The following is a transcript of Seattle-based art historian and curator Barbara Johns’ remarks during an April memorial celebration for renowned artist Akio Takamori (1950 – 2017), who passed away earlier this year.
Akio Memorial Celebration – April 22, 2017
Thank you, Vicky, for inviting me to participate. Thank you, Vicky, Peter, and Lena, for bringing us here together today.
Over the past year and a half, I had the exceptional opportunity to meet with Akio, and often Vicky too, to talk about his life and work. Our conversations began with Jim Harris’s plan to produce a book about Akio, and developed into a deeply meaningful relationship.
Let me begin at the end—the last two email messages from Akio to me:
December 20, 2016:
Vicky and I are going through new acceptance of my medical condition. Basically my health care is shifting from doctor visits to hospice. The focus of my life according to hospice will be the next 6 months and learning the management of the pain medications. . . I am feeling much better since the hospice nurse is working close by for me. It has been a struggle for a while. . . .
So I still have good days and bad days, but it is different from now on. Besides the light is becoming longer day by day from now on!
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!
December 24, 2016:
Hello, Barbara. It will be good for us to meet before my Feb. opening.
Some people asked my opinion about Jen [Graves’s] mentioning the medical situation at the beginning of her article. It is a good question: how my health condition affected my possible final project, and how I approached it from the beginning. I was definitely conscious of that.
We made plans to meet on January 12. He died the night before.
It’s easy from afar to speak generally of “Japan” and “Japanese.” Akio grew up at a particular time in Japan, when the country was still recovering from war. You may know about his childhood on the southern island of Kyushu, where his father, a doctor, ran a clinic that adjoined the family home. Akio was the youngest of three children in an extended household of aunts, uncles, and various young country women who lived with the family and worked in the clinic or home. Their care, the shapes and smells of their bodies, and the folk stories they told formed many of his early memories.
But the hard evidence of war was all around, in the dire poverty of the town, the devastation of firebombing, and the bomb shelters in which Akio and his friends played. Important to the war recovery effort was attention to children and their education. Akio remembered not only the excitement of a traveling puppet troupe his father hosted but also looking at photojournalist magazines with pictures of poverty-stricken children. More recently, a photograph of two young brothers taken the day after the bombing of Nagasaki inspired his child-carrying-a-child theme of his new work. “It’s so ironic,” he said, “because adults cause the war, and children are totally victims. Adults completely forget that children are the future.”
He embraced the future: “That really struck me. In a situation where the children are left without protectors, they have the strength to support each other. I felt some kind of hope that children can do it—that humans don’t need to be taught, they came with this kind of strength and goodness in them perhaps.” That generative affirming outlook is one of Akio’s greatest gifts to us.
Akio gauged his professional career by decades, and for a couple minutes I want to highlight his life story that way—a collection of sketches, with no intention to be complete.
Born in 1950, he gravitated to art at a young age—he remembered praise from his kindergarten teacher, and a special sculpting project in fourth grade. In high school in the 1960s, he belonged to the art club, “extraordinary young guys,” he called them, and followed his friend’s lead in reading contemporary literature. Believing he wasn’t competitive in painting, he turned to 3-D and industrial design at art school in Tokyo.
1970s was a decade of contrasts. For two years he apprenticed at an old-style family production pottery, where the labor of such a life quickly destroyed his student idealism. He threw 200 cups a day. In later years, he rhythmically turned to throwing as a means of creative release.
From this tradition-bound practice, he came to the US, where he studied at the Kansas City Art Institute under the mentorship of Ken Ferguson. It was the 1970s—‘60s culture in full bloom. It was his introduction to American openness, personal freedom, and racism. AND he met Vicky.
Akio and Vicky married in 1984. With Vicky’s support, he had begun building a career, working and teaching in various places in the United States, Canada, and Japan. In 1987 they moved to Vashon. They became parents: Peter was born in 1986, and Lena in 1990. Akio told me, “On Vashon, I was a full-time studio person. That was a really wonderful time, with children just growing up. We lived close to a beach, and I had a studio and acreage.” He began a journal in clay, one simple piece at the end of each day, on which he wrote a thought. One describes the scary act of cutting baby Lena’s fingernails.
A residency in the Netherlands in 1991 proved a turning point—his first series of free-standing sculptural figures, composed from memories of Japan and arranged as an ensemble. He described the freedom of relinquishing craft, when “each piece has to be perfect. . . . But once I started to make sculpture, I made groupings of them, and I had to let go a certain kind of detail because they have to stand as one idea.” In coming years, he explored the human figure in an amazing variety of ways, one surprising insight after the other.
His exploration became ever richer as the new century began. Installation—the relationships among the figures, to the space, and to the viewer’s experience—the conception and experience of the whole—became increasingly important.
This last decade
Akio had begun teaching at UW in 1993, one of a small team of artists that made UW ceramics among the best in the country, and in 2014, he retired. He liked having become part of the Seattle art community and spoke of his admiration of artists older and younger than he and his appreciation of being able to exhibit here frequently. In his words, “Being part of the community has really satisfied me. I feel like finally I have settled down and become a local artist—not local, but where you belong. It’s really great.”
After his diagnosis with cancer two years ago, new ideas seemed to pour from him. I marveled at the direction and amount of new production each time I visited his studio. He continually challenged himself, working with new scale in clay, learning a new printmaking process, and developing new subjects in drawing and sculpture. Clay from the ground became clouds—which he surmised was probably not more surprising than clay representing life in human figures. “I am interested in landscapes where human activity takes place,” he told me. “The landscape objects suggest the place where children belong.”
His references included multiple ceramic traditions; Greek mythology; Japanese printmakers; painters Breughel, Cranach, and Giorgione; Northern Renaissance and Zen Buddhist landscape painting; and documentary photography. All came together as he reflected on the human condition and connectedness.
He spoke in awe of the trusting partnership that he and Vicky had created over the years, so that as they worked and talked together, he felt they were one unit.
Akio and I did not have that final conversation, but I’ve come to accept it doesn’t matter. The work he left us embodies so much life spirit and is so full of his profound, playful, probing ideas about life—birth and death, male and female, joy and sorrow, our common humanity. Eros and death are the great equalizers, he said, the life forces that each of us must deal with. He found the circle of life in the young and the old. He saw children as a symbol of hope—a sign that humankind, innocent of learned divisive and destructive ways, is essentially good. We, who knew him, are so lucky to have direct personal knowledge of the depth of passion with which he lived and explored these ideas.
Art Historian, Curator, Author
Find other Cfile reflections of the life and art of Akio Takamori.
You can also find Johns’ latest book ‘The Hope of Another Spring’ here. The book presents Japanese American artist Takuichi Fujii’s (1891-1964) life story and his artistic achievements within the social and political context.