|Born||June 17 1922|
|Died||March 9 2011|
|Birth Location||Pepeekeo, Hawai'i|
Toshiko Takaezu (1922-2011) was one of America's foremost ceramic artists and a highly regarded teacher of ceramics. She was credited with being one of the key figures in the mid-century transformation of ceramics from craft to fine art.
Toshiko Takaezu was born in Pepeekeo, a small sugar plantation town on the Hamakua coast of the island of Hawai'i, just north of Hilo. Her parents, Shinsa and Kama Takaezu, were immigrants from Japan. She spent the first nine years of her life in Pepeekeo, after which the family moved to Maui, settling in the Kula area. Kula, on the lower slopes of the dormant Haleakala volcano, enjoyed a relatively cool climate that was conducive to farming. The Takaezu family farmed there. The sixth of eleven children, Toshiko's first language was Japanese. As was the case for many other Nisei, she first learned English when she began grammar school.
After finishing high school on Maui, Toshiko moved to Honolulu in 1940 at the age of 18, living with her sisters. She soon took a job working for Hugh and Lita Gantt's Hawaii Potter's Guild, a commercial pottery firm. She remained there through the war years, despite the strictures Japanese Americans faced under martial law. Her first ceramic works were thus commercial pieces made from press molds. While working for the Gantts, she met Carl Massa, a potter who was stationed in Hawai'i while with the army. He inspired her to read and seek a creative life, while giving her lessons in sculpture. This led to her enrolling in the Saturday painting classes at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, studying with Louis Pohl and Ralston Crawford.
After five years working for the Gantts, she took a job with another commercial ceramics firm. There, she met Claude Horan, who taught ceramics at the University of Hawai'i. With his encouragement, she enrolled at the university to study with him. She also studied design, art history and weaving, the latter with Hester Robinson. She would remain interested in textiles throughout her career. As she gained knowledge, she began to teach ceramics herself, first at the Richards St. YWCA in Honolulu, then at a grade school in the Manoa section of Honolulu. She found she enjoyed teaching immensely but found that she needed more training to be effective. This led to a decision to go to the mainland to seek further study in 1951.
After considering several institutions, she enrolled at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. She had a difficult time at first and even considered quitting in her first year. However, she did well in school and was named the outstanding first year student. She also found a mentor and friend in Finnish ceramicist Majia Grotell. She would eventually become Grotell's primary assistant. "She emphasized the importance of personal expression and helped her students to find their own identities," Takaezu wrote in 1977. "We are all unique individuals, and this should be expressed in our work, she used to say." Takaezu also studied sculpture with Bill McVey and weaving with Marianne Strengell. While at Cranbrook, she also met Bernard Leach, one of the era's most acclaimed ceramicists. An expert on Asian ceramics, Leach was a key influence on Takaezu's later work. She later taught summer sessions at Cranbrook from 1954 to 1956.
The other key development in her education was her trip to Japan, taken with her mother and sister in October 1955, beginning in Okinawa, where her mother hailed from. Takaezu ended up staying in Japan for eight months, studying with well-known Japanese potters Toyo Kaneshige and Shoji Hamada, along with folk potters in Okinawa and elsewhere. "After my return from the Orient," she wrote, "I tried to incorporate and synthesize the subtle Eastern tradition with a more personal expression of our world here in the Occident."
After finishing at Cranbrook in 1954, she took a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin for the 1954-55 academic year. But after her return from Japan, she took a job at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1956, becoming the head of their ceramics department, a position she would hold until 1964. The Cleveland Institute of Art was one of the country's leading craft programs at the time, in an era when craft education in general was beginning to be seen as increasingly important for art students.
Her own work in the 1950s was undergoing a key transformation. Her work gradually moved from utilitarian objects such at teapots and cups towards objects with no practical function that began to approach sculpture in their ability to convey more abstract ideas. Her signature form became the rounded, bottle-like form whose top had been almost completely closed off. Only a small nipple-like opening at the top remained, which allowed gasses to escape during firing. Many variations of this basic form followed in various sizes, colors, and materials. But there was no true break from tradition, as Takaezu continued to make plates and cups and also continued to paint and to make rugs from various mostly natural materials.
As with abstract expressionist painters, Takaezu's work allows for and embraces chance. Her glazes often involved splashing and pouring techniques that produced unintended effects, as with action painting. And the very act of firing pottery produced accidental effects. But rather than throwing out pieces that didn't turn out as expected, she often embraced these effects. "As we have no absolute control, an unexpected, controlled-accidental element enters," she wrote. "Many times it can add a lot, and it is the most exciting moment always—the opening of the kiln."
Acclaim and Teaching
In 1964, she received a Tiffany Foundation Grant, which allowed her to go on an extended leave from teaching. While on leave, she established a studio in Clinton, New Jersey. She eventually decided to make the leave permanent, and left her job, teaching workshops around the country while setting up her studio. In 1967, she took a faculty position at nearby Princeton University, where she would remain until 1992. In 1975, she moved to larger home and studio space in Quakertown, New Jersey, where she remains. Both residences had ample space not only for her ceramic work, but for flower and vegetable gardens that were her other passion. Though she once considered having a family, she told Tomi Kaizawa Knaefler in the 1980s, "... but I wasn't lucky in finding the right father for my children. Maybe I was afraid to find the right person. It takes the right combination to make it possible to have a family and to do your work as well. Maybe it was just not meant to be."
While gaining increasing acclaim for her work in the '60s and '70s, she remained dedicated to teaching. She trained a succession of apprentices who lived with her in her studio and who took part in every aspect of her life and work, from gardening to cleaning to social events. Said to be warm and sensitive as a teacher, she also demanded a strict work ethic, which not all of her students could respond to.
Her work continued to develop and change. In the mid-1960s, she began making what she called "moon forms," closed, spherical ceramic pots with the vent completely removed. (The vent was at the bottom, hidden from view.) One, titled Gaea, was a series of four such pots which are arranged on hammocks. She also began making tree forms which were sometimes assembled in groups with titles such as Lava Forest or Tree-Man Forest. The latter, a series of seven such forms in a field of crushed rock, included some that reached over eight feet in height. In the 1980s, she began to experiment with handbuilt (rather than thrown) forms such as "hearts" and "torsos," which, as the names indicate, suggest human and lifelike allusions. Also in the '80s came works sculpted from bronze, with forms reminiscent of her ceramic work, but also some forms that would be impossible in clay. In the 1990s, access to a larger kiln at Skidmore College in Saratoga, New York has led to larger and more complex forms of both the thrown and built variety, with elemental sounding names such as Field of Lava, Oil of the Earth, and Birth. For pieces like these, she worked on a scaffolding that is raised as the piece grows.
By the 1980s, she was regarded as one of the world's foremost ceramic artists. One culmination of her status was her being awarded the Dickinson Collge Art Award for 1982-83. Awarded only twelve times previously, previous recipients included poet Robert Frost and architect Eero Saarinen. Takaezu created more than 100 new pieces for an exhibition accompanying the award ceremony. In 1993, the major Honolulu art museums collaborated to put on an overarching career retrospective. A 1995 exhibition originating at the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto toured Japan, while the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted "The Poetry of Clay: The Art of Toshiko Takaezu" in 2004.
She retired from her Princeton position in 1992, but continued to live in New Jersey, though she made frequent trips to Hawai'i to visit family and friends to teach adult classes at the Richards YMCA, where the ceramics studio is named after her. She spent her last years in Honolulu, where she passed away at the age of 88 in 2011.
For More Information
Artists of Hawaii, part 8: Toshiko Takaezu. Video. Produced by Ed McNulty, directed and edited by Bob Barnett, written and narrated by Devon Guard, content advisor, Stanley Yamamoto. "A production of the Hawaii State Department of Education," 1984.
Clarke, Joan, and Diane Dods, eds. Artists/Hawaii. Dana Edmunds, photographer. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.
Grimes, William. "Toshiko Takaezu, Ceramic Artist, Dies at 88." New York Times, March 19, 2011.
Held, Peter, ed. The Art of Toshiko Takaezu: In the Language of Silence. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
Hurley, Joseph. "Toshiko Takaezu: Ceremics of Serenity." American Craft (Oct.-Nov. 1979): 2-9.
Lueras, Leonard, ed. Kanyaku Imin: A Hundred Years of Japanese Life in Hawaii. Honolulu: International Savings and Loan Association Ltd., 1985.
Toshiko Takaezu. Exhibition brochure. Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts and The Contemporary Museum, 1993.
Turnbull, Murray, ed. Artists of Hawaii, Volume Two. Photographs and Interviews by Francis Haar. Honolulu: The State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and the University Press of Hawaii, 1977.
Wechsler, Jeffrey, ed. Asian Traditions Modern Expressions: Asian American Artists and Abstraction, 1945-1970. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997.
Yake, J. Stanley. Toshiko Takaezu: The Earth is In Bloom. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006.