Inside Ayumi Horie’s historic home, there are brilliant pink walls and vintage massage chairs, pottery of all shapes and sizes, and bricks that are destined to grace the streets of Portland. It’s a place where old meets new, east meets west, and the everyday is made exceptional.
Ceramic artist Ayumi Horie lives in a historic house just off the peninsula with her fiancée, Chloe Beaven. You may have passed their home while driving, or maybe you’ve noticed the weathered gray Tate House Museum (the only pre-Revolutionary War house still standing in Portland, it’s a hard-to-miss relic of early America). Horie’s home and studio sit nearby, on top of a hill. Her yard is shaded by lilacs and in late spring is scented with their inimitable fragrance, and the surrounding fields roll slowly down to the Stroudwater River. From the outside, this house looks rather like the Tate—old, stately, and refined, with the typical New England reserve.
If you approach after dark, Horie tells me, you’ll see something entirely different. “It looks like a brothel at night,” she says with a quiet smile. This isn’t a reflection of her entertainment choices, but rather of the unusual hue of her walls. It’s a shade that’s brighter than blush yet more sophisticated than bubblegum. Pink doesn’t quite cover it. I read once that the more expensive a color is, the more difficult it is to describe. Judging on that metric, this might be the most expensive pink to ever grace a wall.
The complex understanding of color is a thread that weaves all through Horie’s work, even her seemingly simple white-on-white porcelain pieces, which she describes as “un-photographable” due to the extremely subtle variations in color. As we stand in her studio, I marvel at the variety of work Horie has on display. Unfinished wooden shelves reach from floor to ceiling, holding mugs, plates, platters, and more. Unlike the rest of her house, the studio feels extremely utilitarian. It smells earthy and the air is warm from her kiln, a sweet baking heat that feels dry against my skin.
“My style has evolved greatly over the course of 20 years,” Horie says, holding up a recently finished mug, decorated with a bird singing and confetti-like bursts of color. “Hopefully it’s gotten more and more interesting. I’ve become less inclined to render something true to life, and more interested in trying to elicit an emotion.” One of the ways Horie does this is by integrating her own drawings into her ceramic pieces: pictures of cartoonish birds and beasts, inspired equally by natural history illustrations and Japanese manga. “By drawing cute things, kawaii things, I want to elicit a kind of softness in people,” she says. The impulse toward softness is also what compels her to leave fingerprints on her ceramics, evidence that the clay has been shaped by human hands, touched by another person. “I feel like that is part of what people crave these days—a tangible connection to another human being,” she says.
While fingerprints and playful drawings add complexity to her pieces, I’m most struck by her bold and varied use of color, perhaps because it’s so visible throughout her artful home. She has red rooms and yellow rooms and pink hallways and inside them are pots and quilts and paintings of all colors. In her pomegranate-red living room, she has an old weathered end table that was rescued from a barn in Lewiston and a vintage Japanese massage chair that looks at once funny and vaguely frightening. Her home is filled with these moments of contrast, where old meets new or beauty meets strangeness. “When I first moved into the house, it felt very dour,” she says. “It was like a historical diorama. It needed—I don’t want to say feminine energy—but it needed richness, warmth. I often think the most successful color combinations use deep hues and pastels together. You can see these moments throughout the house, colors sandwiched together.” Downstairs, brilliant buttercup yellow gives way to pink and then deep red, while upstairs I spot vignettes of mint green and cobalt blue, tempered by soft grays and creams.
Horie’s unexpected paint choices work without overshadowing the bones of this old building. A modern makeover isn’t her goal. Horie’s respect for the history of her house is evident in the kitchen floorboards. Originally, these big old tapered boards were located in the attic, but during the course of recent renovations, Horie asked her carpenter, Greg Frangoulis, to repurpose the old timbers. Centuries old, they still bear the mark of the builder, a little brand burnt into the logs. “Rather than feeling confined by some kind of historical accuracy, I found it much more interesting to pick something that would interact with the woodwork,” says Horie of her paint choices. “To me, the house is one big pot. It’s a big ceramic creation. I wanted to be free about making aesthetic decisions in the same way that I’m free to put colors all over my pots.” The result is a home that feels free and light, filled with energy and warmth and art.
The marriage of old and new is something Horie explores in much of her work (and in her fascinating Instagram feeds and projects) but the theme is particularly well articulated in the Portland Brick project. A place-based art installation created in collaboration with artist and storyteller Elise Pepple, the project was born when Horie felt her foot snag on a brick in downtown Portland. “I started looking at the city repairs, and they looked like scars,” explains Horie. These gashes in the cityscape are caused by the freeze-thaw cycle (and the brutal necessity of snowplows). You see this all over Maine, places where water has frozen and expanded, tearing apart roads and sidewalks, piece by piece. “There was nothing beautiful about the way the city repaired these potholes. Being half-Japanese, I come from a tradition that has created an entire aesthetic around keeping something alive, like for example, in kintsugi.” In kintsugi pottery, gold lacquer is used to repair a broken object, mending the break while beautifying the piece. “You can see the history of the object’s life,” says Horie. “The act of repair becomes art. I wanted the city to be like this, also.”
To that end, Horie has been creating handmade bricks. She harvests clay from her Stroudwater River property, which she refines, removing all twigs and debris, before shaping the clay into bricks and kiln-drying them in her studio. Each brick is stamped with hand-lettered text that tells a short story about the community or a wish for the future, submitted by Portland residents. These bricks will find their home in the India Street neighborhood in downtown Portland, repairing the gaps left behind by our harsh winters. Like the colors in her home, these bricks bridge the gap between old and new. They mend the streets in ways both literal and figurative. They offer small, tangible moments of connection to visitors looking down at the sidewalk below.
Throughout my visit to Horie’s home, I notice these small moments, seemingly humble things turned artful under her dexterous hands. There are bowls of bright red cherries on the counter and antique farm tools hung on the wall. There is a little playhouse outside made entirely of stacked wood, complete with windows and a little pitched roof. I ask Horie if she seeks to imbue every element of her life with her own aesthetic sense, and for a moment, she looks puzzled. “I suppose I can’t help but think about those things as I live my day-to-day life,” she says, thoughtfully. “If you’re an artist, you’ve been looking at things your entire life and honing your aesthetic. Whether it’s through your art or the gutters you choose to put on your house or the clothes you choose to put on your body, every choice is an aesthetic problem.” For Horie, the answers to these aesthetic questions are easily found (“It’s a gut sensation,” she says). She seeks out what feels right, what humble thing will bridge a distance of time or mend what has been broken. Each small act of arrangement contributes to the overall beauty of her Maine life.
“Small things can be so important,” she says. “They can turn a good thing into an amazing thing.” From fingerprints on a pot to wood stacked like a playhouse, these little details point to a larger picture: one of integrity and wondrous beauty.