Toshiko Takaezu’s Legacy featured in “Collective Identity” Exhibition
“You know, there is always such as thing as timing. And if you let yourself, allow yourself to work on timing, you really get it.” Toshiko Takaezu, the great ceramic artist who lived and worked in New Jersey for most of her life, was full of wise observations such as this. It was one of the reasons why so many people were deeply drawn to and influenced by her. I count myself among them. A documentary about her was my first big project as a producer (you can read about my experience here).
Now, an exhibit at the Noyes Museum of Art of Stockton University features 17 artists linked by the experience of working with Takaezu. These artists worked intensively with her in one or more capacities: as a studio assistant, a year-long apprentice, or a student at Princeton University, where she taught a legendary pottery class for 25 years. Located at the Arts Garage in Atlantic City, “Collective Identity: The Legacy of Apprenticeship Under Toshiko Takaezu” includes large-scale ceramic pieces by the master as well.
Toshiko Takaezu (1922-2011) drew on both her Japanese heritage and contemporary art school education to create her work, including her signature closed forms. Her work is in the collections of many museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Among the honors she accumulated during her lifetime were fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Craft Council, and a designation as a Living Treasure of Hawaii, her birthplace. She was also a respected teacher, influencing generations of students.
Donald Fletcher, whose two-part work “Tango” is included in “Collective Identity,” was one of Takaezu’s acolytes. As an undergraduate at Princeton in the 1970s, he somehow gained entry to her class despite a long waiting list. After college, he opened a pottery studio in Oregon, and assisted Takaezu during her workshops at Lewis and Clark College. Fletcher eventually moved back East and took up computer programming, but he continued to assist Takaezu at her studio in rural Quakertown, New Jersey on weekends. Now, he and his wife live there, having bought the place after she died in 2011.
“Toshiko wanted the studio to continue as it was,” said Fletcher. The Takaezu Studio now operates as a foundation, with exhibition space and a residency program. Many of her old students and apprentices return to visit during the biannual open houses. “It’s this community that was Toshiko’s greatest legacy,” he continued.
“Everyone feels strongly that she was a great teacher,” said Michael Steelman, another former student and studio assistant. He remembers taking her class at Princeton nearly every semester: “It was my sanity.”
Steelman helped organize “Collective Identity,” reaching out to artists from across the United States. Some of the pieces displayed are clearly influenced by Takaezu’s aesthetic of organic forms with poured or painted glazes. Other work goes in different directions, such as Fitzhugh Karol’s “Keynote” and Nicholas Newcomb’s “Set of Three Prickly Vases.”
Michael Cagno, director of the Noyes Museum, sought to display a wide variety of work in the exhibition, even creating a setting of dirt for Tim Clark’s “Shoots of Hope.”
Takaezu led by example, showing her students, apprentices and assistants how to work with dedication. Often she would remind them to learn from the process of working with clay; as she put it, “the kiln has much to say.”
In Cagno’s opinion, the “Collective Identity” artists are part of a community that is one of Takaezu’s greatest gifts. “The main mission of the exhibition is to continue the conversation she started, and bring it to a larger public.”
“Collective Identity: The Legacy of Apprenticeship Under Toshiko Takaezu” is on display at the Arts Garage in Atlantic City through June 23, 2019. “Toshiko Takaezu: Select Work,” featuring pieces from the permanent collection of the Noyes Museum of Art, can be seen at the Drumthwacket Foundation in Princeton through November 14, 2019 (tour reservations required). The Takaezu Studio’s spring open house is on Sunday, May 16, 2019. According to Donald Fletcher, this date in May was chosen because Toshiko Takaezu’s remarkable tree peonies are likely to be in bloom.