Finding your path in life is not always easy. Some could say it is even more challenging when you’re young, and the standardized education model doesn’t feel like a great fit. That was certainly the case for ceramicist and woodworker Ido Ferber. School was of very little interest to him most of the time, and he often tried getting out of it any way he could. But, after his father presented a rather creative ultimatum, Ido stumbled across a ceramics course that changed his life.
Studies in wood, metal, and industrial design followed closely behind, and his interest in craft traditions inspired him to look outside his native Israel for a place to expand upon all those skills in a way that excited him. He settled on Japan and was all set to start his studies when the pandemic struck around the globe.
Following massive delays and travel restrictions, we’re happy to say that Ido has finally made it to Japan. He is thoroughly enjoying working towards his Master’s degree in ceramics while running a small craft business (Sentomono) from home with his wife, woodworker Rabea Gebler. Moreover, the experience of being in Japan and learning traditional craft methods has led to important questions about his own identity and how it informs his creative practice.
Kinship + Craft caught up with Ido Ferber over Zoom and E-mail to bring you this interview. It has been lightly edited for clarity in collaboration with him.
A rough start that led to ceramics
K+C — Hello, Ido! It’s nice to meet you virtually. I’m excited to learn about your work! To begin, could you tell us a little about yourself and how you would describe the work you do?
Hello, and thank you for having me here on Kinship + Craft. My name is Ido Ferber, I’m a 31-year-old industrial designer and craftsman. I was born in Israel, and, at the moment, I am studying and working in Tokyo, Japan.
I actually don’t really know how to describe or categorize my work. A part of it would be multi-disciplinary craft and some of it is straight art. However, both are heavily influenced by my design studies. I am currently working with clay and wood, crafting functional and ornamental pieces. Above all, I love functionality and I love to see my work being used. Nevertheless, I want to push my mind further and create pieces that evoke thought, and that lead me towards art. I often “borrow” techniques from different disciplines and cross-use tools. I also enjoy combining different materials in the same piece. For example, I have been infusing metal into both my woodwork and my ceramic work lately.
K+C — And what led you to ceramics?
Growing up I was not very amused by school and never really conformed to the system. I used to sleep through classes or just read a book. I was failing every class that didn’t interest me, or in other words, pretty much everything. My dad and I had many fights over this and it never helped; I kept failing, and he kept yelling. In my junior year after one of these big fights, my dad gave me an ultimatum. Either I get my shit together and improve my grades, quit school altogether and get a job, or find a hobby and stick to it. In the end, he suggested we try out this new ceramics studio that had opened in our town center. This way, I would have something meaningful to concentrate on and develop some kind of skill other than sleeping.
As I was always drawn to arts and crafts, and even majored in arts in high school, that seemed like the best option. I could play around with clay, I wouldn’t have to go to work or quit school, and my dad would have some peace of mind. It was the best of all worlds.
I ended up going to that studio every week from the moment I signed up to the moment I had to enlist in the IDF. In the process, I made a lot of ashtrays for my friends, some “salad ashtrays,” as my mom used to call them, bowls, plates, and everything in between. I even became an assistant and a junior instructor for younger children.
K+C — What did you think of your father giving you that ultimatum? I can imagine as a teenager that you weren’t thrilled, but it seems it has worked out.
I was actually very thrilled to have been given the chance to choose what path I wanted to go down. To this day I am grateful to my dad for pushing me in that direction. I am not sure where I would have ended up if my old ceramics teacher had not opened her studio in our town, or if my dad had not given me that ultimatum. I wasn’t naive as a teenager; I knew my father was a traditional thinker. He believes that education is imperative. I on the other hand believed at the time that standard education was useless. Since I had no idea what I wanted to do with my future there was no point in investing the time in getting a high school diploma.
I always said that if I ever wanted to go on to higher education, I could get my high school diploma then. And that’s what I did. Before going to Bezalel Academy for industrial design, I worked at a blacksmith studio by day and studied for my diploma by night.
Ido Ferber finds freedom to grow as a maker in a new environment
K+C — Now you’re in Tokyo, studying traditional ceramics and expanding on the skills you developed during your design studies in Jerusalem. When did you arrive, and what drew you to studying in Japan?
I came to Tokyo just about a year ago, in the autumn of 2020. This is my second time here, and it’s my second time as a student at Tokyo University of the Arts. The last time I was here was four years ago as an exchange student.
I always enjoyed minimalism, so that is what drew me to Japanese crafts, along with the attention to detail and dedication to technique. On that first visit, I got a glimpse of the people, the craftsmen, culture, food, shrines, materials, and tools. Everything that surrounds Japanese material and spiritual life. After coming back and completing my design studies, I immediately applied to the scholarship program I am part of now. Just existing here is influential to my approach to craft and design. The freedom to grow as a maker in such an environment is amazing.
K+C — Could you tell us a little about how your program is set up and what your focus is?
Surprisingly, the Master of Fine Arts program in ceramic craft is very loosely set. Before my first visit here I was convinced my teacher would be an old man with a white beard and a bamboo stick who would smack me every time I made a mistake. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The program here pretty much lets me research whatever I want. The only requirement I have as a first-year Master’s student is to design and build a wood-firing kiln.
My focus so far has been on my kiln construction, as well as developing my private research called “alien locality.” This is an effort to achieve works of local definition in a place where I am not a local. As an Israeli with a family that has a background in agriculture, I am very connected to the Israeli terroir, the local food, produce, and the Israeli materialistic culture. Those aspects seeped into my work while I was living in Israel. Now that I am here in Japan, all of that is far away. Therefore, I am trying to recreate my locality with the materials and techniques that make up the Japanese terroir.
My kiln also follows the same line in some ways. I am building a hybrid kiln based on the principles of the Japanese anagama kiln mixed with western kiln designs. Israel doesn’t have a very old tradition of pottery, and wood-fired pottery in particular, so it’s hard to draw inspiration from there. Instead, I tried to define the good points I found in both kiln cultures to create something new. I have absolutely no idea if my idea will even work, but for the time being, I’m stacking bricks and praying.
K+C — As part of your studies, you’ve been learning an array of new techniques, including Japanese lacquer work, known as urushi*. However, you’ve also been collecting and making ceramics with wild clay*. I understand you started using wild clay in Israel, but have delved deeper into it while in Japan. How has the exploration of wild clay impacted your ceramic work?
I think the key impact wild clay has had on my work is understanding that the material itself holds cultural value and a certain identity. It’s an understanding that the material doesn’t just appear in the shop ready to use. Each clay has a history of its own and it comes with a set of features and limitations unique to every place.
I have only been working with wild clay for about two years now. It all began with Covid-19. My scholarship should have started in April 2020, but my flight to Japan got canceled because all borders closed.
I was really devastated for a few weeks. Then, on a walk around our olive fields, I came across some wild clay. I had never worked with wild clay before, but because I had the time I thought I would give it a chance. Maybe I wanted to go to Japan so badly — I don’t know, but I intuitively started making Japanese tea bowl forms from Israeli clay. So, I built a small wood kiln and fired my tea bowls, and eventually did many different experiments. It really gave me a feeling of connection to Japan and helped with the heartache.
The Japanese term urushi* refers to a type of lacquer made from the sap of Toxicodendron vernicifluum trees and the process of applying it to objects. It has been in practice for thousands of years and is prized for its smooth surface and visual depth. Wild clay* is clay that has been found in nature and processed by hand, usually in small batches. It differs from commercial clay, which is mined and often mechanically or chemically processed on a large scale to generate the final product.
I think the key impact wild clay has had on my work is understanding that the material itself holds cultural value and a certain identity…Each clay has a history of its own and it comes with a set of features and limitations unique to every place.
K+C — And when could you travel to Japan?
In October, the Japanese government lifted some restrictions and I could finally travel to Japan. Since I had so much fun with the wild clay, I started looking for it here on campus. Once I found some, I restarted the whole experiment.
This time, maybe out of homesickness, I did things the other way around. Instead of making Japanese forms from Israeli clay, today I make vessels modeled after ancient Israelite forms with wild Japanese clay. This is what I was referring to as “alien locality,” the combination of local material with a foreign form. (Black Stitch Vase, first image directly below.) With this, I use the available local material, the local Japanese tools, and techniques, and I recreate forms from ancient Israelite history. I think I would never have taken this path had it not been for my canceled flight and the wild clay discovery.
Other than that, I think a big impact was the quality and availability of the wild clay here. Wild clay found in Japan, as well as Korea and parts of China, is naturally high-firing clay. Whereas wild clay found in Europe and the Middle East is usually low-firing clay, such as Terra Cotta. This is amazing because it opens up the world of glazes. With stoneware, the variety of glazes is so much wider. But the possibility of firing my wild clay pieces in high-temperature wood kilns with natural ash glazes also makes the entire experience more wholesome.
K+C — Has the experience of working with wild clay in Japan given you ideas of exploring your home in Israel in new ways?
Well, the processing of wild clay in itself is relatively similar regardless of the clay. I have learned more about it and developed some tools and techniques. But, more than that, my interest in exploring glaze making has increased. So, I hope to explore this more when I go back to Israel.
The Japanese have a very strong ceramic glaze tradition. Some of them, like shino for example, are connected directly to the rituals and traditions of the tea ceremony. Others are connected to a specific food or region. What I try to do now is understand, as best I can, how to make these glazes. Then, I can hopefully recreate them back in Israel.
Take for example momigara glaze. A common glaze that is mainly made from rice husk ash. Rice in Japan is a big deal. It’s a huge part of traditions and is somewhat sacred. So, a glaze made from it is more than just a glaze, it’s an embodiment of something bigger. It holds symbolism, cultural values, traditions, and almost genetic data.
In Israel, we don’t have that connection to rice. However, we do have it with wheat, olives, chickpeas, and such. Therefore, I would like to try and use the same principles of Japanese glaze-making with ingredients I find close to the Israeli heart. I believe tableware can have an immense impact on our food experience and the way we meet around the table. It’s something you might find today in fine dining restaurants — the understanding that tableware in itself has something to say. That feeling has been taken away from the home and replaced with plastic, or mass-produced Ikea ware, so I would like to bring some of that back.
K+C — I see. That sounds like an exciting future project!
K+C — You’re going to give a talk soon at the Israeli Ceramics Symposium about the concept of alien locality. What has the experience been like learning traditional Japanese craft techniques?
Yes, I’ll be giving a talk this December. I think I would also explain a little about what it feels like to live and work in Japan in that talk. But, unfortunately, it will all be in Hebrew, so I will share some of it here, too.
Working and living here has truly been amazing. I live here with my wife Rabea, a woodworker also interested in Japanese craft and culture. We travel a lot and reach out to other woodworkers and ceramicists as often as we can. We visit them, work and help as much as we can in exchange for bed and food.
We’ve had the luck to visit world-renowned artists, such as Shozo Michikawa and Tak Yoshino, and it is truly amazing to meet such idols in person. However, we’ve had many more visits to lesser-known craftsmen, among them kiln builders, timber frame carpenters, urushi masters, and others.
I honestly also believe that we have been very lucky to come here amidst a pandemic when there are absolutely no tourists allowed into Japan. That really helps us stand out from the crowd. People now presume we live here and have a genuine, long-standing interest in the culture and tradition, and we are not here just to have a look around.
K+C — I see.
If you look for it, the environment here can be very encouraging and you can always surround yourself with craftsmen. Although the relative amount of traditional crafts in Japan is diminishing, it is still a far larger part of society than many other nations. The quality of materials and tools, as well, is simply incomparable to anywhere else I have been in the world.
There is something different here about the way people work. Every little task is taken seriously. The foraging and handling of material; the construction and upkeep of tools; the time spent loading kilns or mixing glazes; it’s all exaggerated. To be honest, it’s amazing to see, but can also really get on my nerves at times. In Israel, there is generally less appreciation for such intentional craftsmanship, so living here is a great lesson in self-control and patience. But as I said, I am not always the best student. 🙂
K+C — It has been said that living in or visiting other places teaches us new ways to look at our own roots and culture. Yet, these experiences also change you. How has this been the case for you?
I feel that this is so true. It is as if I am changing all the time and that this foreign culture is imprinting in me some of its values and at the same time honing and sharpening my Israeli identity. The last time I was here, I spent six months in the exchange program, and when I came back one of my friends said I came back more myself than I had ever been before. At the time, I thought that was a very strange thing to say, but today I realize he really had a point.
Also, I think this time alone, away from our family and friends, disconnected from the expectations and views people have over us, is liberating. It allows us to develop without being judged for where we choose to grow our branches. We just need to remember not to chop them off when we come back.