Mari-Ruth Oda

“I’ve always had this desire to belong somewhere because I never really have”

There is a calming serenity in the sculptures of Mari-Ruth Oda, and the importance of the natural world is made abundantly clear in the organic surfaces, shapes and curves that can be found in her work. This makes sense, given the influence of the Japanese principles of Shintoism on her practice – that there is something inherently divine about nature.

Having been based in Manchester for a number of years, Mari has recently left the city that was rapidly changing for the worst behind her, opting for a new way of living, ‘in the middle of nowhere on the Llŷn Peninsula of North Wales’. The move, which Mari explains she had been considering for a number of years without never quite making the leap, makes sense for someone so invested in the beauty of our surroundings.

No more is this made clear than when she describes the personal relationship that people can build with objects and natural formations that can be found anywhere – an ‘odd-shaped boulder on the beach; I bet loads of people will have a different name for it, or way of referring to it.’ Mari’s consideration for the characteristics of the natural world, of a ‘pebble on a beach that just makes you think, “Ah, that’s a comforting shape,” translates into her approach to the materials she uses in her sculptures. Discussing the process of sanding clay, she describes the way in which bits of grit and grog emerge at the surface – simultaneously revealing the process and the constitution of the material. And it is through this process that the intentions of Mari’s work are conveyed; that the ‘material composition gives rise to visual composition.’ 

I suppose it may be too early to say but, what influence do you think your new surroundings in rural Wales will have on your work?

We’ll see, but I think having the beach really close by will have a massive effect, because I’m already looking at pebbles and stone. I’ve not done a great deal of stone sculpture – in fact, it was my first time working with stone last year when I was commissioned to carve a water feature for Chelsea Flower Show. It’s an area that I’d like to go into a bit more. I started off in ceramics, but the move to Wales meant I couldn’t take my 3 phase kiln – and I was also already starting to move away from ceramics. There’s been a lot of letting go of the old, and we’ll see what the new brings, to be honest. But the light is amazing here, which was one of the driving forces behind the move. In Manchester, as my work was getting bigger and bigger, I needed a ground floor unit (because relying on lifts in an old mill wasn’t great), but the windows are often covered in the ground floor studios around the city. I just really craved an abundance of natural light and there’s a lot of it here, which is amazing, so I’m really looking forward to making work in the light. 

Am I right in thinking you moved around the world a lot growing up? 

As a youngster, my dad worked for the UN so we tended to move around – though I’ve not moved as much as some people in the same situation might. I’ve always had this desire to belong somewhere because I never really have; wherever I’ve been, I’ve always been a foreigner – even going back to Japan, I’m not that ‘Japanese’ because I’ve not lived there for such a long time, so there’s a lot of the contemporary culture that I don’t know or understand. I’ve always longed to belong to a land, and hopefully, this move to the countryside will be it. 

Does that yearning for belonging manifest itself in your work at all? 

I think, what it’s made me do with my work, is strip it back to the basis of my emotions. I’m not so much swayed with culture – I don’t have a real drive to do social commentary for example – but I think that’s because I’ve shifted from one culture to another and recognise that it’s something that can be quite transient. Nature has always been inspiring to me; who isn’t touched by an amazing sunset? That awe of just being hit by a beautiful view, or even just seeing the shape of a shell; there’s a lot of inspiration that can be found in that. When I went to art college, I kept being asked what I was trying to express. I had been quite sheltered, and I didn’t have much angst; I didn’t recognise anything that I needed to express. I came to realise that I didn’t need to express angst, and that came to be what I did express. At my degree show, I got a lot of comments about the work being contemplative and calm, and I thought, yes: why can’t that be the expression? 

“I started looking to sculpture as an expression of an energy or a certain emotion that I want to convey.”

What informs the choice of materials you work with? 

I’m still in search for the ideal material to work with. I began to find ceramics quite restrictive in the way I was working and, of course, the kiln was a constraining factor for the size of the work. I would have had to compromise the smoothness and the uniformity of a piece, and having to fire it in segments wasn’t something I was prepared to do. I had this attachment to the idea that the clay comes from the earth, that I was moulding the earth to make these shapes, which is such a romantic idea. I realised that it was more of a hindrance for me than an expression. I recently did a project for an old people’s home in Japan, and the client specified using fibreglass resin, which I really dislike the idea of, in terms of the environment and the toxicity for the person using it; but, in terms of what it can do, functionally, it’s the perfect thing. From my experience of seeing my parents approach older age, I can see what really benefit these spaces, and I wanted to create a shape that was comforting and enriching – and this took over trying to perfect the use of material. In that instance, it was better to make something that would enhance the lives of the people using that space. So, I’ve given up being an idealist for the time being.

I realised that I’ve just got to give to my work what I can. 

So, is site specificity important in your work?  

That always helps. I do work both ways, where I make what I want for an exhibition, that will then eventually end up in someone’s house. But I do a lot of site specific work, or commissions where I know the people who will be having the work, and I actually find that, when I have a site in mind, that makes my intentions easier to define. It’s a bit clearer that way – and more of a collaborative process. Going back to the Japan project, for example, I was working closely with the landscape architects and my work had to be in line with their vision. I find that really exciting because, as a maker, I end up spending a lot of time on my own, stewing in my own energy. So, to have that input from somebody else gives me the opportunity to shake it up a bit. And in terms of energy, I’ve done work where I’ve thought that, in that particular space, something invigorating would help and so I’ll make a sculpture that has a lot of movement; the emotions that I want to portray can really change from work to work. What I find interesting with the creative process is that if you have an intention, something that you want to express, the creative force works to bring that about. Having a certain site and the intentions for what that space needs gives the maker another dimension to work in, which is exciting.  

Is there anything that you think is important for viewers when they experience your work? 

No, not at all really. I think the freer you are of preconceptions, the better. I’d rather someone intuitively understood it, or not. Of course, each person has their own experience that they bring with them when they look at a work. I had a piece of work that I was told an astronomer had bought because it reminded them of the stars. What it was, was a piece that had white specks in it that were revealed by sanding the material, so it was like the universe – that’s how the person took it. That’s a very specific way to engage with the work, and a very personal way, and I think that’s a really important thing. When you have a piece of work, you want to bond with it in your own way and that’s not something I can dictate. I can say what it’s been inspired by, but maybe sometimes that’s a hindrance rather than a help. 


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