Japan Specialist Trevor Fleming sits down with Kirsten Albrecht, owner of Kozminsky Studio, collector, and author of the new book, Kokeshi Dreaming.
What drew you to the world of kokeshi and inspired you to learn more about them?
My fascination with kokeshi in all their various forms began as a six-year-old girl. Wandering into a room and seeing a pair of kokeshi “kissing”, I instantly fell in love with their exotic simplicity. It was many years later, on my fiftieth birthday when I was gifted a fabulous creative ‘sosaku’ kokeshi, that my fire to collect was ignited.
What are kokeshi and what was their purpose or significance? Are they dolls in the Western sense?
Kokeshi are the iconic wooden dolls of Japan. Traditionally of turned wood, they stem from folk traditions but have evolved to be expressions of contemporary art. Whilst Japan may have a predominance of functional art, it is their refined aesthetic that touches me deeply, that of the day to day. I don’t refer to kokeshi as dolls, for me they are the enigmatic totem of my heart country, Japan. To call kokeshi ‘dolls’ is, I feel, to diminish them.
Are there specific regions in Japan known for producing different styles and designs of kokeshi? What are the common types or motifs you typically see?
The most well-known kokeshi are the ‘dento’ or traditional varieties from Japan’s north where the hot springs meet the snow. Twelve families and some sub-lineages make up the dento kokeshi. Of these, the ‘Naruko’ with its iconic face, chrysanthemum decoration, and happy disposition is a hugely popular design originating from the town of Naruko in Miyagi prefecture. There are many stores run by third generation craftspeople and if you get the chance, it is a fascinating place to explore and visit other kokeshi studios.
Have kokeshi inspired creative expression and are there any contemporary adaptations or interpretations of kokeshi art?
Yes, the dento kokeshi inspired the ‘sosaku’ or creative kokeshi which became important after the Second World War. The returning Japanese
soldiers needed employment and it was one way to provide jobs and a pathway back to society. Nowadays, kokeshi have influenced craftsmen and women in the West and I’m familiar with some working on contemporary versions, both in England and France.
On collecting, are there specific categories or types of kokeshi that collectors seek out and what factors influence their value? What is the price range?
One of the many reasons I love collecting kokeshi is that they are an affordable and egalitarian art form. One can begin with purchases around $50 and with further learning and discovery, there are so many paths to travel. I love watching the dento or traditional kokeshi families offered in the Leonard Joel Auction Salon. I imagine the lucky bidder beginning a home collection. On the higher scale, it is possible to pay thousands for a kokeshi however these are more one-off artisanal works by a master kokeshi maker. Irrespective of price, I do look very closely at the expression and painting of the face and the treatment of the turned or joined wood to get a sense of its maker.
Congratulations on the book! Tell me about the journey of writing it.
Thank you, Trevor, it is a labour of love. I began writing more than fifteen years ago, and life got in the way. Japan is my heart’s home and I express this love in part through my kokeshi collection. It is a visual celebration of my collection. The words are important, but it is the photographs by Bronwyn Kidd and Jacqui Henshaw, along with Keith Smith’s visual genius that bind it together. It takes a village.
Kokeshi Dreaming will be released mid-October 2023 and available to purchase via www.kozminsky.com
With thanks to Kirsten Albrecht for her time.
TREVOR FLEMING / Japanese Specialist
Banner Image (Detail): Kirsten’s kokeshi collection | Photography by Jacqui Henshaw