Toshiko Takaezu by Tony Ferguson 2005©
“When I was a small girl in Hawaii I was fascinated by my shadow because it was taller than I”--Toshiko Takaezu (Gerry, 26).
It was at the national museum in Washington where I came upon a huge monolithic form. It was unlike anything I had ever seen with the closest feeling being associated to the rock formations in nature, a mother’s breast, a zucchini I held in my grandpa‘s garden as a kid. This form was at least 6 feet tall, bulbous, a ceramic form with splashes of color contrasting to the under-layment of a beautiful skin like clay body. It was simply powerful, austere, yet possessed something ancient like an old oak tree, an unsaid quality of wisdom. “Who created this?” I thought.
I was 19 years old when I first saw the work of Toshiko Takaezu. I also saw her work at the Perimeter gallery in Chicago and again was awed and inspired. In both cases, I remember how the shear scale of the work felt to me--its size looming, feeling firmly connected to the earth, and very feminine, powerful, femalely phallic, a breast thrusting into the air. It was, as an abstract expressionist work of art, one of the most impressive works in the museum. I returned to it more than once during my few days visit at the museum. At that time my hands had not even touched clay and yet I was profoundly affected by her work. I think the shear scale, when something is as big or bigger than yourself, forces you to relate to the work in a completely different way than something your own physical form can envelop. It is the work and the artist, her attention to the “interior” of the form, her approach to teaching students about work and the creative process that continue to inspire me and have me write this paper on Toshiko Takeazu, modern ceramic master and national living treasure.
From palm sized to over 6 feet tall, it is with out a doubt the ceramic work of Toshiko Takeazu will have lasting effect on the ceramic world, students, and artists for generations come. For over 50 years she has been creating ceramic works, instructed students, given workshops and exhibited around the world.
Born to Japanese parents in Pepekeo, Hawaii in 1922, Toshiko studied art at the Honolulu School of Art (1948-51) and at the University of Hawaii. At this time Toshiko discovered the work of Maija Grotell, who said of ceramics as an art form, could be equal to painting or sculpture. Toshiko saw a picture of Grotell‘s work in a magazine and saw something “very strong and beautiful about it“ and felt the need to go and learn from her at Cranbrook Academy (1951-54) of Art in Michigan (Meade-Hajduk, 46). During her three years she learned an approach to pottery, a process from Maija that focused on the individuality of the artist. Toshiko tells us about her first involvement with clay, “I found it had so many possibilities. To be able to carry out my ideas, to make anything good, I had to have technique and discipline. I have disciplined myself in many ways in order to achieve my ideas. What is most important is to keep on working--you can’t wait for inspiration because that may never come. Inspiration most often comes when I begin to work” (Streetman, 34). Of her experience at Cranbrook, Toshiko said, “’Hawai’i was where I learned technique; Cranbrook was where I found myself‘” (Sewell, 42). While at Cranbrook she also worked in weaving and pottery and studied sculpture with William McVey. There she began her teaching career.
As a teacher, Toshiko has influenced and taught hundreds of students over the years. No doubt influenced by Maija, Toshiko developed a teaching style which emphasized the individual’s original thinking and skill development to manifest the idea. Susan Meyer, in her interview with Toshiko tells us that “she feels that her function as a teacher is to help the student retain the vigor and originality of his thinking. If a student ails to achieve an idea because he lacks the skill, she will help build the technical skill so that he may be able to realize his concept in the future. She avoids imposing her criteria on a student’s work so that he may develop his own sense of judgment and discover his own solutions” (47).
After graduating in 1954 from Cranbrook, Toshiko explored her cultural heritage and the rich Japanese ceramic culture for 8 months in Japan. She lived in a Zen Buddhist Monastery, studied tea ceremony, and visited Japanese artists Toyo Kaneshige, Shoji Hamada and Rosanjin Kitaoji. Darell Sewell tells us in his interview with Toshiko that in the end, she discovered, “’its not the pottery, it’s just the East, its art and its philosophy,’” that were influential. “A creative spirit akin to that of Japanese folk art--its integration of art and life, its spontaneity and keen awareness of the nature of materials, and its conception of art-making as a process of self-realization--underlies one of Takaezu’s statements about her work: “’In my life I see no difference between making pots, cooking and growing vegetables. They are all related. However, there is a need for me to work in clay. It is so gratifying, and I get so much joy from it, and it gives me any answers for my life’” (43). Her teaching experience includes: Cranbrook Academy of Art (1954-56); University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1954-55; Cleveland Institute of Art, Ohio, 1955--64; Honolulu Academy of Arts, 1958-59; Princeton University, New Jersey, professor, 1967-92; Quakertown, New Jersey, studio artist, 1992-present. Toshiko has exhibited all over the world. A partial listing of her collections include Syracuse University, Detroit Institute of Art, Newark Museum, Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, Everson Museum to name a few.
Work of 1950’s
It is the tall closed forms of Toshiko’s work that she is mainly known for. And like Voulkos, Reitz and other contemporary ceramic artists, she started out making functional work. The 1950’s marks Toshiko’s experimentation with functional ware: tea pots and vases and the beginnings of her first reductionist forms. She also studied tea ceremony at this time and how to make tea bowls in her study of Japanese ceramics. With respect to artistic development, she tells us that “I wasn’t ready to make tea bowls. I had to wait until making tea bowls came naturally to me. I knew in time it would happen, and it did. It wasn’t a question of technique; it was the question of being ready as a person (Streetman, 34). In this period Toshiko also reduced thrown ceramic shapes to their basic roundness, almost closing them entirely, leaving traces of their functional origin through an opening at the top. These works became the “pre-cursors of the tapering and swelling, domed cylinders and irregular spheres for which she has become famous” (Meyer, 47). In addition, some other earlier works such as her single and double spouted bowls were essentially bud vases with painted decorations that suggested a flower or a bit of Japanese calligraphy.
Work of 1960’s
It is during the 1960’s we see work being created by Toshiko referred to as the “moonscape” series--large spherical shapes. In looking at images of the work and her studio, it is no doubt the artist receives her inspiration from the natural things in her garden. I am reminded of the Zen influence, of the awareness of nature and the desire to bring nature into the home as aspects of Japanese culture--it is prevalent in her work. I see pumpkins, full, bursting with natural linear curves sitting next to Toshiko’s pots in an image from her studio--possessing the same fullness, energy contained and yet trying to get out. Susan Meyer describes Toshiko’s “moonscape” series in 1960’s: “These pots are no ordinary globes; like the living things nearby, they are not geometrically perfect spheres. In fact, to Toshiko, symmetry is cold and mechanical, and she will deliberately distort a perfect form. She prefers to capture the essence of roundness; the idea of roundness; shapes that give the illusion of fullness. And if her studio resembles a garden, it is only because the curves of her pottery are the curves of all natural things--a green pepper; a beehive; the human figure itself” (43). These ovoid or cylindrical closed forms, round, boulder-like spheres called moons are also precursors to her latter vertical closed forms. This “moon” like body of work by most standards is very simple in form--the same kind of simplicity found in the forms she has received inspiration from: mellons, squash, pumpkins, the round forms from her garden. There is no impressed textural element in these forms. “Within the body of the clay itself you may see simply see the deliberate mark of her finger tips produced by the pot spinning beneath her hands on the wheel” (Meyer, 43).
Work of 1970’s-80’s
Toshiko’s sense of oneness with nature influences her pieces of this time period which resemble purified organic objects. When asked about her method of working at this time she replied, “I don’t move fast or drastically or change with the times or with what people are doing. I go at my own internal pace. Nothing is easy to get. What you believe in you must work for and not be influenced by the outside. You must try to listen to what you are yourself. I wasn’t aware of this when I was younger” (Hurley, 40). The “Forest” series, seven foot tall ceramic trunks winnowed down to their essence, or specifically “Tree-Man Forest” presents forms which were inspired by stands of volcano damaged trees she knew in Hawai’Ii. Until this time, Toshiko’s kilns were too small to accommodate the scale she wanted to achieve. These works and others of related form from this time period bear such titles as “Ceramic Forest” (70“ high), “Lava” (26“ diameter), and “Night” (26“). “Gaea” also represents a series of large orbs (the moon series scaled up) suspended in Honduran hammocks woven of natural colored string, suspending them in air, heavy with maternal cradling. This series, in suspension, came about from drying these large works in air--so they would dry evenly. When asked about this discovery, Toshiko responded “’They looked so good; it belonged there. I accepted its placement. I borrowed other hammocks and I had a group of hammocks with pots. It was fantastic‘” (Hurley, 39). Although Toshiko “has been criticized for adhering to her characteristic closed form with a small opening” the early 80’s mark the period of self-revelation where Toshiko found her own voice, her identity as an artist when she sealed her pots and developed her closed signature form (Cullen). The origin of the closed form came from tea pot. Toshiko relates the story:
“’About 1957 I started to make a teapot, but I turned it around and put a tail on it and made something like a wine bottle, yet it was almost like a bird form. Then gradually it became an abstract two spouted bottle. Finally I made one which, as I glazed it, began to resemble a mask. Then I decided to make a real mask pot with three spouts which looked like two eyes and a nose. It wasn’t practical, it was just a mask pot. Then the spouts became smaller and smaller until there was just one air hole at the top’” (Hurley, 5).
The basis of the closed form for which Toshiko is known for came from experimentation from a tea pot form. The 80’s also mark the time where she is giving the honor of designated National Living Treasure. It is also the time where she adds a sound element to her works by dropping a piece of clay wrapped in news paper before she closes the form to her work to give it a bell like quality. She will also at her discretion write messages and drop them inside the forms requiring them to be broken in the future to be read. The mid 1980’s also saw the hand built “Hearts” and “Torsos” and a series inspired from a Japanese folk tale entitled “Momo.”
Work of 1990’s to Today
During Takeazu’s “The Art of Toshiko Takeazu” exhibition 1997 at the American craft museum, the museum’s director Holly Hotchner stated “Takaezu is one of the most important ceramic artists working today. It is because her fork doesn’t fit into any artistic category, which is what makes it so wonderful. She comes from a functional craft tradition and then stretches the whole genre into the realm of painting and sculpture” (Strickland, 10). Genocchio writes “Sometimes Ms. Takaezu’s sculptures reflect a genuine interest in and reverence for archaic colors, textures and techniques used for making raku, Japanese molded tea ware, usually of irregular shape and texture. But the forms are so completely her own that any hint of imitation is banished. Each of her sculptures is a unique, fragile object of beauty, preserving the scars and heat of the kiln’s elemental collisions.“ From 1995 to 1997 Toshiko created a series called “Makaha Blue” where using her full repertoire of forms, utilize her dazzling blue glaze which “recalls the electric blue of the French conceptual artist Yves Klein (Glueck, 23). It is from the 90’s till now that we see the full culmination of an evolution from the utilitarian vessel to works that are purely sculptural--forms derived from nature, simple and direct. The color range of her work is from neutral hues to primary colors--and all exhibit a sense of unity. These works provide what Toshiko describes a natural pure form, “one which I enjoy and on which I could paint. I didn’t want a flat surface to work on, but a three-dimensional one” (Streetman, 33). The way Toshiko applies her glazes covers the full application spectrum: she brushes, drips, pours, dips and work with application glazes directly with her fingers. “She applies glaze with a boldness that refers both to Japanese calligraphy and modern action painting in its considered response to form” (Sewell, 45). Such colors range from layered glazes of deep, loamy forest colors to pink, peacock greens & yellow pastels, electric blues and peaches, subdued violets--colors from the natural world are transposed onto the earthly landscapes from which “other sculptors create patterns that have elements of landscapes. Takaezu’s patterns change the landscape” of her work (Gehman). It took Toshiko a long time “before glaze and form became one total and complete piece“ to arrive at the quality and essence of work (Streetman, 33). “Each work, no matter what its size, has a mood and presence capable of inspiring a variety of responses ranging from a direct visceral reaction to refined appraisal based on the aesthetics of Japanese ceramic connoisseurship” (Sewell, 46).
Like Peter Voulkos and other ceramic artists who came of age after World War II, Toshiko allowed ceramic artists to break away from the traditional views of clay as a utilitarian medium to explore the materials potential for aesthetic expression. Toshiko Takeazu has exhibited all over the world and continues to this day to have an impact on the ceramic world. Her desire for viewers to not only perceive but feel, touch, hear (the shaking of some her works which all emit a unique sound from the clay beads) and contemplate on the inner space, “the dark space” of her small to enormous works should forever be remembered. She reminds us “The most important part of a piece is the dark, black air space that you can’t see. Just as what’s inside each person is also the key to humanity” (Strickland, 10). I recall when Toshiko was asked if she considered herself to be an artist or a craftsperson. She replied, “To me an artist is someone quite special. You are not an artist simply because you paint or sculpt or make pots that cannot be used. An artist is a poet in his or her own medium. And when an artist produces a good piece, that work has mystery, an unsaid quality; it is alive. There is also a nebulous feeling in the piece that cannot be pinpointed in words. That to me is good work” (Streetman, 33-34). Toshiko represents an infusion of the East into West, exhibiting both aspects of an Eastern and Western culture manifested in her work and its evolution of not only form, but Zen Buddhist and Tao concepts of inner and outer space, spirit and our relationship to nature. When asked about the Japanese pottery tradition, she replied “You don’t hold onto this heritage because tradition can be deadening if one merely holds on to it--one has to go on’” (Lynn, 20).
I see the relationship between her culture, the influence of the East and Zen aesthetic, the abstract expressionist way of approaching the surface application and arrangement of glazes with the desire to bring people into a contemplative “interior space.” This is simply brilliant. When asked about the interior space is an all too familiar conversation recorded by Joy Colby takes place: “What can you use it for?” someone asks, looking doubtfully at one of her ceramics. “Nothing,” replies Takaezu…”You can’t put anything in this pot?” the questioner presses. “No” “You can’t take anything out?” “No.” “Then what’s the point?” “The point is that when you build these clay forms, you know about yourself” is Takaezu’s response. Enigmatic? Yes, but so is the art (Colby, 4E). There is no doubt that Toshiko’s sculptural vision was shaped by the Zen concepts of intuitive perception, the path of self discovery and simplification, which she no doubt “absorbed during a visit to Japan in her early career. That influence, realized in her early plate and vase ceramics, gradually evolved into a form which has become unmistakably her own--the closed form” (Resorts & Travel, 34). This arrival of the closed form not only carries with it a Zen philosophy but the humor of the Tao and its pathway of self discovery as these two are inseparable from the influence of chado, or tea ceremony, which had a tremendous impact on Japanese ceramics and culture as a whole.
I am intrigued by Toshiko’s natural evolution of arriving at the closed form, tit like, feminine, beautiful, non-functional, yet profoundly connected to the creative process and procreation. I like that she sees no difference between cooking, gardening, and working with clay. That everything has its own time frame of development. She tells us “I put a much energy into cooking and the garden as into making pots. All this is related. You plant a tiny seed and all these beautiful things happen. You can’t just throw a seed and say “grow.” Like anything else if you want to do it well, you have to get involved. You have to pull the weeds, feed and water the plants. You have to give attention and by sympathetic. You have to put part of yourself into it” (Strickland, 219).
I find it validating to learn about Toshiko and discover I have arrived at some of the same artistic conclusions of working in the creative process, of thinking on that which is not so easily observed with they eyes, that she wants people to look and see, and yet also feel and imagine what is within. Her attention, so notably the focus of Zen and Taoist paths, is to focus on nature and within the individual and the relationship between the human being and nature--that our lives are intertwined, that we evolve and repeat and return like the seasons. I see her works as abstractions of human bodies where arms, legs, our appendages are removed from abstraction, to the simple and basic torso form of the human being--where the outer body or form is not the primary focus of attention. She wants our attention to focus inward, to think on and contemplate that space which is in fact there, but can not be seen, like the spirit or soul. She uses the body of her work to generate a dialogue about something intangible. She is simply brilliant and humble, austere and profound. I will be a better artist for knowing her work. What she is getting at is about something greater than ourselves, something alive in a space that can not be seen with the eyes, and yet is a part of us all--something greater than ourselves.
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