In Aya Oki’s Plump (2014), pieces of foggy white glass balloon from inside 50 small cages of black rubber thread, as if the glass were trying to escape. Each combination of sandblasted glass and thread has its own unique shape, creating a pleasing collection of organic, amoeba-like forms.
“I set up a situation, like a wire cage, and then I blow glass into it, and I just let the glass go,” says the 32-year-old native of Japan, now living in Highland, California. “I’m trying to capture the moment, and the essential qualities of the glass.” Her pieces explore the sensuality of glass and how it mimics the body: stretchy, puffy, and squishy.
As a child, Oki loved to sculpt dolls out of clay and make mud balls in her family’s backyard in Nara, Japan. In her MFA thesis for Rochester Institute of Technology, she recalled, “the act of making stimulated my senses. As long as the material was interesting, the exploration would often result in my losing track of time.”
Play is still a key source of ideas for Oki today; she often starts pieces by improvising with glass. In Gyu-Gyu III (2014), she made a vase, then filled it with glass spheres that look like embryos, each one expanding to fit the space and bumping up against the bubbles around it. In Surfacing (2014), a curved sheet of glass has stretched to accommodate a glass sphere pushing out from behind it. “I have a conversation with the glass, and it responds to me,” Oki says.
A solid grounding in glassblowing technique was a crucial jumping-off point for Oki. While earning her BFA at Aichi University in Japan, she spent years honing her methods, focusing on functional objects. Meeting visiting glass artists from the United States – John de Wit, the de la Torre brothers, and Bruce Chao – inspired her to think deeply about the artistry of glass.
“The American glassmakers seemed so free,” she recalls. “They enjoyed what they were doing and reminded me about how much I love making. I felt restricted, and they made me feel I could break through the wall.”
At Aichi University, she worked with glass artist Peter Ivy, who became a mentor. When he had an opportunity to teach at Pilchuck Glass School, he asked her to come along as his assistant. “Aya has always had a natural sense for the way glass behaves, for what it wants to become,” he says. “She possesses a calm and comfortable certainty with the glassblowing process that’s very rare.”
Oki went on to study with Katherine Gray at California State University, San Bernardino, before completing her MFA at RIT last year. Shortly thereafter, she was a fellow at Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center in Millville, New Jersey. She plans to remain a working artist, but also hopes to teach and visit Japan to share her “journey of pursuing art.”
It’s equal parts sharing expertise – “I want to show people the compelling, expressive potential of glass,” Oki says – and helping them broaden their horizons, as she was able to. “I want to teach people not to give up and to try everything they can to follow their dreams.”
Liz Logan is a Brooklyn freelance writer.