A naked, coarsely-pocked body of red earth is draped with a lustrous sheen of settled ash. A slash of luminous cobalt cuts through the quiet ochre of limonite. A smooth, fine-pored torso of white shines under a kimono of pure melted color. It’s all common dirt, whose essence is expressed in uncommonly endless forms, colors and consistencies in the ceramic art of Toshiko Takaezu.
All ceramics is chemistry. And math. It is an art both physical and poetic, a dance between maker and emerging form, first with hands and lumpish grit and goop and then with every muscle registering the calibrations of wet and dry and elasticity and thickness and volume as the body of the clay expands.
Echoes of the Earth: Ceramics by Toshiko Takaezu is an exhibition at Hartnell College Gallery, and a monument to a master. A living treasure of the state of Hawaii, recipient of virtually every honor for ceramic art including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, Toshiko Takaezu is a diminutive Hawaiian woman of Japanese descent, now 85. As legends go, she’s very approachable.
In late 2006, Gary Smith, ceramic artist, teacher and founder-curator of the Hartnell College gallery, visited Takaezu in her Quakerstown, N.J. studio and home. He discovered that the elder artist was considering donating some of her important works to major museums. Although she was well-represented in prestigious East Coast institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Smith convinced the artist to consider donating to an increasingly important collection of contemporary American ceramics in the West, at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. He introduced her to Crocker curator Scott Shields. They reached a meeting of minds that resulted in this exhibition of 34 stunning pieces donated to the Crocker by Takaezu along with several works on loan from individuals.
Smith describes the artist’s home as “modest, with a wonderful garden.” Her most precious works were stored, along with vegetables from her garden, in the root cellar, where Smith was struck by the harmony of forms between her artwork and the other fruits of the earth. In the catalog for the exhibit he quotes her as saying, “In my life I see no difference between making pots, cooking and growing vegetables. They are all so related. However, there is a need for me to work in clay. It is so gratifying and I get so much joy from it, and it gives me many answers in my life.”
She calls them pots. Indeed the works standing tall and irregular or small and precious under plexiglass in the lofty gallery space of Hartnell share the provenance of the utilitarian vessels. Starting on a potter’s wheel or built from long snakes of clay, they grow under the maker’s hand, pulled from a wet lump of earth.
But these are vessels of Zen. They carry the weight of an idea. They are worlds in a grain of sand. On their surfaces are a wall’s worth of abstract expressionism reduced in size and given three dimensions. They project all the physicality of an “action painter” whose whole body is thrown into every brushstroke. Most reveal the ridges of the potter’s fingers, or show the indentations of the artist’s thumb. Takaezu’s seminal works are not open at all, but in a technical coup de grace, the clay walls – after stretching upwards and outwards – are brought abruptly inward again to meet at the axis, and pinched closed in a rude nipple. Thus Takaezu stood her ground with modern artists. No longer are these utilitarian works. “You can’t put anything in, and you can’t take anything out,” she would say, according to Smith.
What a world of power is compressed in an untitled 13-inch work – almost all are untitled – that rises and expands in girth from its first outward eruption from a sea of black, then intersected by a mountainous horizon of gray-green under an aurora of ochre, before the shape abruptly narrows to closure. The piece has no straight lines; the shape seems to hug the space inside as if the vessel contains some powerful force, as if it has been grown with treasure inside. Indeed, the artist often encloses a paper-wrapped ball of clay inside the shape before she closes it, so that the clay upon clay will ring when the piece is moved.
A 17-inch-tall “Heart Form” extends in an even oval upward from a rounded base to close at the crease of two lips at the top. A dense, flat, coal-black at the base ends in an irregular silhouette against a body of rich ashy brown. A sooty black shimmies in specs down the rounded slope of the walls, speaking of the lick of fire and smoke. The artist has cut a ragged, deep scar through the calm shape in a diagonal sweep, deeply black: a wound, a history.
Two of the artist’s famous “moons” are in this collection. One “Egg-Shaped Moon” is only 11-inches round but has a gigantic presence. On a thick, white-glazed stoneware body, the dark impression of burlap or some other coarse material textures the top; deep and irregular scarification travels the circumference; stretch marks create minute horizontal striations at the bottom. The top folds in on itself like some cloth sack closed for carrying. Much like a luminous white stone shining precious on a shore, this moon, and every work in this collection, draws the viewer to examine it in all its complexity, all its simplicity. Born of earth and water and finished in fire and air, it is indeed the very essence of the earth in all its flamboyant colors and forces, and in so honoring the materials, is the epitome of the ceramicist’s art.
Echoes Of The Earth: Ceramics by Toshiko Tazaezu continues at Hartnell College Gallery, 156 Homestead Ave., Salinas through Oct. 18. Gallery hours are Mon-Thu, 10am-1pm, and Mon-Wed, 6-9pm. Free. Call 755-6791.