Family Remembrance

Fred and Mary Buskirk with Toshiko Takaezu (center)

Fred and Mary Buskirk’s friendship with Toshiko Takaezu began in Cleveland. Fred completed his Ph.D. in physics at Case Western Reserve University and Mary Balzer moved to Cleveland in 1956 after finishing her masters in weaving at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Mary and Toshiko became acquainted at Cranbrook, but grew much closer after Mary took a position teaching weaving at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where Toshiko was already a member of the ceramics faculty. The two women wound up living in apartments across the street from one another and, after Fred took a room nearby, all three were part of a group of friends who frequently dined together in each other’s homes. Much of Fred and Mary’s collection was purchased at that time, but at least one or two bowls arrived bearing food and never left. Others were formal presents (both then and later), and Mary’s artistic records list weavings that she in turn gave to Toshiko. 

According to family lore, Toshiko joined Mary and Fred for part of one cross-country road trip (when they were returning from a 1959 physics post-doc in Boulder, Colorado). They were able to make just enough room in the car for a third person, so when Toshiko came across a Native American pot at Charlie Eagle Plume’s Trading Post that she couldn’t pass up, she had to carry it during the rest of the trip east in the only space remaining: her lap.

Although Fred and Mary moved to California in 1960, they kept in frequent touch with Toshiko and visited back and forth on multiple occasions. During one trip to Monterey in the 1970s, Toshiko designated the arrangement for a group of square plates Mary and Fred had acquired earlier, which were mounted under her supervision on a support fabricated by Fred. The family connection continued with Mary and Fred’s younger daughter, Janet, herself a potter in Portland, OR, who spent time with Toshiko in conjunction with annual workshops Toshiko conducted at Lewis and Clark College over a number of years during the 1980s and 90s. 

—Martha Buskirk, Fred and Mary's daughter

Rago is honored to present works fresh to the secondary market from the Buskirk's collection. Mary Balzer Buskirk was an accomplished weaver and some of her works can be seen at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles.

Toshiko Takaezu

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.”

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