NIKKEI ENTREPRENEUR SPOTLIGHT: Artful Ceramics and More at Shoshi’s General Store

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Shoshi’s General Store transformed 341FSN into a gallery and store featuring Watanabe’s ceramic work as well as collaborative projects with artists Michael Dopp, Taidgh O’Neill and Yosei Shibata. Photos by Jesse Koester, Sunshine Pictures LLC

By MIEKO BEYER, Rafu Contributor

If you’re walking around the heart of Little Tokyo, you may wonder whether the 341 FSN space has been converted into an art exhibit or a ceramics shop. But that’s precisely the question artist and designer Shoshi Watanabe hasn’t answered yet himself, and he likes it that way.

“People come in and say, ‘Amazing gallery!’ or ‘Are you open yet?,’ which would imply they think we’re a store,” he laughed. “Not every corner of the pop-up space is merchandise, it’s sharing what I’m thinking about.”

The in-between quality of Shoshi’s General Store seems to stem from the seamlessness with which the objects in the space gently radiate between everyday and artistic qualities. The effect is thoughtfully created by Watanabe, who decided to use his opportunity for a pop-up store space in Little Tokyo as a creation of his “headspace.”

Artist and designer Shoshi Watanabe is a L.A.-based ceramicist.

“I’m more familiar with artist stuff just because I’m in that field,” he explained. A ceramic sculptor with a Master of Fine Arts from UCLA, the artist has gained experience in commercial work doing custom orders for restaurants and other businesses. He finds it interesting to work in both areas and think about what it is that makes an object art versus a product.

“It’s an ongoing talk for me, the object in general,” he said. “How is it regarded? Function versus non-function. Some pieces are sculptural and not to be used, some are purely functional. Designers tend to make it more commercial, here it’s more art based. It’s not really clear what is in there.”

Watanabe finds that doing both kinds of work is helpful for inspiration and innovation. He stays open-minded and finds that his flexibility of thought can be quite rewarding. “I do have an approach for things depending on where they end up,” he said. “But the feedback from each affects the next. I see potential in one piece for a product, for example.”

Visitors to the store can experience this connection between all of his different endeavors as they look at everything from recognizable items such as sake cups and chopstick rests to more unusual-looking items such as sculpture-like vases and actual sculptures. The store focuses on three main collaborations. “I didn’t want to make it about myself,” he said. “I thought a lot about people whose work I like, people who I’ve worked on projects with.”

With designer Yosei Shibata he discussed how the subject of design is knowing for something superficial, such as the graphic or logo on a bag. “The design is imposed on the object,” said Watanabe.

They decided to explore the idea of design as something more substantial by using kintsugi, a traditional Japanese technique of emphasizing a repair in pottery by filling a crack in with gold lacquer. However, rather than making just repairs, they used the technique to design things, shipping white vases packaged in a way that they hoped would create cracks. Some vases cracked and urushi lacquer, a traditional kintsugi lacquer made from poison oak in Japan, mixed with gold, highlights the repaired areas.

“They’re tracing the experience in to the design,” explained Watanabe. “The object itself is design in this.”

With artist Michael Dopp he created 300 to 400 glazed porcelain cups over several years. Watanabe created the porcelain forms and asked Dopp to do the painting. “I’m not a painter,” laughed Watanabe. “I did a few strokes and got sick of my own strokes … It’s a whole new practice and I know people who are good at it. I don’t have to do everything!”

“The object itself is design in this,” explained Watanabe on his work with Shibata. The gold lines on the white vases are from cracks sealed with urushi lacquer mixed with gold.

Watanabe enjoys working with others and finds that just like doing both custom orders and fine art, he can learn from different experiences and incorporate it into his work. “I like being affected by people,” he said.

Another collaboration a visitor to Shoshi’s General Store will notice are the unique shelves, tables and center bench. These are the creations of Taidgh O’Neill, a studio mate who has done two shows with Watanabe. A woodworker who created all the furniture seen in the store, O’Neill has been friends with him since their undergraduate years at UCLA, when Watanabe was a biology major who also took art classes.

Though he had done ceramics since age 12, Watanabe didn’t expect to one day earn an MFA and become a full-time artist. It wasn’t until after graduating and trying a few different jobs while also working part-time at the ceramics studio at UCLA that he started to see a life working in clay as the thing he could imagine most easily. He applied to graduate school and eventually became the manager of the ceramics studio and will soon also start a teaching job at Rio Hondo Community College.

A Tokyo native, Watanabe’s studies at UCLA were not the first time he’d traveled far from home. He moved at age five to Moscow when his father’s advertising job took the family abroad. He became the first Japanese student at the Anglo American School in Moscow, studying with a British tutor so that he could be admitted. His parents befriended another Japanese family in Moscow who had a daughter Watanabe made fast friends with. They kept in touch and he moved back to Tokyo at age 10.

The childhood friends went on to become lifelong partners, marrying and now splitting their time between Tokyo and Los Angeles as he continues his artistic career and she works as a veterinarian in Japan.

After growing up in private, international schools in Moscow and Tokyo, he decided on a public school for college in order to experience something new. The only artist in his family, he is able to recall seeing his grandfather, a clothing shop owner in Hachioji, play the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese wooden flute. “I had heard him play it…he would play laying down on the couch,” he recalled with a chuckle.

He started playing the instrument himself at age 16 after his grandfather passed away. Relatives mentioned how each flute cost a small fortune and he thought it would be a waste for them to be put into storage. Though he played clarinet in his school band, he found that getting sound out of the shakuhachi was pretty much impossible.

Realizing he’d need professional help, he searched for performances, hoping to find a good teacher to study under. A neighbor mentioned a flyer for a performance in the area, and it turned out to be a jazz competition where he’d meet his future shakuhachi mentor, Kinohachi.

“I went to three performances before and didn’t feel connection,” he said. “Then I heard him and it felt like, is this the same instrument?”

He trained in solo monk music, the original purpose of the instrument, which was later adapted to play with folk music and other contemporary styles. In Los Angeles, Watanabe plays with Matsutoyo Kai, a folk music group that performs at local festivals. He also performed at the pop-up space on Jan. 25.

Although Japanese people often see a Western influence in his art and Americans say they see Japanese influence, all of his ceramic mentors are American-based, and he himself doesn’t see a Japanese look to his work. However, he does think that his flute studies have played a significant role in his life.

“My flute teacher in Japan is a big influence on how I work,” he said. “I think the aesthetics and music affect my pieces, in terms of Japanese influences, more than living in Japan.”

Shoshi’s General Store is the first time the artist has done a space that features both his fine art and commercial work. Stop by this cozy pop-up to enjoy some shopping and artwork and to support local artists. The center bench is a welcoming area where visitors can take a seat and flip through RiCE magazine, a Japanese/English bilingual publication on food sent from Japan by a chef friend to the artist.

The store is closed on Monday, Jan. 28, and open 4 to 10 p.m, on Tuesday, Jan. 29, and for a closing event open to the public on Wednesday, Jan. 30, at 341 FSN, 341 E. First St., Los Angeles.

Check out the online version of the store at shoshigeneralstore.com and learn more about Watanabe and his artwork at shoshiwata.net.

This event is made possible by @LAsmallbizcubator, a pilot program launched by the Little Tokyo Service Center. The program invites entrepreneurs to Little Tokyo to connect to the community’s small business legacy, while promoting community control and self-determination at the 341 FSN space.

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