Akio Takamori was born and raised in Japan. He has been exhibiting in the United States, Europe and Asia since the mid 1980s. Takamori received his BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1976 and his MFA from the New York State College of Ceramics, Alfred University in 1978. Takamori’s work is included in numerous collections including the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Los Angels County Museum of Art, Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Ariana Museum in Geneva, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including three National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artists Fellowship Grants (1986, 1988, 1992), the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors Grant (2006), and the USA Ford Fellowship (2011). Takamori is professor of art at the University of Washington and he lives and works in Seattle where he has a studio.
What was the most difficult for you when you first started your studio?
When I graduated in ’78, I had finished my studies and my student visa ran out so of course I was kind of ready to go home. I had gone to Alfred and gone to the Archie Bray for a summer residency. I then came down to Seattle and went back to Japan. At that time I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen or what I was going to do so that was the hardest period of time. Some of my classmates applied to teaching jobs right away. Two out of ten, maybe, got teaching jobs. Now it seems really different because I realize my students are interested in teaching, but they don’t want to go anywhere. They’d rather stay here in Seattle than find a community college or whatever high school is available. I realize this is because some of the short period teaching jobs earn less money than waiting tables in the city. As for myself, I was pretty clear that my goal was not teaching. My goal was to become a studio artist and support myself through my studio work. So I went back to Japan and tried to figure out exactly what I wanted to do. One possibility was to purchase a little property and settled down. I really attempted to do that, but I didn’t. Jun Kaneko had a studio in Japan. He was going back to teach at Cranbrook Academy and I was offered the opportunity to stay at his place. That was a really great opportunity. So, I kind of scratched the idea to end up in the country town where I came from and I’m really glad I didn’t end up doing that. At the beginning of my career I didn’t want to have a huge commitment like paying for a mortgage, which is a huge responsibility. So I was at Jun’s place, and I would hear from friends about some small workshop or something I could take. I was single, all I needed was one suitcase and I could just go wherever. That was good because instead of settling down, I kept myself flexible. When I was young and single, I could teach one semester then I could save up the money and live the rest of the year with that money. That’s the way I was doing it for four or five years. Then in between being in Japan at Jun’s place, I came to the states for a little job and then another residency at the Archie Bray. That was all between 1978 and 1984 just looking for opportunities. Then in 1984 I got married to my wife who is an American woman while I was at the Bray. We stayed there for two years and then we started a family. Right before I got married, in 1983, I was offered my first exhibition at the Garth Clark in Los Angeles so I started to exhibit and thought about the fact you can be anywhere and send out your work. After we had a child we decided it was time to settle down somewhere so we came to Seattle. At the beginning the city was intimidating so we started living on a little island called Vashon and we were there about five years. That was the first time I settled down at my own place and we had a second child. So for five years we just totally isolated ourselves in this nesting period. Then Garth Clark offered me a show about twice a year, once a one-person show and other group shows in LA or New York galleries and once in Kansas City. That supported us enough to live on because the 1980s economically was pretty strong and contemporary ceramics was just taking off. So I did that about 10 years, my dream came true I guess. I was raising a family had my own studio and my wife was helping me raise the children with my income. We barely did it and we had no savings. We were young so we never really thought about saving for retirement but we knew health insurance and all these things were going to be hard and sometimes we borrowed money to pay taxes at the end of the year. When the check comes in is not predictable and as the 1990s came in the economy started slowing down. I got concerned about what was going to happen for the next 10 years because my last 10 years went by and now I’m approaching 40. I was thinking if I stay healthy and with luck I can keep making things for another 30 or 40 years. The situation at the time for me was going from exhibition to exhibition so everything I made had to be sellable. I started losing the excitement, I didn’t have much time to really invest in new ideas so couldn’t really see myself doing the same things for another 10 years. I needed a break, so I thought maybe I should apply for a teaching job and the opportunity came at UW. It was perfect. I got a teaching job and my studio income went down because my production went down but at the same time I was experimenting and I went to a residence program in the Netherlands. From 1993 to 1996 I was just experimenting and the work was not really sellable. I was depending on the paycheck from teaching. I also had to learn how the University institution ran, things I’d never experienced before. It was totally new, and I had to learn computers and how to write papers and recommendations and all those other things. I wasn’t making much in my studio but gradually got promoted in my job and teaching income slowly went up. I started to catch up with my studio work and landed into doing figurative work. In my first 10 years I was working in the envelope forms. Then the next 10 years I thought I would just go with the sculpture. Now I realize this is my 20th year teaching. I just decided I was going to leave teaching, so this is my last year teaching. I decided I would go back to being full time in the studio again. I tend to think really rationally so when I was young I thought 30 is when I would decide the direction I’m going because at 30 if you want to shift your direction you’re still young enough that you can do it. I felt I had to make a decision at that point and then 10 years became 20 with teaching and I thought I had to make a decision because I’m 62 now. Usually people retire when you’re 65 or 70 so instead of waiting for that time I thought I should be more proactive and make a decision. Now it’s really comfortable to get a check from the university but also the university is getting really busy and I realize I’m kind of suffering from not having enough time in my studio. Also, since I’m getting older the physical energy level is lower. For the last 20 years I did both studio and teaching and now I’m starting to feel like it’s too exhausting and my studio is beginning to really suffer so maybe now it’s time I should just go back to my studio. Also, my children have left home and are independent and so we can downsize. That is our plan.
So your goal after getting out of school was to not become a teacher. What were some of your other goals?
My dream was to have my studio somewhere and have a family and a place where I could just go to my studio every day. That dream came true when I got into my 30s and once you’re in that position you realize that’s not as exciting as you thought. Then you start thinking about the future. If I didn’t have a paycheck from the university I wouldn’t be able to put away for my retirement. If I hadn’t done that I couldn’t go back to being a studio artist now. That gave me the opportunity to have health insurance and to have retirement.
You mentioned that the Vicky raised your kids. How do you keep a balance between home life and the studio during the years when you just had a studio and how you balanced a home life when you are teaching?
I really depended on my wife, Vicky, to be a good mother and she was really good. I wasn’t really neglectful or anything, but sometimes I wonder, when I was in my 30s, if I missed some opportunities to spend more time with my children. Sometimes I just regret it but maybe all people do that. When you get to my age a lot of people have regrets so when they have grandchildren I feel I could have more time with their children. If we didn’t have this kind of teamwork I feel my career could have suffered. Now, I teach, I have studio work’ and the studio work is a lot of work. Besides making my own work it’s also paperwork, correspondence, packing, and shipping. Lots of those extra things my wife does now, so we’re working together now still.
What made you to decide to move to the Seattle area in the first place?
Well first, the city was expensive to purchase your first house and we were living in Helena, Montana, when we came to Seattle, so the city was pretty intimidating. We decided to settle down in the quiet countryside but after being there five years in the quiet countryside it became a bit claustrophobic and I wasn’t getting enough exposure. After five years of living in this region I didn’t know many artists in Seattle and I didn’t have much affiliation with the galleries here. When I got the teaching job, it was an opportunity to have exposure and stimulation from outside. I fell like sometimes you really need to be quiet in the countryside and in other times you have to come out. The timing worked out pretty well for me.
The location definitely plays a part in your happiness. How does it play a part in your work?
First we started out in the Vashon countryside and were having babies, just being a young family, which was really wonderful. I could focus in my studio and my wife could focus on the children. Just as a family it was a really good time. We just needed to get out there when the children got big enough to go to kindergarten.
You talked about exhibiting with Garth Clark. When you exhibit your work how do you know what venues are right for you and how do you find them?
When I went back to Japan, I didn’t know what to make, which direction I should be going. At first I thought, I’m going to settle down and have a studio. Then I thought, what do I make in Japan, because everyone in Japan pretty much is making functional things. I thought of going in that direction and once in a while make other things. While I was in Japan I would take slides of my work to galleries in the cities. I tried several times but I didn’t have any success with that. I was learning how the Japanese galleries work and which kind of galleries I should be targeting. Somehow my audience was more American than Japanese. I had a few shows in Japan but it was nothing major. At that time I was traveling to different places to teach and I left some work in different places. When I was at the Bray for the second time, Garth Clark called me up and offered me a show because he saw my work in Toronto where Bruce Cochrane was. One summer Bruce had invited me for summer school. While I was there, I made something that I left there. Garth came through Toronto and visited Bruce and saw my work. He called me up because he had just opened a gallery in LA. He found me because I had the opportunity to teach and I would take whatever opportunities were. To settle down or be flexible those were the options. From finishing graduate school for the next five years I was just being flexible. I invested in every opportunity and then the gallery opportunity came in 1983.
What influences your work stronger success or failure?
If you have exposure or a sale it’s really a pat on the back and keeps you running. After the first 10 years I felt like I should change my work. I was still showing with Garth so I talked with him. He said ‘of course you can change but I don’t want to show your experimental work.’ I liked to hear what he thinks, but he’s a private gallery. He has to make money and look after the reputation of his gallery. Realizing the real things about business and living, when you keep on living from time to time, you have to face yourself with those things and deal with that heartache and aging is part of it too. Every 10 years you need a reality check. It’s the same in your work with failure and success each time the journey is changing. How you deal with the change, accept or recognize that it’s what’s really important for your work and for life in general.
Have you stay connected with your peers in the larger ceramics communities and other arts communities?
The community that is the strongest is when you’re at school and at residencies. Once you leave the school or leave the residency you still keep in touch but you don’t have that direct influence on each other. A good friend is a really great moral support especially as you get older. You will have things about family and health and the economy and you need that exchange of information from them. Those ceramics friends help with the reality check. My relationship these artists in general grew once I started teaching. I started to find artists with similar interests or subject matter and then I invited those people to the University for teaching or a lecture. There is definitely great access to people outside the ceramics field. I benefited a lot from moving to Seattle and working at the institution because through the institution it’s much easier to connect with other artists out there that you admire. We worked a lot with non-ceramics artists who were interested in ceramics and making a clay project so we had a pretty good connection with some of those artists. My work is really pictorial so I’m interested in painters work, drawings, and printmaking artists. I enjoy looking at their work and communicating with them.
Do you think there are privileges or disadvantages that today’s ceramics artists have to deal with that didn’t exist before?
I’m a little bit out of touch because our graduate student program is now 3-D 4-M which is the mixing of four different materials to make three-dimensional forms. When I was a student I felt like the ceramics community was pretty strong and they were talking about ceramics versus fine art. Now, it’s really opening up so young people don’t have to chose this or that. My career was really supported by the ceramics community and the collectors. Especially international. The ceramics community is pretty strong and very supportive. My generation started from a really strong identity as ceramics artists and other people were looking at your work more from outside with their own interests and agendas. I was really influenced and supported by the ceramics community then gradually my audience got wider. I wonder how things would be if it was the other way around, if I had started my work saying I was an artist and I chose clay versus I’m interested in clay and I’m going to make art out of clay. I think its two different things. I don’t know if there was an advantage to what I did, it was just different. It was pretty comfortable in the 70s; we had a pretty strong ceramics identity with Peter Voulkos and Rudy Audio and gradually ceramics itself moved into an Art area. I feel really lucky that I’m asked from both ceramics and art galleries and museums because if you’re a painter you only have one community. With ceramics you could apply for a grant for craft or sculpture. It’s easier to be recognized in a small town than in a big city. That’s somewhat like in the ceramics community. It’s much easier to be known in the ceramics community and I wonder if that’s important or not. I was supported. I was really lucky with it. For instance, there were the ceramics collector’s people who collected only ceramics. I could sell my work here but I had an opportunity to sell work in Europe where there are not that many ceramic collectors so the sales are really slow. In Europe people would buy my work because they like it not just because it is ceramics. There’s definitely a benefit from the small community but you also want to be a part of the big world too. I started with a small community and gradually my community is slowly expanding. You’re either born in the city and move to the countryside or born in the countryside and go to the big city. I don’t know which one is better but I feel like the difference exists in my generation to the next generation.
What do you think the greatest challenge is facing the students who are leaving school and entering the field as professionals now?
There are a lot of different things that each individual has to face. How long you can keep up with the motivation to create something? There’s a whole bunch of people when you first finish school and some stop working here and some stop there so that only a few people remain when you get into you 70s. Some just disappear and some people die. Everything can be your way not to continue. The goal is to be excited, to keep on making, and to still have energy to be creative as long as you live. The things that will stop you are not necessarily your own strong will but it’s also part of fate too. Health, fate, and sometimes good intentions. You may realize your marriage is more important or your children are more important or taking care of your dying parents is more important. Art is not the top priority but you wish and hope that it can be. To change direction is not always bad. It’s almost like a question of ‘How are you going to live the rest of your life? How well do you like to live your life?’ Whatever happens to you, you have to make a decision. If it is 10 years or some good thing happen and bad things happen you know if you have to take time and you have to make a decision. Making decisions is so important when you’re making art, too. Even when it’s the not the right decision you have to take responsibility for your choice.
Do you have any other advice for emerging artists?
If your goal is to keep on making artwork then you have to have really good skill to live through life first. I always wondered about Peter Voulkos who was almost self-destructive but full of energy. Also, like a Picasso, he was 90 and painting like crazy but I’m sure they had a way to make themselves excited. Later in life Peter Voulkos would go into the studio to work with video cameras running, kind of performing himself. At the end of the day he’s drunk and he’s running the video watching himself working all day while he’s drinking vodka. Somebody told me that, I don’t know if it’s true. I understand that, it’s narcissistic but its fine to make yourself excited about what you’re doing. I’m kind of conscious about it so when I come to my studio I like it to be clean and ready to go. This place is supposed to excite me, if I’m feeling good or not. I take a lot of pictures because it is really exciting to me. For instance if you take a picture of how your work changes and also looking at my work in the camera or on the computer I can look at it more objectively. That’s a part of trying to get excited and notice something. Now I have a lot of different projects going on so if I get board then I’m ready to go on to the next thing.