"Thank you for paying a visit to the Blue Bear Vending Co, an artist studio and online store based in East Anglia in the United Kingdom.
My name is Joanna, a British artist making work which most frequently draws on a love of and interest in Japan; particularly folklore and folktales, the microseasons, architecture and the relationship between old and new which co-exists there so well. I studied architecture at undergraduate level, but only began to make art later on in life as a response to my travels in and around Japan - ten years after my first visit, I still couldn't find much in English about some aspects of Japanese life, and so began by writing fictional blog stories that shared aspects of folklore, seasonal recordings and yōkai culture as I was learning about them. Since that time more and more accessible information about microseasons and other cultural aspects has become available, most importantly from the Japanese perspective and so the blog stories naturally wound down. I have continued to follow the calendar of 72 microseasons ever since, finding my own 'little seasons'; documenting some years on social media and for two years on a project/ collaboration with US potter Betsy Williams, which resulted in a book.
A few years after beginning the stories, I began to make work for sale; firstly on paper, documenting street scenes, sometimes as 'imaginary plates', largely in an all blue palette, much in the same way as woodblock prints known as aizuri-e (meaning 'blue printed pictures') used only blue tones to portray a scene. These prints began in the 1830's in Japan after more stable chemical blue pigments were introduced from Europe. My paintings of street scenes, houses, vending machines and stores use different shades of blue (in watercolour or gouache) to express the subtleties of old and new, man-made and natural that seem to co-exist so effortlessly in the streets of Tokyo and beyond. As with the blue prints, sometimes touches of other colours like red and yellow make their way in. A childhood fascination with vending machines and other machinery that humans interact with in daily life turned into a life-long love and one that has featured in my work from the outset.
When visiting Japan as an introverted person, I found the status as an outsider that is automatically applied to any foreigner there a deeply comforting experience; I was able to cope with crowds of people in a way I could not in the U.K. or other countries - and from this new freedom was able to experience the cities, particularly Tokyo, in an anxiety-free and safe-feeling way. Whereas I found city-living an uncomfortable and often frightening experience (I lived and worked in London from 1998 to 2013), travelling in Japan allowed me to spend time in cities and particularly explore the urban environment, the architecture and the culture without the constant underlying anxiety - I could even attend and enjoy crowded events such as festivals for the first time. I was also particularly struck with how the seasons were still tangible in a place that might be expected to be disconnected from nature, and how the natural world can be represented and respected through decor, customs, flowers, food and seasonal celebrations; also how birds and animals showed up in the urban environment. The grounds of shrines and temples as well as the large parks and green spaces also meant that nature was never far away, and I was able to discover Japanese flora and fauna long before I ever began to venture out of the cities on later visits. It is a great privilege to be able to make a connection with a culture other than one's own, and I do my best to express respect and care with my work at all times; I hope this comes through.
My work has expanded over the past five years to different media - I was interested in working on 3D shapes instead of just paper and first wanted to make a simple wooden doll shape to paint. I looked at the Japanese folk craft of kokeshi as well as Tudor stump and contemporary peg dolls and over recent years I have worked with an English woodturner to produce my own 'wood girl' shapes with lathe turning techniques commonly used here in the UK. I then handpaint and often add shapes to them, to represent a Japanese seasonal celebration, the current animal zodiac year, food or other interests such as everyday objects, star-gazing and moon viewing, ceramic decoration and architecture. It is my hope that my wood girls might be accepted within the Sosaku or 'creative' world of kokeshi. Unlike the traditional folk craft of Dentō kokeshi, which are deeply rooted to their places of manufacture (most often onsen resort towns) within Japan and made with very specific body shapes and decoration, often by generations of the same family, Sosaku kokeshi are not associated with any particular region or style and often made by artists unconnected to craft families. Apart from the fact that they are still turned on a lathe, their styles and decoration are pretty much limitless. This genre has artists creating work in Japan as well as some formally recognised in other countries.
I began to work with porcelain in 2017, after joining a community clay programme and now use this medium to make playful objects and pots that connect with my haiku format poetry, microseasons, vending machines, everyday objects and yōkai culture. They also sometimes combine forms with my wood girls or use a mixture of ceramic and wood.
Since 2020, I have used a bear stamp or 'blue bear' to sign my work on 3D forms. I previously worked under the pen name 'Joanna Nakamura', after a nickname someone gave me because I was more interested in their country than they were. However in the interests of clarity I have now switched to a bear signature in some form for all work.
I am largely self taught, a very slow growth which suits me fine, and allows me to learn at my own pace and from my own mistakes."
Joanna, April 2022.