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Beloved Otis College Instructor Joan Takayama-Ogawa on Learning Life’s Lessons Through Clay
Takayama-Ogawa recently had a three-decade survey showing at the Craft in America Center.
Celebrated artist and ceramicist Joan Takayama-Ogawa, who teaches across several programs at Otis College, was the subject of a 30-year survey show at the Craft in America Center, Joan Takayama-Ogawa: Ceramic Beacon, which closed on December 3, 2022.
Takayama-Ogawa’s lineage spans centuries of work in clay—her family has been creating ceramics in the ancient kiln city of Tokoname, Japan since the 15th century—and her father studied ceramics with Glen Lukens while enrolled in USC’s School of Architecture. “Inheriting artistic ceramic DNA from my parents, clay picked me,” she says. “During the preparation for this survey, I have thought a lot about my parents, and the rich artistic educational environment they provided. Many times, when I finish a major piece, I wonder who made that piece, knowing it comes from my ancestors and not from myself.”
For more than a decade, Takayama-Ogawa has coordinated Otis’s ceramics program, which blends BFA, MFA, and Extension students. She often has taught an advanced course in collaboration with the Craft in America Center, and a course with Jo Lauria (’90 MFA Fine Arts), who is the catalog writer of Ceramic Beacon. Several of Takayama-Ogawa’s former students have won prestigious awards, including Windgate-Lamar Fellowships and a Jeanne Ward Foundation Scholarship. She has been the recipient of Otis’s Teacher of the Year Award, and gave the College’s Commencement address in 2004. Her work is held in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the de Young Museum, and she has shown in several solo and group shows at Craft in America, American Museum of Ceramic Art, Long Beach Museum of Art, and Vincent Price Museum, among others.
Of Takayama-Ogawa and her work, Craft in America says: “She tackles the core issues that define our contemporary society, from the political, to the historical, social, and environmental. Channeling fury into artistic power, she creates works that respond to the most pressing demands of the 21st century.”
Takayama-Ogawa recently discussed her survey show, the impact Otis College has had on her career, and what working in clay—and with Otis students—has given her.
When did Craft in America first approach you about participating in this survey, and what was the overarching thought process behind which works were selected to exhibit?
First, let me start by saying that this 30-year survey was postponed during the pandemic, as I was first approached about it four years ago. For the survey, Craft in America curator and director Emily Zaiden evaluated every series I’ve done and selected the strongest examples of my work over a 30-year period. Emily is an eloquent writer and brilliant thinker, often writing insightful “golden nuggets” or sound bites. While much of my work is intuitive, I begin with small sculptures or drawings to record ideas, much like throwing a pebble in a pond and developing the ripples. Emily understands this way of working and provides the words to explain it.
“All my work is beauty held in check with difficult content, such as financial disasters, the dot com and subprime lending market busts, and now COVID—all done up in beauty and sensuous glazes. I just can’t help it.”
What would you say is the through line connecting all of the works being shown?
American culture triggers ideas often fueled by fury and fear. On November 17 I will be speaking at the Japanese American National Museum on the theme, “Fueled by Fury.” Women’s rights and thoughts on the historic politics of prejudice against Asians resulting in relocation camps were triggered by 9/11 when the discussion of relocating Muslim Americans angered me deeply. [Former president Donald] Trump provided four years of fury by instigating racism hiding in our midst. We are slipping into worldwide environmental disasters where millions of poor people will die. School shootings hit close to home as I celebrate my 45th year in the classroom.
My best work is hard to live with and usually finds its way into public institutions. All my work is beauty held in check with difficult content, such as financial disasters, the dot com and subprime lending market busts, and now COVID—all done up in beauty and sensuous glazes. I just can’t help it.
What is the meaning of your exhibition’s name, Ceramic Beacon?
(Laughs.) I had to look up the word “beacon.” Emily noticed the dates of my works were often before a disaster occurred. I saw these series as warnings; Emily saw them as prophecies. For example, in 1993, I made a piece called Nature’s Invoice, predicting fires, debris flows, flooding, global warming, and death because I had read John McPhee’s 1988 New Yorker article, “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” and in 1973, I had studied the effect of greenhouse gasses as a freshman at UCLA. Oftentimes, I am way too early in my predictions or concerns. Bleached coral reefs were the canary in the coal mine. Valerie Wu (’14 BFA Product Design), an Otis alumnx, gave me samples of bleached coral washing up on the shores of Guam. I radically shifted from theatrical color palettes to 50 shades of white in my work. Otis awarded me a sabbatical, giving me the time to develop my climate change series. I taught Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point in my Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) classes at Otis. I think about tipping points way too early for people to understand, usually warning of disasters in the making.
“ ‘Obsessed’ and ‘focused’ are good words to describe my practice and teaching. Almost every series I’ve done was once an Otis Liberal Arts and Sciences, Creative Action, Product Design, or ceramic assignment or experience.”
How did you get where you are today with your ceramics work?
My Otis ceramic education under the leadership of Ralph Bacerra provided all of us with a sound technical background. Three years of glaze chemistry, three years of surface design, and three years of 100 pot assignments set all of us up to have careers. When materials are no longer mined, depleted, etc., we can recalculate and keep going. Technical breakthroughs and learning from the ceramic industry, especially Laguna Clay and Glazes and Aardvark Clay, motivate me to improve. Right now, I am obsessed with sewer pipe clay and its sculptural possibilities, hardness, and elasticity.
“Obsessed” and “focused” are good words to describe my practice and teaching. Almost every series I’ve done was once an Otis LAS, Creative Action, Product Design, or ceramic assignment or experience.
You’ve had a long relationship with the Craft in America Center. What does it mean to have your survey shown in this space?
For over 10 years, the Craft in America Center was the site partner for Otis Liberal Arts and Sciences and Creative Action courses. Carol Sauvion’s vision for the Peabody award-winning documentary film PBS series, Craft in America, is more cutting edge, motivated by social injustices, than what I have seen in the art world with all of its rules.
What is it like to have a survey exhibition at this point in your artistic career?
I feel blessed to have a 30-year survey with what I hope is a mid-career honor. When I am really old, I might have a “retrospective,” if a public institution thinks it appropriate. There are so few public opportunities such as the one I am having at the Craft in America Center. And I have at least 20 years of ideas backed up.
You had a different career prior to becoming an artist specializing in ceramics. Was it always your intention to imbue your work with issues that are important to you when you were first starting out?
Not at all! I came to Otis with the intention of making coffee mugs for the faculty at Crossroads School, where I was working at the time.
What role would you say Otis has had in you getting to this point in your artistic journey and career?
Product Design Chair Steve McAdam and Fine Arts Chair Meg Cranston made all the difference in my artistic journey at Otis. When everyone was marginalizing ceramics, Steve and Meg stood up for Otis’s clay legacy with Peter Voulkos and the future of 3D printing models converted into clay multiples. Now, Contemporary Clay is a popular minor at Otis and additional clay experiences are scheduled by many departments. Steve and Meg’s support was immeasurable in pushing the boundaries in clay and crossing natural boundaries that once existed in the art world.
Andrew Armstrong and Mike Pierzynski in Technical Support Services (TSS) provide indispensable technical support with three kilns firing every week, stronger lighting, and maintaining a clean and healthy clay studio. The Boardman Family Foundation and Otis Friends of Clay provided almost all the equipment with free clay and materials for all students, faculty, and staff.
The Zoom years [during the COVID-19 pandemic] were the most rewarding in my 45 years in the classroom. Stay-at-home clay kits provided by donors, and support from President Charles Hirschhorn, Vice President of Institutional Advancement Patrick Mahany and Carry Banasky on his team, as well as Leo Pena in the Business office were vital in continuing the clay program. TSS fired and distributed kits and clay, and photographed every piece so that we could teach clay on Zoom.
Otis is essential in the development of my clay career. I love the Otis faculty and staff’s work. I wish I could see more of their work on campus, especially in the open areas during summer. They always make me a better artist when I see their work. Otis is my functional, and, at times dysfunctional family
“The kiln is the great equalizer. It does not listen to smart art or design speak.”
What are some of the benefits of working with clay?
For Otis students, working with their hands is primal, a born talent, it offers relief from sitting at a computer, and is nourishing to the soul. The physicality and demands on the body are good for young people’s future health. In a digital career, learning to be physically active triggers creativity because many Otis students are kinesthetic and visual learners.
In what ways do Otis College students inspire and inform you and your work?
Otis students lack preconceived ceramic rules, breaking them frequently, failing often, and creating breakthroughs. The kiln is the great equalizer. It does not listen to smart art or design speak. The students, TSS, and I forensically diagnose problems. We celebrate the victories of firing to 2,000 degrees, as clay is brought to birth dangerously. The gifts from the kiln, our quest for eternity, and sensuous surfaces brought on by fire are more rewarding and exciting than opening gifts on any Christmas morning.