Peter Held: Remembering Toshiko Takaezu (1922-2011)

We learned last week of the passing of ceramic artist Toshiko Takaezu, whose life and work are chronicled in a new book, The Art of Toshiko Takaezu: In the Language of Silence, edited by Peter Held. In this guest post, Held remembers the artist he admired from afar, then came to know as a friend.–ellen

Toshiko Takaezu, 2006

As with legions of friends, colleagues, students and admirers of Toshiko Takaezu (1922-2011), I was saddened by the news of her death on March 8th. Although she had been in failing health this past year, the realization that I would never spend time with her again gave me time to pause and reflect on our time together while editing the book The Art of Toshiko Takaezu: In the Language of Silence. One of the goals of the Toshiko Takaezu Book Foundation, who contracted with me to act as editor for the book, was that Toshiko would be able to hold it in her hands. It pleases me to no end this was accomplished a week prior to her passing.

I knew Toshiko Takaezu by name and reputation for many years before I met her. I was contacted by a mutual friend in 2007 and encouraged to call on Toshiko in my role as a curator for the Arizona State University Art Museum. At the time, Toshiko was gifting large groups of her works to museum collections nationwide. The caveat was that museums had to have at least one of her ceramics in the collection already. While I thanked my friend for this information, I mentioned I was busy and would do so in the next few months. She, being a persistent type, said no, you must go soon. So I arranged a visit, booked a ticket and arrived in Quakertown, New Jersey, a few weeks later.

Group of work given by Toshiko Takaezu to Arizona State University Art Museum

Toshiko had already made a selection of work for ASU but I suggested that we walk around her home and studio to survey “the goods.” Having been involved with ceramics since the early 1970s, first as a practitioner, then a museum curator, I had opinions of my own. In the pre-selected grouping of work Toshiko organized, I realized there were no pieces with her signature Makaha blue. She took me in a small side room where I laid eyes on a stellar grouping of tall, slender Makaha blue closed forms. I asked if it was possible to select one of these, but Toshiko told me they were already destined for other institutions. I pleaded my case, cajoled her, and with my eyes near the point of welling up, she acquiesced.

Peter Held and Toshiko Takaezu, 2008

We had two glorious-filled days of bantering, negotiating, laughing and sharing meals. During this short visit it was readily evident I was in the presence of a great artist whose career trajectory mirrored that of the post WWII American craft movement, a woman filled with humanity and a person who lived her life on her own terms successfully. It was a truly memorable experience and we left good friends, staying in touch through periodic phone calls.

In addition to ultimately receiving 23 works of Toshiko’s for the ASU Art Museum collection, the encounter also led to my being asked to edit a book on Toshiko’s life work. Soon after my New Jersey visit, I was contacted by three of Toshiko’s former Princeton students who had formed a nonprofit foundation with the sole purpose of publishing a significant book on Toshiko’s life and work. They asked if I would be interested in editing a monograph, which entailed finding the writers, photographers, book designer, printer, and ultimately a publisher. There was a sense of urgency, as Toshiko was well into her 80s and showing signs of declining health. Their goal was not only to honor their former teacher and beloved friend, but also to have the artist hold the book in her hands to enjoy. I readily accepted the assignment not only because of our new-found friendship but also because I believe artists of Toshiko’s generation, especially women, had sacrificed so much in pursuing their careers in the arts.

Toshiko Takaezu, December 2009

In short order I contacted colleagues with whom I had worked with in the past and who were acquainted with Toshiko’s work; everyone was enthusiastic about the project. Photographers in New York, California, and Hawaii were brought on board, since I felt it was imperative to have new high-quality images taken of the work. Janet Koplos, an accomplished writer and critic, traveled with me to Toshiko’s home for an informal interview and wrote a wonderful essay of Toshiko’s range of work in ceramics, paintings, weavings and her bronze bells. Paul Smith, director emeritus of the American Craft Museum (now the Museum of Art & Design), captured a compelling biographical overview. Jeffrey Spahn, an associate in San Francisco, organized the illustrated chronology drawn from the artist’s extensive archives. My role as editor was to keep everyone on task, eliminate redundant information, and work closely with the book designer, Perpetua Press, in order to capture the spirit of the art and its maker.

This was all fast-tracked and from start to finish. The book was conceived and printed in fourteen months–no small feat in the publishing world. This book could not have been realized without the above-mentioned people as well as many other supporters and friends of Toshiko Takaezu. Having the professional and enthusiastic cooperation of UNC Press has helped make The Art of Toshiko Takaezu: In the Language of Silence a book that not only makes a significant contribution to the ceramics field but also honors one of the great artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her vast body of work will be a lasting legacy for generations to come.

Peter Held is curator of ceramics at the Ceramics Research Center, part of the Arizona State University Art Museum.

[All photos courtesy Peter Held]