How two Japanese silversmiths learn from tradition and music to reshape the metal into intricate vessels. By Claire Wrathall
Look at a vase, a bowl, or a cup by the Japanese master silversmiths Hiroshi Suzuki or Shinta Nakajima, and it seems incredible that it was created from a single sheet of silver without cuts or joints.
Each artist uses a technique known as hand raising, a repetitive process that involves heating the metal with a torch, then hammering it in a circular motion over a progression of different-shaped anvils until eventually the edge of the metal begins to fold in on itself, and it morphs into a concave vessel.
“It takes so long—maybe three weeks—to finish a piece,” says Nakajima, 34, and the younger of the two by a generation. After each “course”, he explains, the silver needs to be heated again for the metal to revert to its crystalline structure. Otherwise, it becomes brittle and might crack or shatter.
Once the form of the vessel is more or less established, lines can be scored on the outer surface as a guide to where the artist might decide to “raise ribs” or other decorative features. It is an intricate procedure that requires hammering from within the interior of the vessel, or “chasing.”
“It’s a very simple, meditative process for me,” says Nakajima. “Rhythm is really important. Speed, too, has a bearing on
the reaction of the metal. I don’t try to control the tempo,” he says. But he is always aware of what he calls, as a musician would, the bpm, beats per minute. “A silversmith needs to be responsive to the waythe metal responds. You have to work in sympathy with the material, because its reaction is crucial. And the sound tells you everything.”
“Some of the chasing requires a fine surface finish, so you need to work at a very high tempo,” speeds of up to three hammer beats per second, or more than 10,000 an hour. His conversation is full of musical allusions—silversmithing is a compellingly percussive practice—and it comes as no surprise that he loves music, with which he sees an analogy. “I made some techno music when I was about 20. It also consisted of small grains of energy and sound, so it was kind of related to my making process.” Though these days the cans he wears while working are ear defenders, not headphones.
As a student at Musashino Art University in Tokyo, Nakajima was taught by Suzuki, 62, whose distinctive vessels are immediately recognisable from their pleat-like yet flowing and undulating indentations. “My professor was [already] one of the famous silversmiths at the time,” he says, not least because he had recently returned to Tokyo after 15 years in London. Indeed, Suzuki’s sinuous vases can now be found in, among many institutions, the Metropolitan Museum of art in New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Art Gallery of South Australia; Cheongju National Museum, South Korea; and the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London, which has three of his works in its collection. The V&A bought the first, a 27.5cm-high vase in Britannia silver (slightly purer, softer, and less susceptible to tarnish than sterling, though not as pliable as the almost ethereal-looking fine silver 999 he uses now) named Aqua-Poesy IV, from his degree show at London’s Royal College of Art in 1999. “I think his work is unique,” says Nakajima. “And I am really inspired by the way he uses lines to capture the flow of the five elements [wood, fire, earth, metal, and water], to express invisible matter [and the way] he uses flowing lines to create three-dimensional forms.”
Suzuki, in turn, saw great potential in Nakajima. “He was diligent and capable and could do anything on his own,” recalls Suzuki of his former student. By Nakajima’s fourth year, he was working for Suzuki. “Since he showed the desire to become an artist, I enabled him to gain experience by having him help me with my own creative activities,” Suzuki continues. “And for the next five years, he assisted me in my educational and research activities at the university.”
But all the while, Nakajima “was seeking his own path,” Suzuki says, and developing techniques and production processes of his own. “His recent works show his originality very well [and attain] a high degree of perfection,” he says. “I believe he is a very promising young artist with a great talent.”
Suzuki has described his own work as “always coming from nature: I like to express its ever-changing forms, such as the shift from one season to another.” And it’s clear from Nakajima’s recent work—for example, the exquisitely delicate Acanthus vessels he made for his solo show at London’s Gallery FUMI earlier this year—that he too has an interest in plants, leaves, and especially the rounded “forms of seeds and fruits” and the way they symbolize life and the passing of time.
Though he grew up in Tokyo—“so I didn’t have much opportunity to have a relationship with nature”—his mother was a florist who became a practitioner of oshibana, or pressed-flower art. “She pressed mainly wedding bouquets. She would get the bouquet from the bride, remove all the petals, press them, and assemble them again” in an original 2D form. “So there were always very many tiny pieces of nature spread throughout the house.”
Both artists also use color in their work; enamel in Suzuki’s case. “But there are lots of variations of color in silver itself,” says Nakajima. Not just gray, white, or black, but “right the way through to blue.” Copper, with which he also works, has an even wider spectrum of colors given the way exposure to oxygen causes it to patinate—one hesitates to use the word tarnish—a reaction, he says, that “expresses its fragility. For me the patination is not negative. It’s just changing with time and symbolizes imperfection and impermanence, I think. I believe wabi sabi [the idea that there is beauty in aging and imperfection] contains that meaning.” Does he mind the thought of overzealous polishing? “It will always become patinated again. It can be a nice chance to have a reset.”
If, in the words of the dealer Adrian Sassoon, Suzuki has become, thanks to his years in London, “part of the history of English silver”, Nakajima too combines “British silversmithing techniques with the Japanese way.” Speaking by video call from his studio in Sheffield in England, where he now lives and is studying for an MFA at Sheffield Hallam University, Suzuki shows me one of the 30 or so hammers he uses.
“The head I bought in Japan,” he says. “But then I put an English handle on it.” He reaches for another. “But this one is completely made by myself. The handle is very fancy. It’s called snakewood,” one of the hardest, heaviest, and most expensive woods. “But my tools are kind of an extension of my body,” he says, lest it sounds extravagant. “I have to love them. They need to work in harmony with my hands.”