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Toshiko Takaezu was one of the first artists to explore ceramic’s possibilities as an independent aesthetic medium. She revolutionized the field with abstract shapes, painterly glazes, and lyrical installations. Inspired by ceramist Maija Grotell, her teacher at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Takaezu absorbed a philosophy of irregularity and asymmetry and drew upon diverse artistic influences from Europe, Asia, and the natural world. Takaezu was also strongly influenced by the theories of Hong Kong–born potter Bernard Leach and the works of Hamada Shoji, which taught her the Zen approach of intuition and formal simplification that shaped the artist’s mature style.

Through her mastery of ancient firing techniques, Takaezu created earthenware that reached sculptural heights, just as her exploration of surface decoration led her to use glaze with the same expressiveness as abstract painters. Takaezu’s ceramics lucidly articulate the cross-cultural influences of East and West, bridging her American, Hawaiian, and Japanese heritages while announcing her originality and independence.

Born in Hawaii in 1922 to Japanese immigrant parents, Takaezu initially worked at a commercial clay studio and pursued her interest in ceramics at the University of Hawaii under the tutelage of Claude Horan. In 1951 she continued her studies at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Bloomfield Hills, MI. At the Academy she met and befriended Finnish ceramist Maija Grotell, a strong believer in experimentation and in allowing students to find their own way, and who became her mentor. In 1955 Takaezu traveled to Japan where she studied Zen Buddhism and the techniques of traditional Japanese pottery. Upon her return to the United States, Takaezu accepted a teaching position as head of the Ceramics Department at the National Cleveland Institute of Art in Ohio. She taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art for nearly a decade and for 25 years at Princeton, where she helped to develop the visual art program. She retired from Princeton in 1992. She received the Tiffany Foundation Grant in 1964, which afforded her the opportunity to establish a studio in Quakertown, NJ.

In her stoneware and porcelain works, some small enough to fit in the palm of one hand, others monoliths more than six feet tall, Ms. Takaezu blended the expressive bravura of painters like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline with the calm, meditative quality of traditional Japanese pottery in forms suggestive of acorns, melons or tree trunks.

Early in her career she made traditional vessels, but in the late 1950s, strongly influenced by the Finnish ceramist Maija Grotell, she embraced the notion of ceramic pieces as artworks meant to be seen rather than used. She closed off the top of her vessels creating, in effect, a clay canvas for glazing of all kinds: brushing, dripping, pouring and dipping.

The many awards and honors she received, from the Hawaii Living Treasure Award to her honorary doctorate degree from the University of Princeton, demonstrate the wide range of people and institutions that find inspiration, history, and meaning in her work and life.
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