Tomodachi Totes- Doubt, Quality, and Making Something Not Ceramic
From time to time, I struggle philosophically with making more material objects for a world that’s saturated with them. Doubt is part of my life as a maker. When I see so many things made of cheap materials, with bad craftsmanship, or with little thought, I get dramatic and want to distance myself from the material world altogether. The fact is, though, is that I love beautiful objects. I want there to be harmony between what I love doing and a meaningful life, in which I live both ethically and happily. Part of what gets me through this inner conflict is my desire to make things of quality and that value can stem from uniqueness. It’s not a complete solution, but it is one way to answer doubt, who teaches me so much.
I’m accustomed to having everything I put out into the world in ceramics pass through my own hands. I’m my own tiny factory from start to finish, with help along the way from a good assistant. This gives me control over the quality of objects and the quirkiness that each one possesses. I am intimate with the things I make. I make jokes on my pots all the time! I love this about being an independent studio artist, yet I’m also very aware that it limits me both in quantity and in what I can imagine.
For years, I’ve been wanting to manufacture something outside ceramics that engages my eye and heart fully, but have hesitated because I don’t want to sacrifice quality. I want to feel good about where what I make comes from and how it will exist in the world. I love this kind of idealism, partly because where an object comes from and how it exists is significant, and because setting up this value system allows for what is happening now.
The Tomodachi tote bag is a true collaboration with trusted friends, who I’ve been working with for years. After our joint fundraiser, Handmade For Japan, Kathryn and Ai went on to found Studio KotoKoto, an online gallery and blog that is a conduit between beautiful American craft and beautiful Japanese craft. In this project, they sourced both the canvas and the manufacturing of the bags through small family-run companies in Japan, because of these companies attention to detail and quality, as well as the fact that it supports small businesses. Supporting small businesses is a political choice, one that celebrates individual creativity and autonomy.
My identity is bound up in both Japan and in America, so making a bag about friendship was relatively easy. Here is a rabbit and a toad who are on the same wave length, dreaming and talking about a common love, the peony. They’re both jumpers and both animals who figure in both Eastern and Western cultures, so neither one symbolizes just one country. On the bottom, is an Engrish joke, “ret’s tomodachi!” trans, let’s friends!”. It celebrates the endearing way in which the Japanese like to make nouns into verbs in English and also how the letters “l” and “r” are often interchangeable in the Japanese mind. Two birds high five, which is what friends do when something has been done well.
The label is based on a Japanese senjyafuda. Senjyafuda are small, thin rectangles of rice paper with a person’s name printed on them, usually in black. A Buddhist pilgrim would paste their name up at a temple on the underside of the roof and the posts to say that they were there. They’d use their walking stick to reach high places. A very early form of graffiti!Originally in the Heian period (794-1185) they were made of wood, but not anymore and you’ll see them completely covering structures. Since this is a Japan/America friendship bag, the label blends my name and Studio KotoKoto‘s tea kettle logo.
Thanks to Studio KotoKoto
As someone who just makes things mostly alone in a studio, it was amazing to see Ai’s pictures of the totes bags not only getting made, but getting made by another human being who cared. Seeing them laid out in stacks and seeing the way the stray threads were painstakingly burned off really touched me! I could never have done this project if it wasn’t for Studio KotoKoto spearheading it and making it a reality. Ai and Kathryn had strong opinions about the size of the tote and the length of handles, which after testing it, is functionally perfect- not too big, not too small, and fits snug to the body. The totes are machine washable and should last years and years, becoming softer and even more friendly over time. You can read more about their making here and purchase a tote here.