Artists Remember the Transformative Teachings of Toshiko Takaezu

Photographs do not prepare you for an encounter with the work of Toshiko Takaezu. The brushwork is bold and free, and the towering scale mocks the limits of the kiln. Takaezu cracked and cajoled the rules of ceramics, which are tethered to temperature and chemistry. Her work is clay and copper transformed by fire, but it feels decidedly alive.

Now three expansive shows celebrating the late Japanese-American artist’s work make this encounter possible in person: Worlds Within at the Noguchi Museum in New York City, Shaping Abstraction at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, and Full Circle: Toshiko Takaezu and Friends at LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton, New York. These exhibitions explore the evolution of her art from the double-spouted pot and monumental closed forms to weavings, bronzes, and paintings. The story you may not see in the galleries is how Takaezu’s legacy continues to take shape through the stories and artwork of her apprentices, many of whom are practicing artists and educators today. Hyperallergic interviewed 10 of the 40 apprentices she trained over four decades, along with studio assistants, friends, and colleagues to gain an intimate perspective on the artist and her lasting influence on the field.

After studying and instructing at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, Takaezu started teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1956. A grant from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation brought her to New Jersey to study glazing in 1964. Three years later, she took a position teaching at Princeton University, which she retained for the next 25 years. By the 1980s, her ceramic classes at Princeton had a waitlist of more than 200 students even though there was no visual arts major. Instead of slides, handouts, and theory, the assignments were simple, beginning with a deceptively straightforward instruction: Make a 21-inch cylinder with coils.

“For some people, that kept them busy all semester to get the walls straight and height right,” said Martha Russo, Takaezu’s former student who went on to work as her apprentice and assistant. Russo’s initial plan as an undergraduate was to pursue medicine, but her classes and apprenticeship with the artist sent her on a different path. Today, her ceramic works are on view alongside Takaezu’s pieces in the exhibition at LongHouse.

According to Russo, Takaezu’s class studio was unusual in more ways than one. “Most studios have signs everywhere, like ‘don’t put clay down the sink,’” she explained, adding that besides glaze labels, there were no words. “Her thing was for students to pay attention, retain, follow directions. If you veered from the task, she bit your head off.” Students didn’t touch the wheel for the first six weeks to avoid developing what the artist deemed as bad habits. Sometimes Takaezu told students to line up outside the studio for a hand inspection, saying she needed to see if they were ready to touch the clay. Russo recalled a nail clipper hanging on a chain above a wastebasket by the door. No one could avoid it, including model and actor Brooke Shields when she was a student. “No, no young lady,” Russo recalls Takaezu saying. “You have to get rid of those luscious nails!”

Princeton had a modest facility with one kiln, but when Takaezu joined the Skidmore College Summer Six art program in 1970, with its robust ceramics department and large kilns, she began to pull apprentices from both schools. Don Fletcher, president of the Quakertown Studio Project and a former student of Takaezu’s at Princeton, told Hyperallergic that the artist had three or four part-time apprentices until she acquired her property in Quakertown, New Jersey, in 1975. The program then grew into a full-time, one-year commitment.

The barn hosted the studio and apprentice quarters, which were unheated unless the kiln was firing. The day began at 6am with yoga and breathing exercises with the artist, followed by a big breakfast. Then chores in the large garden would continue until lunch, reflecting Takaezu’s incorporation of tending to plants into her practice (perhaps influenced by her mother, Kama, who was also an avid gardener). Afternoons were dedicated to the studio. Around 5pm, the artist and apprentice would go see art, nearby or an hour and a half away in New York City. While the apprentice drove, Takaezu usually napped in the backseat. Russo recalls that Takaezu once surprised her with a bag of chocolate-covered coffee beans before a particularly long trip to Cleveland and reminded her not to fall asleep at the wheel: “If you crash and I die, everyone will hate you.”

Often, Takaezu would work late into the night. Guests frequently stopped by the house for tea or large group dinners. No matter who visited, evening studio time was never sacrificed.

Nonie Gadsden, senior curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture at MFA Boston, explained in an interview that apprenticeships largely fizzled out in the United States during 19th-century industrialization. Gadsden suspects Takaezu’s apprenticeship model was informed by her eight-month trip to Japan in 1955, but noted that “as with everything, she made it her own.”

Apprenticeships traditionally train the student in a master maker’s style, but not for Takaezu. “You could not do a single thing that emulated her work,” said Ben Eberle, an artist and apprentice with Takaezu from 2003 to 2004. “Drippy glazes, a closed form, anything that looked like hers and it would end up broken on the floor.” Several apprentices confirmed Takaezu lookalikes would be delivered from the kiln in pieces or catch an elbow on a table in class. “She was tough,” said Eberle. “Looking back, she was saying, ‘Find your own voice.’ You can be inspired, but don’t you dare copy.”

The scale of Takaezu’s work made a strong first impression on most apprentices, whether it was her totemic closed forms or her “moon” orbs that she dried in hammocks to retain their spherical shape. Ceramic artist Eva Kwong fondly recalls observing Takaezu building her large clay works in a barn on a farm owned by her husband Kirk Mangus’s family.

“She would start from the bottom and throw it so high,” Kwong said. “Then she would add coils and throw it some more. It was quite dramatic because she would toss in newspaper and light it up. My heart stopped because the barn was wood. She’d say, ‘It’ll be fine. I’ve done it before.’”

Fitzhugh Karol, an apprentice from 2004 to 2005 with work in the LongHouse exhibition, said that Takaezu demystified what it meant to make large-scale work. He witnessed the challenges of working big as a natural expression of developing methods over a long period of time, and today often creates large-scale pieces in wood, ceramic, and steel.

Monumentality may be the lure, but Takaezu’s glaze colors still garner admiration from her apprentices and peers. She used the kiln as a tool, oxidizing and reducing her works at unconventional intervals, and operated it at the high temperature of 2,284 degrees Fahrenheit for stoneware and porcelain, at which point color can burn away. She achieved her vibrant hues partly through glaze recipes tested over decades and her reliance on copper oxide, which is oxygen-sensitive in the firing process. Copper glaze with all oxygen molecules intact after firing is black or green, but it turns pink when robbed of two molecules, as seen in her 1995–2001 Star Series or her 1993 piece “Li Mu (Seaweed).” When the glaze is depleted of all its oxygen, it will turn red, as with “Closed Form” (mid-to-late 1980s). Glazes from neighboring objects in the kiln can also intervene in wonderfully unexpected ways in an exchange known as “fuming.” The combination of form, glaze, and firing never came together the same way twice, and that discovery was at the heart of her work. “She is the American glaze master,” Eberle remarked.

“Glazing is like painting in a dark closet,” Russo explained. “She called it a dance. All that training allows you freedom.” Russo’s current practice, which involves incorporating metal shavings, steel wool, and even bike materials into her glazes, continues to draw inspiration from Takaezu’s mix of play and discipline. “I let myself run with an idea. If I make 300 pieces, only 20 are any good.” Russo seeks a visceral response from viewers, adding that “beauty can get in the way.” That fearless exploration allows her to mold a distinctive artistic point of view in her practice, a lesson she gleaned from Takaezu.

Karol likened opening the kiln under Takaezu’s watch to Christmas morning, recalling that “even at 82 years old, she would pull a piece from the front corner and say, ‘Can you believe how this one came out?’” This same sense of wonder is echoed in the interior spaces of her closed forms. She was known to inscribe words on the inner wall or even drop in a piece of clay wrapped in newspaper before firing, resulting in a rattling sound. In a 1993 issue of The Studio Potter, Takaezu described the dark interior volume of a pot before it is closed as a dangerous, fantastic, spinning hole that may pull her in: “It’s as if the whole universe is inside the pot.” The Noguchi Museum’s exhibition is offering visitors the rare opportunity to handle her work and engage these sonic dimensions.

Gadsden emphasized that because the artist prioritized instruction over entering competitions or exhibitions, her recognition is often framed as having arrived too modestly or too late compared to her peers. But Russo, Karol, Eberle, and other artists all independently cited Takaezu’s exhortations to not get comfortable in their practice, to let the market come to them, to never waste time on self-promotion when they could be in the studio.

“She said your calling card is the strength of your work,” Eberle said. Recalling how his own art has developed over the last decade, he added, “She was right.”

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