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Life as an artist enchanted by the beauty of urushi

“I want to share the beautiful world of urushi with as many people as possible.” Suzanne Ross continues to bring this passion to her role as an active urushi artist in Wajima, Ishikawa Pref. She first visited Japan in 1984, not long after seeing a show of Edo period art in London where she grew up.
“An elegant urushi-coated inkstone box (suzuri-bako) was on display at the exhibition. Truly exquisite maki-e — gold and shell inlaid into an urushi ground— it felt like I was looking into the universe. I was irresistibly attracted by the beauty of the art and decided to visit Japan to learn this technique for three months or so. (laughter) Who could imagine that I would stay here for 30 years to learn it?”
Suzanne’s studio and the house were an old abandoned farmhouse and a cattle-shed. With the help of her husband Clive and friends, she was able to renovate the buildings. Suzanne and her husband, who moved to Wajima to be with her, support each other and are still living there today with their daughters.

Desire to help people enjoy urushi crafts more freely

Suzanne is not only engaged in traditional urushi crafts called Wajima-nuri but also in a wide of vary work. Such innovative efforts reflect her devotion to introducing the potential of urushi lacquer arts to a wider world.
For example, she produces easy-to-use serving trays for various foods including sushi, bread, and cookies that appeal to the younger generation. She also makes necklaces and earrings for casual everyday wear which appeal to women of various ages. Her jewelry with maki-e decoration on precious gems introduces Japanese urushi culture to people overseas.
Wajima-nuri urushi bowls are for rice and miso soup but it’s fine to use them for ice cream, salad and even as a flower vase. If you find your own favorite use, it will be a fun accent to your life. Ideally, you would use urushi pieces for a long time and by doing so, bring out the innate beauty within the piece which only comes to light after an age of loving use. “If you experience the warm, silky, touch of urushiware, like the skin of a baby, you’ll immediately be a fan. I’m confident about that” she says.

Believing in urushi potential and seeking challenges

Wajima-nuri urushi craftsmanship can be divided into three steps — making kiji (the wooden substrate), nuri (lacquering), and kashoku (decoration). These are split into smaller steps, each handled by an expert who focuses only on his/her role. Traditionally, Wajima-nuri ware is finished by many experts.
“In my case, after the wooden base is delivered, I take care of all the other processes. In this way, I have more creative freedom within the process and can take full responsibility for my work. Moreover, most master craftsmen have reached an advanced age and the number of skilled successors is limited. This accompanied with the dwindling number of tool making craftsmen who support us, is quite a serious problem.”
Suzanne hopes that this wonderful urushi culture won’t fade away in Japan. She believes it is crucial to dispel the conventional image of urushi crafts and makes it her mission to produce original works. “I have continued this long only because urushi is so beautiful. Urushi can be used as an adhesive, made into a form or used for decorative purposes. It’s a wonderful material. Urushi still has so much potential, that’s why I take up the challenge every day.”

Artworks by Suzanne Ross

  • Wan, Japanese bowlWan, Japanese bowl

    featuring Wajima-nuri, kin-maki-e (gold inlay), and kiji-mise (partially visible wooden base)

  • Tsubomi-wan, Tsubomi bowlTsubomi-wan, Budding flower bowl

    featuring Wajima-nuri, kin-maki-e (gold inlay), and bokashi-nuri (gradated finish)

  • Kougo, incense jarKougo, incense container

    with kin-maki-e (gold inlay) and kanshitsu (multi-layers of linen using urushi as an adhesive)

  • Pearl pendantPearl pendant

    featuring kin-maki-e (gold inlay) and raden (mother-of-pearl inlay)

  • Lapis lazuli pendantLapis lazuli pendant

    featuring kin-maki-e (gold inlay) and raden (mother-of-pearl inlay)

  • Candy dishKashi-bon, Candy dish

    featuring Ikkan-bari multilayered washi base technique, kin-maki-e (gold lacquer), and raden (mother-of-pearl inlay)

Suzanne Ross‘s Favorite Tools

  • Nushi-toh

    Nushi-toh

    Knives used by urushi craftsmen to adjust their own tools for ease of use. These knives can trim tips of brushes called urushi-bake and fix the shape of the hera (spatula for applying base coats).

  • Hera (wooden spatula)

    Hera
    (wooden spatula)

    Spatula used for mixing, painting, and scooping urushi. Spatula blades vary in shape, size (width) and angle depending on the purpose and place of coating.

  • Urushi-bake

    Urushi-bake

    Brushes for applying urushi. Depending on the stage, various types of brushes are used. They are made of Asian women's hair and horsehair.

  • Urushi-kanna (tapping tool)

    Urushi-kanna
    (tapping tool)

    A specialist tool used to gouge the trunks of urushi trees in order to collect the sap. Nowadays, the number of craftsmen who can produce this specialist tool, is down to one.

  • Kin-pun (gold powder)

    Kin-pun
    (gold powder)

    Pure gold powder is used in maki-e decorative techniques. The shape of the gold powder particles varies. Maru-fun is rounded, and hirame-fun (photo) is flattened by pressing solid gold pieces flat.

  • Kai (shell)

    Kai
    (shell)

    A decorative technique called raden features iridescent shell, thinly sliced and cut into micro-sized mosaic pieces. These fragments are inlaid into an urushi ground. The shell materials used are from yako-gai (Lunatica marmoratus), cho-gai (a type of mother-of-pearl) and awabi (abalone).

SOBA
蕎麦
WASABI
山葵
RAMEN
ラーメン
WHISKY
ウイスキー
Capsule hotel
カプセルホテル
Electrical goods store
家電量販店
Soba (Japanese traditional noodles)
日本蕎麦
Maid cafe
メイド喫茶
Edo kiriko
江戸切子
Edomae Zushi
江戸前寿司
Tsukiji Market
築地市場
Monja
もんじゃ
Shuri Castle
首里城
Kachaashii
カチャーシー
Steakhouse
ステーキハウス
Ryukyu Karate
琉球空手
Japan
(Original)
Italy
Neon Genesis EVANGELION
Singapore
Hakuohki
Brazil
Final Fantasy VI
Harajuku girl leads next-generation kawaii.
I want to become Hello Kitty, the icon of Japan.
The color wizard behind 80s kawaii revival.
Toybox kawaii shop shows people power.
Mizuura Mikuji
水占みくじ
Manga Museum
マンガミュージアム
Artisans’ Row
あじき路地
Shohekiga
障壁画
TOTTORI YOKAI ROAD
where yokais and humans live together
GAME BAR
a gathering spot for grownups where old games are available
KOBE TETSUJIN 28-GO
mega-size robot who saves the peace in Kobe city
AKIRA BIKE
enthusiasts create a dream machine from the world of Otomo’s AKIRA
SIRI SIRI
SIRISIRI
Picks
楊枝
Japanese knives
包丁
Kimono
着物
YAYOI KUSAMA
HISASHI TENMYOUYA
MANABU IKEDA
KOHEI NAWA
NIIHAMA TAIKO MATSURI
NEBUTA MATSURI
MENBURYU
AWA ODORI