Pots without purpose: Toshiko Takaezu’s ceramics

by Amy Kingsley

The artist sat near her “Lemon Moon,” a yellow globe positioned in front of a shaggy blue background. In this miniature universe, wearing an olive ensemble and sensible shoes, the 85-year-old Toshiko Takaezu looked every bit the part of venerable Earth Mother.

Which in a sense is exactly what she was – reigning there over a world of her creation.

“In my life I see no difference between making pots, cooking and growing vegetables,” she said. “They are all so related.”

Takaezu was in town for the opening of an exhibition of her work at the Green Hill Center for North Carolina Art. The show, an expanded version of a 2006 exhibit at the Japanese American Gallery in Los Angeles, is an overview of Takaezu’s career, and the Green Hill is the show’s only East Coast venue.

Takaezu is not a native of North Carolina; she grew up in Hawaii, the child of Japanese immigrants. She studied at Cranbrook Academy and taught for years at Princeton University. But in addition to serving as a retrospective of her work, the Green Hill show highlights Takaezu’s tenure during the 1960s and ’70s as an instructor at the Penland School of Crafts and UNCG. It is the only complete collection of the artist’s work, and the Green Hill Center show even includes some of her textile pieces, which were not shown in Los Angeles.

It’s a big deal. Big enough for a three-month stand at the Cultural Arts Center’s flagship gallery during the height of gallery season.

And for good reason. Takaezu is one of this country’s most important living ceramicists, known for nudging ceramics out of the realm of craft with the simple but revolutionary act of closing her forms. The transformation started with a teapot.

“Gradually I made a teapot with a bird in mind,” she said. “It turned into one whole piece, and I realized that closed form was the answer.”

Closed forms, most often in the shape of beehives, became Takaezu’s hallmark. They define her oeuvre.

Just past the semicircle of people who enclosed the sculptor stood a prime if oversized example. “Fuyu,” a four-foot tall sculpture cast in the shape of an Edison bulb, represented the culmination of Takaezu’s quest for artistic identity. The form was large and organic, glazed with layers of ivory, pinks and grays.

Takaezu’s closed forms default toward a watermelon shape, and range from the size of a coconut to pieces like “Fuyu” large enough to contain the artist herself. Most of the pieces wear several glaze hues, from midnight blues spiked with yellow to shades of gray.

“My work is really a three-dimensional painting,” she said. “I am not doing the same thing over and over again, these pieces are all different.”

Some are more different than others. The “Three Graces,” a 2002 work, resembled magnified versions of the old Fisher Price Little People. They are simplified human forms, stripped to their essence.

The “Forest” series included tall ceramic spindles that looked like bamboo shoots or knotted narrow trunks. Three of the figures, out of two-dozen Takaezu sculpted, ascended from a bed of smooth river rocks.

Takaezu’s ceramics are made for more than gazing. Sometimes the artist drops pieces of ceramic wrapped in newspaper into the center of a closed form, a habit she developed after mistakenly leaving a chunk of stoneware inside one of her forms. She encourages her students to feel the texture of her work.

“I tell students ‘If you get caught touching, just smile,'” she said.

Some of Takaezu’s functional works are also on display at the gallery, including a set of porcelain bowls inspired by her study of Japanese tea ceremonies. Their colors shift with the light. They are lovely, symmetrical vessels. But they are not the pieces most of Takaezu’s admirers came to inspect.

The artist gestures to one of her hives.

“What is that form?” she asks. “Well, you can’t put anything in and you can’t take anything out.”

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