I AM Tokyo, a popular gallery space in Higashi-Nagasaki near Ikebukuro, has for a few years now been a champion of both emerging and celebrated artists, mainly from Japan and Australia. The gallery’s roster of artists includes Mayumi Yamase, Addition Studio, Sophia Emmett, Elnaz Nourizadeh and, for the next three months, can include acclaimed Californian ceramicist Sherry Olsen as one of its own.  

I AM Tokyo is a “cultural kiosk” run by Rie and Vaughan Allison, who also own the nearby coffee shop Mia Mia, which has become something of a cultural hub for locals and visitors alike. With the initial aim of showcasing Australian artists, Melburnian Vaughan has since expanded his artistic horizons. This has included inviting Olsen, who has seen her star ascend over the years due to her beautifully crafted ceramics and her artistic oeuvre that now includes painting, printmaking and sculpting. 

Olsen has also been heavily involved with superstar chef Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California and is responsible for the restaurant and some other of Waters’ projects. We recently spoke to Olsen about her passion for Japan, her work and her long-standing artistic relationship with Waters. 

Sherry Olsen photographed by Kathrin Miller

How would you describe the aesthetic of your work?

Someone walked into a show I was having in a gallery in San Francisco and said ‘It looks like a child who knows what they are doing.’ I think that person nailed it. I never went to art school. I just made art from the time I was very young. At 4, I could always be found in my room drawing pictures (mostly of women in big dresses), so my aesthetic was left to grow organically. I’ve always loved naïve art, Art Brut, the art of children and the untrained. It just moves me more than a technically perfect oil painting does, for example. 

What are you currently working on? 

I am working on the design of two restaurants  one Indian and one Italian. And I am opening my own tiny beer garden. Stay tuned. In between design jobs, I am always painting, printmaking and sculpting with clay. 

What should people who visit I AM Tokyo over the next few months expect from your work?

Lovingly handmade necklaces that can be hung on your wall when they aren’t around your neck.

Does Japan or Japanese culture affect your work?

I am a huge Minä Perhonen-Akira Minagawa fangirl. Visiting some of his shops while I was in Japan was a thrill. I could move in and live there. Or I could live in Tokoname with Minä Perhonen upholstery on all my chairs. I would have to open a taco stand though, because I would miss Mexican food too much. Also, there is a thread connecting Scandinavian and Japanese design a simplicity and a love for materials. Both influence me.

Is your work available at any other location in Japan? 

Not currently. I have had my work in Fog Linen Work, Farmer’s Table and Hi Monsieur, all located in Tokyo.

Could you tell us about your necklaces and plates?

The plates came first. I wanted to be able to stay home and paint for a living, so I decided to make useful things, such as plates, cups and bowls. Later, I began sculpting for my own pleasure, and to have something new to look at when I opened the kiln. With the leftover clay, I rolled beads, some of which I made into necklaces. A few of those necklaces traveled to Japan to be sold in Hi Monsieur, where Vaughan bought one. I think it has been around his neck ever since.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

I love to sit down with materials and let the creative process happen. I work in clay, watercolor, ink, paper, found objects whatever is at hand. Printmaking is my favorite way to make art and I‘m endeavoring to become better at it.

How did you start working with Alice Waters and Chez Panisse?

I met Alice in a roundabout way. Friends of mine opened a beautiful French restaurant in San Francisco in the early 2000s. I did all the artwork, graphics and plates and they paid me in food. I invited a friend, who asked if she could bring a friend  that friend was Alice Waters. When the restaurant found out she was coming, there was a comical hysteria to their preparation as they’d only just opened. Alice invited friends as well and it became a remarkable, spontaneous, all-women dinner party. The restaurant didn’t have a liquor license, but Alice had wine in the trunk of her car, which I thought was very cool.

From that first meeting, a friendship and a working relationship grew. I’ve done research for her memoir, photo editing on her book, The Power of Gathering, a parade for the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse, banners for the 50th anniversary of Chez Panisse, worked on the decor of the restaurant and on her home. She loves to work with artists she truly values them. 

One of the things I’m proudest of is my organization of her cookbooks, which I sorted by region, starting with France, which is where she awakened to food in a way that would change her life and many other lives. The books are arranged geographically around the library off her kitchen, with the shelf nearest the kitchen holding the cookbooks she’s currently inspired by and using most. Elizabeth David gets her own section, as do James Beard, Julia Child and Richard Olney. There’s an easily accessed shelf of extra special cookbooks to grab if there’s a fire.

The exhibition at I AM Tokyo runs from August 5 to October 29.

Check for more information on Instagram and the gallery’s website