On May 27, 2006, a major exhibit of work by ceramics artist Akio Takamori (1950-2017) opens at the Tacoma Art Museum. Titled Between Clouds of Memory: Akio Takamori, A Mid-Career Survey, it includes works created over 30 years, ranging from vessels to small-scale and life-size figures. Takamori began working with vessels and small figures, later created large-scale figures, incorporated photography in one series of figures, and will, nearly a decade after this exhibit, begin showing ceramic landscapes. He attended ceramics programs in Missouri and New York and worked at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana, before moving to King County in 1988 and then joining the University of Washington School of Art faculty in 1993. His work has been shown in galleries and museum exhibitions across the United States and around the world and is in a number of museum collections.
Inspiration and Study
Born in 1950, Akio Takamori grew up in Nobeoka, Japan. The family home was a busy place where the boy was exposed to a wide range of people. His father, Michio Takamori, was a doctor with his clinic attached to the home and his mother, Misako Takamori, managed a household full of extended family and clinic staff. His parents supported artists and filled their home with art. He also met his father's patients, many of whom were prostitutes.
The family's library is often cited as a source of inspiration for the future artist. Takamori explored both medical texts and books about Japanese and Western art. In particular, the influence of ukiyo-e woodblock prints can be seen in his early ceramic vessels. As gallery owner Garth Clark described it:
"[F]igures [in the prints] connected within an oval shape to create a kind of abstract pot form with a sense of volume captured between the two bodies. He [Takamori] translated this volume into his pots by giving the back of the pot, usually just a continuation of the front, a distinctive character and a new role. He raised the rim at the back creating another space for painting in the rear interior of the pot" (Clark, Akio Takamori, 22).
When he graduated from high school in 1969, Takamori enrolled at the Musashino Art University in Kodaira, which had a two-year industrial design program, and continued his dual study of Japanese traditions and ceramics in Western countries. The university has a well-known Scandinavian modernist collection. Takamori viewed the exhibition Contemporary Ceramic Art: Canada, U.S.A., Mexico, Japan at the National Museum of Art in Tokyo in 1971. Shortly after graduating that same year, he traveled to Europe as part of a tour organized by the Japan Folk Art Museum visiting Denmark, England, France, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
Following in the steps of generations of potters, he began an apprenticeship in Koishiwara, at Kumao Oota Pottery. Each day, Takamori made hundreds of tea cups in the mingei (folk art) style. He would later describe Japanese ceramics as "rigid, exclusionary, and tradition-laden" (Held, "Between Clouds ...," 24). It was not an ideal environment for someone who wanted to explore new forms and subject matter.
While at Koishiwara, however, Takamori met Chris Holmquist, a fellow apprentice from Minnesota, and Ken Ferguson (1928-2004), a professor from Kansas City Art Institute, visited Kumao Oota. Meeting them opened a path for Takamori to move to the United States, where he could study and work in an innovative environment and find an audience for his work. Moving to Missouri and enrolling at Kansas City Art Institute, he found himself in the midst of a flowering of ceramic arts. He and a number of other students who studied there at the time would later be described as letting "loose a torrent of creative energy" (Clark, "Memories ...," 15).
Early Career and Move to Seattle
After earning a degree from the Art Institute, Takamori continued his studies at Alfred University in upstate New York. From there he returned to Japan, but only for a short time. He soon came back to the United States to work at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana. He did two residencies there, along with several fellow alumni from Kansas City Art Institute. He also taught a course at Montana State University and did other workshops around the United States and Canada in the 1980s.
During these early years of his career, Takamori developed a relationship with the Garth Clark Gallery that would continue for decades. At a mutual friend's home, Clark saw an untitled piece Takamori had made and offered him a solo show in his Los Angeles gallery. The 1983 show, Archie Bray Series, was Takamori's first solo show outside of Japan and featured the envelope vessels for which he would become famous. In sculpting the vessels, as Clark described it, "the rim of the pot is unleashed to become a thoroughly non-traditional outline" (Clark, Akio Takamori, 22). Many of the figures sculpted out of and painted onto the vessels were erotic or depicted other relationships, which one exhibition catalog categorized as "interpersonal, archetypal, social and historical" ("Figures in Clay") and captured the tension between cultures that Takamori has felt personally as an Asian immigrant in America. His figurative vessels often explored sexual themes and relationships.
In 1986, after he and his wife Vicky (Lidman) had their first child, Peter, they began to look for a place to settle down permanently. Akio, from Japan, and Vicky, from Sweden, wanted to stay in the United States, so they looked around the country at family-friendly cities that had the resources he needed to pursue his art. Out of a short list that also included San Francisco and Santa Fe, the Takamoris chose Seattle for several reasons: It was still affordable, it had an international airport for traveling to workshops and other programs Takamori participated in, it was the closest city on the West Coast to Japan, and it had a Japanese American community that could provide a connection to Takamori's roots for himself and his children. Additionally, the University of Washington offered potential opportunities for teaching ceramics.
The Takamori family initially settled on Vashon Island but later moved to Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood, where Takamori also established his studio near Discovery Park. He started teaching classes at the University of Washington in 1988 and then joined the faculty in 1993. Over nearly 20 years at the university, he mentored students and helped guide the ceramics department as it evolved. He was one of the faculty members who developed 3D4M (3-Dimensional Forum), an interdisciplinary degree program combining coursework in ceramics, glass, and sculpture.
In 1996 Takamori traveled to the Netherlands for a residency at the European Ceramic Work Center. He spent three months in the studio there and returned to Seattle with new work that marked a new phase in his career. He had made a series of free-standing figures, which were first shown at the Garth Clark Gallery in 1997. The large, but not quite life-sized, figures were based on his memories of people from his childhood in Nobeoka and, according to Garth Clark, were "after all, about daily social interactions" (Clark, Akio Takamori, 25). Takamori sculpted them out of clay and fired them multiple times with different glazes. Painted black lines gave the sculptures definition and detail.
Between Clouds of Memory
Over the next two decades, Takamori made a number of figures, some in groupings, some solitary, some smaller-than-life and others larger-than-life. One series was created in response to photographs and subsequently displayed alongside photographs taken of them. Others depicted historical events, such as General Douglas MacArthur's meeting with Emperor Hirohito in General and Emperor, created in 2001. An article written about the Between Clouds of Memory exhibit describes how these series are shown: "When exhibited, they are carefully arranged in groups, silently speaking to each other. He regards these installations as completed works, rather than the individual figures" (Kunimatsu).
On May 27, 2006, the exhibit Between Clouds of Memory: Akio Takamori, A Mid-Career Survey opened at the Tacoma Art Museum. Organized by the Arizona State University Art Museum in 2005, the exhibit included works from throughout Takamori's career, including vessels, large figures, works on paper, and a diorama of his hometown, Nobeoka, titled Village that he created in 1976 at the Kansas City Art Institute. Peter Held, curator at the Arizona State museum, provided a summary of the meaning behind the exhibition title and Takamori's work:
"A leader in the field of ceramic sculpture, yet never resting on past accomplishments, he is a true innovator. Each twist in his work announces new realities. His work triggers a host of associations in his viewers; some are close to the surface, others buried deep within us. Assessing the last twenty-five years of his career, we witness an unfurling worldview, flexing time and space in reconstituted identity, caught between clouds of memory" (Held, "Between Clouds ...," 31-32).
After retiring from the University of Washington in 2015, Takamori began showing another new form: landscapes. He continued to work in ceramics, but sculpted the clay into mountain ranges and other landforms. Some of the works were inspired by landscape paintings from the fifteenth century by the Japanese artist Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506).
That same year, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray (b. 1955) recognized Takamori's work and his significance in the field of ceramics with a Mayor's Arts Award for Arts and Innovation. Presented on September 4, it joined a long list of awards, fellowships, and grants Akio Takamori received for his work, including a Virginia A. Groot Foundation grant in 2001, the Flintridge Foundation Visual Artists Award in 2004, and the United States Artists Ford Fellowship in 2011. Takamori died of cancer in January 2017.