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Between Island and Empire

Tekst: Pernille Koch Laursen Foto: Anders beier


The bluish grey light of autumn slants through the large window. Outside, a black and white cat crouches on a boulder waiting to be let in. Three different worktables in Kaori Juzu’s jewellery workshop are covered by a profusion of different tools and materials. With a mysterious smile, she pulls open a drawer to reveal an exquisite palette of enamel colours in every shade, infinitely appealing to the eye. We sit side by side at the window overlooking the rock-filled garden, drinking steaming tea from delicate earth-coloured cups. I came here to get an answer to a question that has been rattling around inside my head for a long time now, and Kaori has generously agreed to give it a try. 

The question arose through an encounter with art. When you are on Bornholm, it is notably difficult to avoid encountering art inspired by Japan, often without even knowing it, even though the Empire of the Sun is far removed from Bornholm, both culturally and geographically. For years, Japanese artists have been visiting, working, exhibiting and living on the island for brief or extended periods of time, in some cases for the rest of their lives. The question is: why? What is it that attracts these artists, and what is it that motivates them to travel all the way from their homeland to a small, rocky Danish island in the Baltic Sea?

Kaori’s story begins when she came to the island at the age of 24 in 2002. She was neither an artist nor an art student; on the contrary, she had just graduated from university in Tokyo with a degree in Spanish. In the midst of applying for jobs, she suddenly realised that she didn’t have the same ambition for pursuing a career that her fellow students of the same age did. She didn’t share their dreams for the future, but felt she was different and wanted something else. A Danish friend she met during a stay in Spain told her that it was possible to attend something called ‘folk high school’ in Denmark, and this aroused her curiosity. She decided to try it out and started applying. This was back before everything was done online, so she sent almost twenty applications to Denmark by ordinary mail. Only two schools sent replies back to Japan: Ry Folk High School, near Aarhus, and Bornholm Folk High School. As Ry Folk High School appeared to be primarily for teenagers, she chose the school on Bornholm, and, as she had always been interested in jewellery, she signed up for the jewellery workshop. 

As fate would have it, when Kaori started at Bornholm Folk High School, her teacher was goldsmith Peter Faber, who had been cultivating a passionate special interest in Japanese art and culture for a number of years. The encounter with him and the folk high school was decisive for Kaori. At the school, she was exposed to an open workshop culture where work was done in a communal – and in many respects free – learning environment. She wasn’t accustomed to this in Japan. The instructors in Denmark were more like guides or inspiring mentors than teachers. In addition, Peter Faber was keenly focused on the technical aspects of the craft and took an open educational approach to his students, which made a big impression on the young woman from Japan. The language and lifestyle came as something of a shock to her, having come directly from the bustling metropolis of Tokyo. As an adult artist, Kaori recalls a late-night cycling trip in pitch darkness to the closest town of Aakirkeby together with some of her school friends as such an out-of-the-ordinary experience that the memory is still deeply embedded within her.  

It was not until she met jewellery artist and fellow high school student Per Suntum that Kaori Juzu understood the direction she would pursue as an artist. She loved making jewellery, but the artistic idiom seemed too austere and uninspiring. So one day, Per showed her his jewellery collection. He was already a qualified goldsmith who had been invited to the folk high school by Peter Faber as a student, but pursuing a different course of study. Per Suntum’s unconventional approach to the design of his line of one-off jewellery creations was an eye-opener for Kaori. Anything was possible! From this revelation, there was no way back for her, and a new world opened up. 

Kaori became Per’s goldsmith’s apprentice, which is a four-year programme partly in the classroom, with rigorous formal and technical requirements. Despite the strict requirements and linguistic challenges, Kaori learned to appreciate her stay because, as she puts it, her knowledge of the materials has given her an artistic freedom of expression that she could not and would not want to be without. This was also where she discovered the material – enamel – that has become her artistic hallmark. And of course, love is also part of the story. Love for the island, love of the art and love for a man: Per and Kaori are now married and live together in Tejn, south of Allinge, where they both work. 

Another of the Japanese artists who found space for both work and love of Bornholm was sculptor Jun-Ichi Inoue. His works are found all over the island, such as the impressive and massive solstice clock erected on the main square in Rønne. In 1987, he bought a country house south of Allinge and moved in together with his wife Marie Christensen, daughter of famous Danish sculptor Ole Christensen, whom he had got to know at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Copenhagen in the 1970s. 

These two stories share several similarities, and one of them runs through the heart of Bornholm, or at least the middle of the island: the Bornholm Folk High School. Because Kaori is not the only person whose art has been nurtured by the idea and model of the Danish folk high school. Almost every year, one or more Japanese artists or students make their way to the school, which is due not least to some of its teachers: artists with a keen interest in and knowledge of Japanese art and culture. In this respect, it is particularly worth mentioning the Bornholm painter, graphic artist and land-art sculptor Lene Degett and ceramist Anne Mette Hjortshøj, both of whom have established close, living bonds with a number of Japanese folk high school students and current artists, and both of whom annually exhibit their works and engage in artistic collaboration on Bornholm. And contact with them arose via the folk high school. 

In other words, it is the folk high school concept – as originally envisaged by the ideological father of the folk high school N. F. S. Grundtvig – that forms a magnetic attraction between the Japanese archipelago and the small Scandinavian country with its waving fields of grain and lovely beech forests. Grundtvig’s idea of the ‘living word’, and the fact that general education should be available to everyone to promote a spirit of freedom, poetry and creativity on which to build a democratic society founded on Christian values, kindled the idea of the multifaceted folk high schools that exist today. The free community at the folk high school and the non-hierarchical approach to workshop activities are eye-opening and release a creative energy in these art students which they are not accustomed to in Japan. And this has both an attractive and an almost addictive effect on them. Perhaps it is true that, if once you have experienced a space that unleashes your energy and inspiration, as an artist you will naturally seek to return there. That was Kaori’s experience, at any rate.  

Sitting here in the light looking out on the yellowing autumn leaves, I can’t help but ask Kaori whether the Bornholm landscapes and wildlife affect her art. The window sill is brimming with an abundance of stones of various types, driftwood and other items collected in the wild, especially on the beach around Sose Bay, where the couple once lived. I peruse them to find similarities with the tattered, angled shapes that recur in Kaori Juzu’s brooches. “The colours,” she says, “But I usually work intuitively so it’s actually not until later that I can see a recurring theme between the colours in some of my works and the light of the season.”  “But what about Japan? Do you have sources of inspiration from there, too?” I ask. “Mostly spiritual and the traditions, such as through numbers. In Japan, the number 108 is magical and embodies great spiritual strength. During the pandemic, I was involved with a work of art made up of 108 small individual pieces of one-off jewellery. Pursuing this project during that strange period of time had an unusually positive effect on me,” Kaori explains. Her deep and slightly hoarse voice fades out, and her eyes alight on the wall where the work is hanging. It has now caught the attention of others and has been nominated for the prestigious Loewe Foundation Craft Prize, to be exhibited in New York in the spring of 2023. 

The works of two of her good Japanese colleagues whom she met while at the folk high school when she herself taught there hang on other walls. After Kaori finished her studies and became a qualified goldsmith, she was invited to teach at the folk high school herself and at workshops in other locations around the world as part of her exhibitions. And she loves the interaction she gets with her students, which she finds both inspiring and rewarding. This also completes the circle, and suddenly the Japan-Bornholm connection makes much more sense. Because basically it’s all about people and encounters and creating an opportunity for them to develop across time and space. 

In front of me on the table are beautiful, enamelled brooches waiting to be presented to the public somewhere around the world, be it Paris, Tokyo or New York. One of them in particular catches my eye and is strangely reminiscent of the bladder wrack seaweed that was attached to the rocks just below the water’s edge where I used to bathe as a child. I have a burning desire to take the work of art home with me and can’t help expressing my enthusiasm. Kaori quietly accepts my praise and modestly explains that it is not for sale yet. It has to be run past the gallery owner first. I thank her for the cup of tea and for sharing her story. I feel that I’ve found my answer and as I say goodbye to Kaori Juzu and leave, the cat squeezes past me through the open door into the warmth.



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