By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Takashi Nakazato works his clay in a studio
at Mid-Pacific Institute
From the clay
Two potters find a bondBy Nadine Kam
in their cultural heritage
and their art
Assistant Features Editor
The Japanese have a name for Japanese-Americans whose ancestors came to Hawaii more than a hundred years ago. It's "kaseki," meaning "fossil."
It's based on an observation that while Japan has moved forward in terms of social customs and rituals, Hawaii's Japanese uphold many of the traditions practiced by their parents and their parents' parents.
"In many ways, we're more Japanese than the Japanese. People came to Hawaii and they never changed the old ways," said artist and teacher Hideo Okino, who has been dubbed "the frozen Japanese" by fellow artist Takashi Nakazato.
Okino's love for the arts woke his fossil soul and opened his eyes to a world vastly different from his experiences growing up in Ookala on the Big Island.
Okino and Nakazato, brothers in spirit, if not in nationality, are sharing the billing in a show of ceramics at Queen Emma Gallery that continues through Feb. 22.
Featured will be a series of blackened ceramic ware by Okino, made when he visited Nakazato in Karatsu, Japan, and pieces by Nakazato, made and fired in the soda kiln at Mid-Pacific Institute, where Okino teaches art.
Beyond the notion of the exhibition as a one-time only cultural exchange, it is the result of a bond that spans more than 30 years, even though the artists met only three years ago.
The two were able to connect despite a language barrier and a mutual modesty that prevented each from saying too much about his work. Okino said Nakazato simply showed up in his ceramics studio one day, set himself up in a small space and started working, using deft touches that seem to shape the clay with little effort.
"I didn't know too much about him," Okino said, "but I would see these well-dressed Japanese ladies come by and they would all stop and bow to him. So I went to the library and borrowed a book that just so happened to have been written by his father (Tarouemon Nakazato XII), a national treasure in Japan. I began to understand Nakazato's position in Japan."
Although his name is Japanese, Nakazato descends from a 13-generation line of Korean potters who settled in Karatsu, in northern Kyushu, sometime after Japan's invasion of Korea in 1592.
It's been well-documented that during the invasion, many Korean potters, as well as textile makers and metal workers, were uprooted along with entire mountains of clay soil, and taken to Japan to create wares to be used by royalty. Today, artists such as Nakazato carry on the Korean aesthetic tradition that has come to be thought of as Japanese.
By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
This water jug by Hideo Okino
is made in the Karatsu style.
It is an aesthetic that has appealed to Okino since his student days at the University of Hawaii in the early 1960s, when he came across a picture of a ceramic bowl in an art history book. It set him on an elusive quest to recreate that bowl, which beckoned so powerfully.
To understand the nature of Okino's quest, it's necessary to go a little further back, to the days he thought he wanted to be a plant pathologist.
"Back then, the thinking was that humanities were a waste of time," he said, but he was required to take one American literature course. His class was taught by a Jewish professor from New York, who, one day -- because the students were mostly Japanese-Americans -- stopped teaching American literature and began teaching Japanese literature instead. Okino's life was forever changed after hearing one particular haiku. It read: "An old pond/a frog leaps/the sound of water."
"I don't know what happened, but all of a sudden everything changed for me," he said. "I started looking for more courses that would help me recapture that experience that expressed something so deep."
Instead, he caused ripples of his own in the art department. "I was trying to retain my cultural background, but the type of art they were trying to teach me was strictly Western. In my heart I didn't want to do that, so I rebelled."
He left the UH, but didn't take the most logical next step. "My development was not a direct one," he said. "No one thought then of going to Japan to study, so I went to New York."
There he dabbled in painting, but chance encounters with Hawaii-born Toshiko Takaezu, an internationally acclaimed ceramist, led him to clay.
Okino exhibited his work in New York before moving on to teach at the University of Vermont for 10 years. Unlike those who draw a line between art making and teaching, Okino enjoys both, saying that they are "essentially the same activity. Teaching is just a more direct means of communicating."
Before leaving Hawaii, Okino had promised his father that he would one day return to teach young people here. In the 1980s Okino came back and was living in a Zen dojo when he came across an Encyclopedia of Pottery and saw photos of three pieces he fell in love with, similar to the one he had seen back in the '60s.
By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
One of the ceramics to be on display.
"They had a unique style. They were unglazed, made with heavy iron clay that comes out black. They were roughly made, almost crude, but deliberately like that. I said to myself, I want to study at the place where these particular pots were made."
That place was Tanegashima, and Okino said, "I started talking about that island to Nakazato. He's a humble person so he didn't say too much about it."
Nakazato repaid Mid-Pac's hospitality by inviting Okino to Japan in spring 1996 to work in his Karatsu studio. There, Okino continued asking questions about Tanegashima, and an apprentice finally led him to a room filled with the heavy, blackened ware that he had so long tried to emulate.
"The tradition on Tanegashima had stopped and Nakazato had been sent to revive the kiln. Basically, I was looking at his (Nakazato's) work all along and the pieces he fired for me are in that style."
What's more, a visit to the Nakazato's family museum led him to a piece he recognized instantly, that was made by Nakazato's father.
"Here was the pot I was trying to copy since 1962. For me, it was a real wonderful experience."
And in working at Nakazato's Korean kick wheel, rather than an electric potter's wheel, Okino finally was able to make the earthy pieces he could only imagine before.
"Electric wheels force the clay so the forms tend to have a mechanized look. The kick wheel is more direct. There's no flywheel, so when you stop kicking, it stops. There's a direct connection between the clay and what your feet is doing.
Nakazato brought his kick wheel to Hawaii while he experimented with the gray clay used by students, and used Mid-Pac's soda kiln, which leaves a silver sheen on unglazed wares.
His mornings are reserved for shopping trips in Chinatown, where he searches the markets for fresh fish and vegetables that he cooks in ceramic ware of his own design. He's sampled McDonald's fare, but doesn't quite understand the why of fast food.
At his home, the act of dining, of tea, are meant to be savored. Okino explained that in Karatsu he often visited tofu carts, manned by vendors who studied chopstick making and flower arrangement to better create suitable environments for enjoyment of the tofu.
"The difference between American culture and Japanese culture is that in America, art is considered an object to look at. In Japan, it fits into life as a larger aesthetic," Okino said. "There is a connection between life and that painting, that sculpture."
At his first tea ceremony, Okino watched as Nakazato's son started making chopsticks. "I went out to pick bamboo in the back yard. I chopped the wrong kind, but I made a pair and gave them to Nakazato's wife who carefully inspected them. Then she handed them back and said, 'Sorry, these are really bad.'
"Two weeks later I made six pairs and she said they were not too bad. Last year I went back and I didn't try any more, but now I'm used to the handmade stuff. I didn't know what I was getting into.
"Sometimes I feel I don't know anything," Okino said, "But part of this unconscious past is in me and it's real old."
On viewWhat: Ceramics by Takashi Nakazato and Hideo Okino
Where: Queen Emma Gallery
When: Through Feb. 22; meet the artists 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday