DECO Clay Craft Academy Celebrates Its 40th Anniversary

Lois Kajiwara
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

In life, finding your way on a path is not always as direct as a straight line. Rather, it can often feel as if you are navigating through a maze. This was the case for Yukiko Miyai when it came to deciding on her career. The family business may have been the obvious choice, but it wasn’t her clear-cut path from the beginning. 

The Start of Something Big

Back in 1981, Kazuko Miyai, who is Yukiko’s mother, founded the first DECO Clay Craft Academy in Tökyö. Yukiko, although interested in clay art, wanted to explore other options and decided to come to Hawai‘i in 1989 to study English at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. While attending UH, she took classes in drawing, painting and ceramics. Not surprisingly, she found out that her interest gravitated toward working with clay. She also studied at Hawaii Business College for two years.

A Game Changer

Returning to Japan in 1997, little did Yukiko know how pivotal that year would be for her. For it was in 1997 when her mother collaborated with a manufacturer and developed her own line of original soft clay. What is so remarkable about this clay, which is called CLAYCRAFT by DECO Soft Clay, is that it dries in 24 hours without the need for a baking process. Not only is it extremely lightweight and pliable but it is also super durable. In comparison, a heavier clay was used to create the art pieces in the early years of DECO Clay Craft Academy, which resulted in a drying time that took several days. By eliminating the step of firing the pieces in a kiln, her mother made clay crafting much more affordable and accessible to people who were interested in making clay art. This line of air-dry clay, which opened up many new possibilities, was the deciding factor for Yukiko. She realized that she wanted to be involved in her mother’s company and forge her own path in the clay crafting industry.

A Dream Blossoms

Trained by her mother, Yukiko envisioned introducing CLAYCRAFT to the people of Hawai‘i. She decided to send one of her mother’s books to the Temari Center for Asian and Pacific Arts (now known as Temari Hawaii), and in 1999, they were invited by Temari to participate in workshops. During that time, Yukiko met the owner of the Ceramic Hobbyist and started teaching classes there. Due to the success of her classes, her dream of starting her own business in Hawai‘i became a reality when she opened DECO Clay Craft Academy USA in 2000. Twenty-one years have passed; what started as a small studio, where she taught classes in clay art and made pieces for craft fairs and exhibits, has expanded to encompass additional studios in Hawai‘i, the mainland, Russia, Europe and Asia-Pacific. 

The “Flowers Bring Us Together” arch was a labor of love for Yukiko and the DECO community. Phalaenopsis, cymbidium and cattleya orchid stems were selected for this spectacular creation.

I first met Yukiko at a craft fair a number of years ago. I remember being amazed at her beautiful floral creations that looked so lifelike. I immediately became a fan and ordered two custom bouquets. Those bouquets still look as pretty as the day I purchased them! Since then, a lot has happened to keep Yukiko busy with her exciting career, which certainly seems to be a perfect fit for her artistic talent and dedication to her craft. Her career highlights include authoring five books and being invited to the Martha Stewart show in 2011 and 2012.

Interest in DECO Clay Craft Academy has been tremendous. Currently, there are active certified instructors and members in 42 countries: 2,507 instructors and 6,800 members in Japan; 730 instructors and over 3,000 members outside of Japan. An important milestone was reached in 2021, the year that marked the 40th anniversary of the first academy in Tökyö. Recently, I had a chance to ask Yukiko about the anniversary and her thoughts on her career. 

LK: First of all, congratulations on DECO’s 40th anniversary! It is a huge achievement for you and your mother. What did you do to commemorate the anniversary?

YM: Thank you so much, we could not have done this without the help of so many amazing people! It was so wonderful being able to celebrate this special milestone last year. It was important for us to include everyone in the Academy each and every step of the way. 

Due to the pandemic, we could not gather together in Japan for an exhibition, so we decided to hold our very first online exhibition. It was a big undertaking and took more than a year for preparations, including building the website as well as photographing, collecting and arranging all the pieces. Displayed on this website were 389 works made by DECO certified instructors from around the world. 

LK: You also did a stunning collaboration project. How did you come up with the idea and what was your goal in creating it?

YM: For the 40th anniversary, we wanted to express hope for the future through a collaborative work to show that our hearts are always connected no matter how far away we are. Our goal was to generate a feeling of togetherness, which we had all been missing and longed for. 

We held many meetings on Zoom and I was able to make a couple of trips back to Japan to meet with the DECO head office team. Forming a plan that we called “Flowers Bring Us Together,” we asked our instructors and students if they would like to participate by submitting orchids to display on a big arch. Three varieties of orchids were chosen for the arch, which symbolizes the bridging of our friendships and collective love of this art. The excitement and support of the DECO community was remarkable! In total, we received over 800 orchid stems from over 15 countries. I am still in amazement when I think of all the time and love that was poured into this project. I thank each and every participant who helped to make this possible!

After searching all over for the perfect place to set up the arch and assemble these precious orchids, we chose Dillingham Ranch on the North Shore. With the design expertise of Passion Roots, a local florist, the orchids and greenery were gorgeously arranged. The entire process was carefully captured on video and made into a documentary. This video, also titled “Flowers Bring Us Together,” is up on our website and YouTube channel for all to see. I would be honored if you would take a look at it. We also were lucky to have Christine Pham shoot some beautiful photos of the process and finished display. 

LK: What other ways have you adjusted to the challenges of the pandemic?

“Kabuki,” which features a character praying for a good harvest, is a masterpiece that took three months to complete by the group 16 for one. If you guessed the number of flowers is between 6,000 to 8,000, you’re right!

YM: For the last 40 years, we have been offering in-person classes. Visiting different cities and countries to offer classes allows us to create friendships and share this craft we all love. Suddenly, we were not able to do this. Because of the pandemic, we shifted to online workshops; this allowed us to share our newly developed curriculum effectively with all of our instructors. To make this shift, we created a studio space with all the proper lighting and equipment for video productions. This permitted us to continue offering classes and to support our instructors during this challenging time. 

Even though we created many online classes for our customers, what was missing were the opportunities to connect, laugh and have great conversations in person. This is such a big part of our craft and the way we share. In these trying times, we are doing our best to stay connected with our DECO family, and we cannot wait to get back to in-person workshops. I believe this time has made us appreciate even the littlest things more than ever.

LK: You mentioned that the air-dry clay was the deciding factor in your career choice. Can you explain why?

YM: Through the years, my mother developed many techniques for clay basket weaving, figurines and wall pieces. The introduction of CLAYCRAFT by DECO Soft Clay was instrumental in expanding the possibilities of clay crafting. It’s ideal for creating lifelike flowers because it is lightweight and exceptionally durable. With this clay, I could do my thing and design courses, techniques and tools to make flowers that will last a lifetime. It is actually possible to make a rose with just your hands and a piece of this clay. It’s that easy. Anywhere, anytime, you are able to work with this clay. It doesn’t require much space, and I am even known to craft on flights. 

LK: What is one of your proudest accomplishments?

YM: I must say it is our 40th anniversary events, especially the online exhibition and collaboration orchid arch. This was a team effort, and I am so proud of what we accomplished. Teamwork really does make the dream work! 

LK: Can you share any plans on future projects?

YM: Every year, we introduce new skills and classes. We will soon begin teaching our new Spring seasonal classes. We are working on a Home Decor lesson series and adding to our Skill-Up lessons as well. The ideas keep coming and we have no intentions of slowing down. I actually feel like we are just getting started after 40 years! 

A future plan that we have been dreaming of and have kept secret for many years is taking DECO to the Big Island to expand our footprint and have a space to offer more gatherings, including retreats for our local community and DECO members from Japan and around the world. This plan really excites us and gets us up early each morning to get a head start. The nature of Hawai‘i has been such an inspiration and blessing for us. We hope that we can share this and give back the support we have received.

Made almost entirely of clay, “Ukifune” is the enchanting creation of Akemi Shiga, an artist who specializes in Japanese dolls.

LK: Do you have advice for someone starting a business in Hawaii?

YM: Show appreciation for everything you see and feel. Smile, be kind, be generous and help others always. Acts of kindness go a long way in these islands. I believe human connections are an important ingredient of success. 

LK: What is the most fulfilling aspect of your career?

YM: I truly would say it is the opportunities that I have had meeting so many wonderful people. And I get to make beautiful flowers 15 hours a day!

The elegant “Bitter na Hanayagi” (Bitter Gorgeous) is an impressive piece by Atsuko Uenishi, a DECO certified instructor for almost 30 years.

The Wonderful World of DECO

I believe the beauty and appeal of DECO clay art is timeless. Unlike real flowers, the blooms never wilt or fade, decorative wagashi (Japanese sweets) and other food items always stay fresh, and figurines remain in pristine condition. A closer look reveals the intricate details that showcase the artist’s imagination, creativity and skill. Stepping back to see the bigger picture, DECO Clay Craft Academy inspires people with the intriguing possibilities and versatility of clay crafting. Whether a person takes classes to learn something new or to become a certified instructor pursuing a dream, there is no question that creating your own unique work of art brings much joy and satisfaction. In the years ahead, exciting new plans and goals will unfold, adding to DECO’s impressive 40-year history of achievements.

Note: For more information about the DECO Clay Craft Academy visit their website decoclay.com. You can view the academy’s virtual 40th anniversary celebration on the DECO Clay Craft Academy YouTube channel, youtube.com/channel/UC3LfQnrOjugiU-mwsEjOLog.  

Lois’s interest in Japan started with J-pop and martial arts shows. Her decision to study Japanese led to teaching English in Hamamatsu. She enjoys singing and doing creative projects.

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