First published: Summer 2019

Working deep in the woods, this Japanese sculptor creates pieces that are unique and mysterious

Shinichi Sawada works silently and calmly, his fingers moving with complete certainty and dexterity to create his distinctive clay sculptures. At 37, he is one of the most recognised art brut artists from Japan, but he himself does not grasp people’s fascination with his work.

As a child, Sawada attended a school for children with special educational needs for several years, and was then enrolled at a boarding school in the city of Kusatsu where he was diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. From the age of 18, he began to attend a local social welfare facility – an institution for people with mental disabilities called Nakayoshi Fukushikai, in Shiga Prefecture, western Japan. He went three or four times a week and, although he lives with his parents, he still regularly goes to the centre today.

At first, Sawada tried his hand at Sashiko (a traditional form of Japanese embroidery) during his sessions at the institution – but it was pottery that drew him in. Because the centre did not have a proper area for ceramics, the head of the facility arranged for a small, sheet-metal cabin to be constructed deep in the woods, a few kilometres from the main buildings, in which Sawada and others could create. However, the cabin was, and still is, a very basic structure that can only be used in the warmer months as it has no real walls or doors; low temperatures prevent people from working there and also affect the clay.


Untitled (17), n.d., ceramic, 8 x 8 x 8 in. / 20 x 21 x 20 cm, photo: Andrew Hood

Sawada has a set routine on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. In the mornings, he works with others in the in-house bakery, making bread and then selling and delivering the produce locally. Sometimes, he also helps out packing small electrical items. In the afternoons, he is driven over to the pottery cabin with Akio Kontani, another sculptor, and Iketani, the retired facilitator who has worked with Sawada since he first started coming to the institution.

Iketani built two large earthenware kilns in the cabin, but they are only lit twice a year due to the cost of the wood and the dedicated labour required to monitor and keep them at the right temperature continuously for three days and nights. One of the kilns can be heated to 800 degrees, which gives the clay a black colour, while the larger kiln goes to 1,200 degrees, creating a reddish-brown hue with a slight sheen (the exact tone depends on the amount of ash that crystallises during the firing). After being fired, the kilns take at least a week to cool down, and it is only then that the ceramics can be removed. All the artists who use the cabin need to have their work fired, so space in the two annual firings is shared out equally.

Sawada is a prolific artist. He takes four or five days to complete one of his ceramic creatures. Each is built around a cylindrical base that is hollow in the centre. Most have faces on more than one side, and some have several faces stacked on top of one another giving the creations a totem pole look. All the pieces are covered in little spikes – or “thorns”, as some people describe them. These attachments have evolved over time, becoming denser and more rounded. Sawada applies them in quick succession, often laying them out in straight, orderly lines across the surface of the clay. He moves his delicate fingers – which are often described as ladylike – without hesitation, and works in silence, although a gentle tune on the stereo often plays in the background.


This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #102

Back to articles

Fancy a freebie?

Sign up for a digital subscription and get a free copy of Raw Vision's special 100th edition magazine.