Master of Art and the Art of Living

Everything ceramic artist Toshiko Takaezu does feeds into the process of discovering and creating

Coming into the American Craft Museum from the bustle of midtown Manhattan is like entering an alternative universe. The ceramic pieces on display in "The Art of Toshiko Takaezu" whisk you away from the rat race to a zone of calm contemplation. It's like leaving the asphalt jungle for a bamboo grove on a tropical island.

"Takaezu is one of the most important ceramic artists working today," says Holly Hotchner, director of the museum. "Her work doesn't easily fit any artistic category, which is what makes it so wonderful. She comes from a functional craft tradition and then stretches the whole genre into the realm of painting and sculpture."

The 90 works in the exhibition (which continues through Nov. 2) were created by the artist over 40 years, from the 1950s to mid-1990s. Although they show evolution from the utilitarian vessel format to works that are purely sculptural, an underlying unity prevails. The colors of surface glazes range from neutral hues to vivid primary colors, but all the forms derive from nature and have a direct simplicity of effect.

Takaezu was named a living treasure by her native state of Hawaii, and founded the ceramics department at Princeton University in New Jersey, where she taught generations of students from 1967 to '92. Her work is in the permanent collections of institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Visiting her home and studio in Quakertown, N.J., you see how the streams of Takaezu's personal and professional lives converge into one fruitful flow. In her garden, rows of basil as tall as your waist bend in the breeze, tomatoes burst their skins, and pole beans hang in clusters from wigwam-like supports. Near the house, red and pink zinnias form a shag carpet of sunset color.

By the weathered barn hang bronze bells made by the artist, and in the studio, clay pieces cover the floor, tables, and shelves. In the living room, arrangements of flowers, pots, arrowheads, and stones form exquisite still lifes on every surface.

When Takaezu serves vegetables from her garden, each is so beautiful that you hesitate to disturb the tableau. Thick zucchini soup in oval stoneware bowls, sliced tomatoes and eggplant on wooden plates with garlic flowers, purple potato salad with parsley sprigs, and green beans glistening with olive oil and soy sauce equally delight the eye and palate. Takaezu is not just a master of art but of the art of living.

Her life and work have an admirable wholeness, so that everything she does feeds into the endless process of discovering and creating herself.

"I put as much energy into cooking and the garden as into making pots," Takaezu says. "All this is related. You plant a tiny seed and all these beautiful things happen."

When she talks, it's evident she's speaking of cultivating not just her garden but all phases of her life. Whether sculpting, painting, gardening, cooking, or sharing her expertise with apprentices, the aim is growth.

"You can't just throw a seed and say, 'grow.' Like anything else, if you want to do it well, you have to get involved," she says. "You have to pull the weeds, feed and water the plants. You have to give attention and be sympathetic. You have to put part of yourself into it."

When Takaezu teaches novices, her first class assignment is to make a mug, which students are required to bring with them to class.

An ardent lover of nature, she feels pain each time anyone uses a throwaway plastic cup.

The mug itself, she instructs, must be functional, but the handle should be a creation of fancy - "something you haven't seen before," she tells them. In this way, she tries to stimulate students' originality, pushing them to explore and blossom.

Ceramics, for Takaezu, involves self-revelation. She found her own identity as an artist when she sealed her pots and developed her signature "closed form." The pieces vary, from forms resembling human hearts and torsos to ovoid or cylindrical closed forms and round, boulder-like spheres she calls "moons."

The large forms require intensive labor and discipline to create, but Takaezu finishes them almost whimsically. Walking around the forms splashing paint, she applies glazes in expressive dabs and arcs.

"There's a kind of freedom, almost like a dance," she says. The improvised rhythm produces a sense of movement in the swirling colors of a piece like "Green Rain."

Takaezu's sense of oneness with nature influences her pieces, which resemble purified organic objects. "Tree-Man Forest" presents seven-foot-tall ceramic trunks winnowed down to their essence. "Gaea" is a bulging sphere that hangs in a string hammock like a pea about to burst its pod.

As engaging as the colorful, tactile surfaces of her pieces are, many hold a hidden surprise. Before closing the form, Takaezu drops inside a bead of clay wrapped in paper. After firing, the pieces ring when moved, adding an extra dimension to discover.

"The most important part of a piece is the dark, black air space that you can't see," Takaezu once told someone who was mystified by her work. Just as what's inside each person is also the key to humanity, she believes.

Takaezu is convinced something inside her guides her life. "I don't have control of my work," she says. "I feel this other force is helping me. It's intangible. It's unknown."

For the present, the period of making large forms is "over," she thinks. "What is the next phase? I don't know."

Until a new direction declares itself, she's making small pieces. "To me, it's like meditation. You don't think. You just go like that." She moves her hands in a flowing back-and-forth motion, as smooth as ocean swells.

Like nature, which is both different and the same as its phases roll round year after year, Takaezu shows durability and infinite variety. "It's time for change," she says, as she harvests the bounty of a season's work. "I will be a little quiet and work slowly until I find out what should come next. If I wait, it will come."

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