Takako Hirai

Takako’s story is as unique as her works: After studying painting in Hiroshima, she looks for new inspiration, something to enrich her way of working with color. By chance, she gets to know Arianna Gallo, and despite cumbersome visa processes she always comes back to Ravenna.

You discover it only at second glance, the figure in ISTINTO that blends completely with its surroundings and stands out almost exclusively by the different size of the tesserae around it. Again and again, I was looking at this work of Takako, when I made my first mosaic course in Ravenna, intrigued by the soulful composition of cold and warm shades of green, and the contrast of elongated, rambling grasses and plants with the busy background.

Takako Hirai, ISTINTO, 2011

A bit, Takako resembles this figure, as sensitively as she moves in her own studio. Again and again, she takes a piece of marble from the table next to her, twists and turns and examines it. Outside, in the green overgrown garden, the afternoon sun of a beautiful March day glows and bathes her workplace in a warm light.

“Sometimes I spend hours looking at the material, searching for something, and then I put it back again,” she says as she shows me her work. “I am incredibly slow, but I just need the time to bring together the right pieces.”

How come she has had the idea to learn making mosaics?

“From a study trip to Italy in 1997, during my university studies, two mosaics remained in my mind that I had seen in churches in Rome. During the whole trip I didn’t buy a single art catalog, but three postcards with details of these works. They were very similar to the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, with beautiful nature scenes in strong colors.” After completing her painting studies in Japan, her eyes are attracted by these postcards again and again. “The more I looked at the photographs, the more the desire grew in me to learn the craft with which these mosaics were created.”

With the aim of learning how to make mosaics in Italy, she starts listening to Italian language courses on Japanese radio stations and studies on her own. For three years, during an artist residence near Hiroshima, she prepares as best as she can to bring forward her mosaic project.

“Finding informations about mosaic in Japanese online at that time was hardly possible, and my knowledge of Italian was not sufficient to find information about courses in Italy. What I understood though was, that Ravenna was a city with an incredibly rich cultural heritage and the right place for my mosaic education.”

So she buys her ticket, without a concrete plan and with the Italian that she had learned by herself. Arrived in Ravenna, during a language course she meets a German who presents her to Arianna Gallo, who at that time works as a mosaic teacher at CISIM in Ravenna.

“We liked each other immediately and she offered me to teach me the basics of mosaic craft during my two weeks in Ravenna on a private basis.” So in two intense weeks, Takako makes the first moves with the martellina.

Back in her hometown, after another year of saving money, Takako is motivated to work on her mosaic skills again. So she travels back to Ravenna, where Arianna has been working on a 1:1 copy of the Alexander Mosaic together with a team of mosaicists from various studios. Hirai is at the right spot at the right time: she gets asked if she can help out as an intern.

“That was great luck for me and such an exciting project!” First, she only prepares the microscopic material that is needed for the enormous work, later she may also participate a little in laying the background. “After a few weeks I was even allowed to work on small details like a lance”, she laughs.

In this way, Takako learns making mosaic on the job, and Arianna and her become friends more and more. After a few months, Hirais visa runs out, though, so she goes back to Japan. A few weeks later she comes back – and as luck would have it, Arianna and Luca open their own studio in Via Maggiore exactly at that time. Takako is invited to work with them.

During her free time in the studio, she begins to make her own mosaics. “It had never been my goal to express myself through mosaic. I wanted to learn the craft in the first place, because I thought it could help me find new ways of painting.”

Only by the time, the more she spends on experimenting, the more Takako begins to love the materials and colors and gets captivated.

The first results from this period are nature scenes such as ISTINTO, later she uses particularities of the material itself as a topic: Like in Vene, the work she won the prize G.A.E.M. – Giovani Artisti e Mosaico with in 2013. Here, the bare veins of matt white marble Biancone transform into a vibrant mass that seems as naturally emerged as the rock from which it was obtained. A powdery, moldy looking surface that has been made with so much caution that I would never dare to touch it.

You can see in Hirai’s works the joy of constant search for that little detail hidden in a chunk of marble. Her ability to integrate these peculiarities of nature to a new aesthetic composition is extraordinary.

Every piece she puts, it seems, is put to its spot for a reason, and the light that falls on it, the distance that separates it from its neighbors, are deliberately chosen. This is also reflected in one of her recent work, Sognatore, entirely made of rectangular tesserae of mirror glass. The light that reverberates from each and every individual piece, the volume that the squares create through their inclination and joint – it makes this face plunged in its puffy dream world a poetic work.

Takako Hirai, Sognatore, 2014
Takako Hirai, Sognatore, 2014

So again a person is hidden in Hirai’s mosaic, just indicated by a little joint, wise andamenti and skillful inclination of the glass stones.

Why does this game of seeing and not being seen appeal so much to her? “Maybe because I tend to hide my own feelings”, she says.

Maybe, because she wants to safe them for her delicate works, is the thought that is going through my mind.

Takako Hirai, Sognatore (detail), 2014
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