Craft and Friendship

Toshiko Takaezu's New Jersey studio, undated. Toshiko Takaezu papers, 1937-2010. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Richard Francis was an award-winning cinematographer and an artist in his own right. He met Toshiko Takaezu while he was filming a documentary related to the now legendary Objects: USA exhibition entitled With These Hands for ABC in 1970. It is a sensitive and intimate portrait of several American artists, including Toshiko, showing them at work and exploring their individual creative processes. Thus began a life-long friendship between Toshiko and Richard, who had enormous respect for one another’s talent and their respective crafts. 

This vase, as well as other pieces from Richard’s collection, were given by him to his close friend several years ago. One of the highlights of the consignor’s adventures with Richard was their frequent visits with Toshiko. Her studio was close to Richard’s country home in Hunterdon County and it was an ideal day trip by bicycle through back roads and idyllic farmland. Over the years and after numerous visits, Richard began collecting many of her works, his most prized being the present monumental vase created by Toshiko in her Clinton, NJ studio around 1964 or 1965. Richard treasured this piece, displaying it dramatically atop a spiral staircase in his New York apartment.

The present owner holds dear her memories of visiting Toshiko with Richard. She vividly recalls the artist’s peaceful home, her gorgeous garden—well-organized and colorful like a tapestry—and Toshiko’s warm, friendly manner. It is her hope that this work will find a new home with those who appreciate and treasure Toshiko’s vision, artistic sensibility, and deep spirituality.

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.

Toshiko Takaezu

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.”