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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.
Toshiko Takaezu 1922–2011
Toshiko Takaezu, distinguished American ceramic artist and teacher, was born in Hawaii in 1922. She is celebrated as a driving force in the development of the modern ceramic art philosophy that seeks to elevate the product of a potter’s craft from utilitarian vessel to fine art.
The sixth of eleven children, Toshiko Takaezu (pronounced Toe-SHEE-ko Taka-YAY-zoo) was the daughter of Japanese immigrants who emigrated from Okinawa to Pekeekeo, Hawaii. Her art training began in the early 1940s with Saturday painting classes at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. During these early years, she worked with commercial ceramic firms producing press mold pieces. It was through this work that she met Claude Horan, founder of the ceramics program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. At Horan’s encouragement, Takaezu enrolled at the University – the first step in her formal artistic training.
In 1951, Takaezu was accepted to the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of the Arts in Bloomfield Hills, MI. In her third year, she accepted the position of teaching assistant to Finnish ceramic artist Maija Grotell. An excellent teacher with a knack for experimenting with glazes, Grotell had a profound influence on Takaezu’s work and encouraged her to find her own voice as an artist. After graduating, she went abroad in 1955 to explore her Japanese heritage, including the study of the tea ceremony and Zen Buddhism. While there, she studied the techniques and aesthetics of renowned artists Toyo Kaneshige and Yagi Kazuo, among others.
Takaezu’s clay pots evolved from functional vessels to abstract sculptural “forms” (as she called her works). An affinity for painting led the artist to create her first “closed form” works, as these vessels provided a larger surface on which to apply glaze. This became her signature: vessels with nearly closed-off tops, just open enough to allow gasses to escape during the firing process. Takaezu also began to add “rattles” to her pieces while they were still wet on the wheel before enclosing them completely. She would wrap each in a bit of newspaper first, which she thought of as “sending a message” to the inner space of the piece as she dropped it in. After the piece was fired, and one picked it up, it was Takaezu’s intention to give the handler an unexpected sensory experience.
Throughout her career, Takaezu continued to experiment. She threw squat ball-shaped vessels that she called “moon pots”; vertical forms, and ceramic “tree trunks”. In many of her later works, the artist closed the top of her vessels, removing the vent from view by placing it at the bottom of the form. Takaezu also experimented with the application of glazes, brushing free-hand and creating layers by employing a drip or spray method while she moved around the piece, producing painterly, abstract and serendipitous results. Further, she embraced the element of chance in the firing and believed her kiln was an important influence in the creation of the work, with a will or mind of its own that she couldn’t control and even liked to be surprised by.
Takaezu was a renowned teacher who worked in academia throughout her life, at Cranbrook Academy in Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, the Cleveland Institute of Art, and Princeton University, where she taught until her retirement in 1992. She approached art as she approached life, with a reverence for the natural world. For her, the practice of creating clay vessels was closely tied to everyday life: “In my life I see no difference between making pots, cooking, and growing vegetables,” Takaezu once said, “They are all so related… I get so much joy from working in clay, and it gives me many answers in my life.”
Learn More: Films & Videos
Potters of the USA, Part II (1969)
Artists of Hawai'i, Show #8 (1984)
Toshiko Takaezu: Portrait of an Artist (1993)
Toshiko Takaezu: In the Stars (2006)
An Interview with Toshiko Takaezu (2009)
Remembering Toshiko (2011)
A Personal Process (2018)
Toshiko Takaezu Foundation
Oral History Interview (Archive of American Art)