TOUCH FIRE, featuring the brilliant ceramic creations of contemporary Japanese women artists, is an exhibition that strongly relates to Smith College’s mission to educate women of promise for lives of distinction.  These artists, both literally and figuratively, have broken the mold of a centuries-old, male-dominated tradition of ceramic art in Japan and did so aided by new access to higher education after World War II. 

Departing from a long tradition of tea wares and largely excluded from the apprentice system, these women make a range of objects and sculptural forms. During Japan’s long history of ceramic production, most women involved in making ceramics, with notable exceptions, were consigned menial tasks and were not allowed to touch kilns where works were fired. The independent artists whose work is included in the exhibition have indeed touched fire, hence the title of the exhibition and its catalogue. Their works are among the most innovative, imaginative, and technically complex objects being created by ceramic artists today.

Although the history of women studio potters in Japan is a relatively short one, a generational legacy has already been formed, beginning with the Women’s Association of Ceramic Art established in 1957 by Tsuboi Asuka, one of Japan’s first women studio potters.  As women entered university art schools and other training centers following the war, they were exposed to contemporary artistic movements in both Japan and the West. Some studied painting, others sculpture, and a number worked outside Japan. Most abandoned the potter’s wheel and wood-fired kilns. 

The work of the second wave of art-school-trained women ceramists in the 1980s had impact not only on the ceramic art scene but on the Japanese art world in general, notably the work of the so-called “Super Girls” who created large-scale objects and challenging installations.  The contemporary generation of women artists born in the 1970s and 80s continue to make work that is technically demanding and innovative, from the delicate porcelain lotus forms of Miwa Hanako to the humorous, tripod-legged Robot Girls of Takano Miho. 

This exhibition was made possible by a pioneer collector in the West of contemporary Japanese ceramics, a Smith College alumna who has made her collection available for display as a source of inspiration and education. Although she prefers to remain anonymous, Smith served as her springboard for a life of remarkable personal and professional achievements.