high-school years, at the studio of Tsuji Seimei. Although this did not bring about a sudden conversation, she was slowly drawn to the process of handling and working clay, so different than that of painting on canvas.
At Tokyo University of Arts and Music, Machiko studied under three ceramic masters- Fujimoto Nōdō, Tamura Kōichi, and Katō Hajime- who might fairly be descirbed as traditionalists, not just in their styles of working but also in their workshop practice, their old-fashioned ideas about the proper relationship between master and pupil, their faith in the osmotic, non-instructional transmission of skills, and their relative lack of interest in cultural influences beyond East Asian ceramics. With no definite intention of devoting her life to ceramics but simply enjoying the touch and feel of clay, Machiko was determined to follow a different artistic path and learn more through looking at works of her professors and their predecessors than through hands-on training. She was also drawn to Japan's earliest ceramic traditions, including the products of the Jōmon and Yayoi cultures, as well as to contemporary art in other media by European modernists such as Lucio Fontana and Constantin Brancusi.
Already impressively open-minded and global in her artistic thinking, through her marriage to anthropologist Kawada Junzō, Machiko found new opportunities to broaden her outlook and gather experiences, at a fundamental, somatic level, that have helped to shape her creative personality through to the present. In 1969 the young couple traveled in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Spain before settling for a while in Paris. Machiko studied at the École des Métiers d'Art where she mastered the art of making plaster molds. The school's skills-based curriculum left her little freedom to create her own work but she was able to form frienships with French ceramic artists and perhaps more important, make frequent visits to the Musée de Minéralogie, where she was fascinated by the beauty of the geological specimens on display.
After a short spell back in Japan, there followed, from 1972 to 1975, three and a half years in West Africa, chiefly the vast, landlocked republic of Burkina Faso, where they lived close to the local people and adapted to the searing heat and basic subsistence diet. A sense of direct contact with the environment, with the cracks, distortions, and varied tones of earth exposed to the scorching rays of the sun, can still be felt even in Machiko's most recent work. While in West Africa, she seized the opportunity to learn as much as she could about local ceramic techniques, visiting numerous villages where pots were made and mastering laborious primitive methods of hand-building, molding, and paddling clay, then forming it into jars and bowls that were fired in small, temporary kilns at only 600-700 degrees celcius for just 90 minutes, in contrast to the much higher temperatures and longer firings used for contemporary Japanese studio ceramics She also experimented with applying glaze to these simple wares, once traveling nearly 100 miles through the harsh savanna to obtain raw materials from a spot where she had heard that feldspar could be found, the first time she had seen it in its raw, unprocessed state.
Although Machiko participated in some department-store craft exhibitions after her return to Japan, her career as an artist was delayed, first by the long process of recovery from an automobile accident, then by the demands of family life. It would be more than a decade before she had the time and opportunity to hold her first small solo show in 1985, consisting of works that aimed to recapture the freshness of her approach to ceramics as a young graduate while also embodying everything she had seen, felt, and learned during her time in Africa and then reflected on back home. These were the first in a slowly developing series of pieces, looking as though they have emerged naturally from the earth, that grew in sophistication and ambition as Machiko mastered a series of novel techniques of her own devising: formulating and combining clays with different characteristics, breaking and re-joining vessels in different shapes, using high-temperature firing to create cracks and fissures in the finished piece. The resulting vessels and sculptural forms can be resminiscent of a desert sunset but on closer inspection can transform into landscapes or polar caves whose crevices reveal a molten interior rich with deposits of feldspar and glass. On occasion, the artist's fingerprints line the interior, leaving a visibile trace of the work's manufacture.
Avoiding any artificial sense of deliberate primitivity, yet inspired by a sense of liberation from the narrow, hallowed strictures of a lifelong training in the use of wheel and kiln, Machiko does not so much use clay to achieve self-expression as make herself the means through which she sees as one of self-discovery, an interjection of traces of humanity into evocations of the earth's geologic cycles. Her use of glaze has evolved rapidly, especially in pools that look like cracked ice contrasting with the warped and fissured surfaces of the clay, but recently playing a more dominant and sculptural role. While she has been grouped along with those of her contemporaries who make work that emulates the natural world, Machiko now transcends this classification, taking her meticulously controlled, elemental art into a purer realm of abstraction that deserves critical acclaim beyond the world of studio ceramics.