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Artist masters predictable surprises


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POSTED: Sunday, July 19, 2009

For Clayton Amemiya the most important thing about his artwork being presented to Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan is that it was a gift.

“;It has more value, it means more because it was a gift rather than having been purchased,”; the Big Island artist said Wednesday from his Hilo home. The work was presented the same day to the imperial couple by Senate President Colleen Hanabusa.

The gift is from Amemiya's island-themed collection. Like all his work, it was fired utilizing the “;anagama”; technique, which involves wood, unglazed clay and a cavelike kiln. The collection represents the Hawaiian Islands, and the piece the imperial couple took home refers to the Big Island.

Amemiya said anagama firing requires an awareness of several factors: the ways various types of woods react, how the kiln is stacked and how air circulates within the kiln.

Anagama pieces undergo a “;fortuitous glazing”; (via the wood) rather than a planned one that can be achieved using glazes and traditional firing, Amemiya said.

“;Still, after you gain experience, you can plan out an anagama piece. There are still surprises, but you can predict what will happen,”; he said. For all that, “;each piece will have its own character, depending on rain, humidity—natural factors.”;

Amemiya has been a full-time potter for 25 years. He grew up in Wahiawa and came across the anagama technique while working in Okinawa in the early 1970s. For three years he studied there informally with an anagama master.

Upon returning to Hawaii, the artist realized he couldn't settle back on Oahu: “;It's hard in Honolulu because of the smoke ordinance.”;

So he bought three acres in Hilo, built a kiln, and it's been “;great—I fire three or four times a year with no complaints.”;

Amemiya said creating a piece is a four-month-long process, from encountering the lump of clay to finishing off the 96th—and final—hour of firing.

Wood selection is important because different varieties have different effects on the clay. Amemiya is partial to ohia. And by far, he said, wood is the costliest factor because so much of it is burned. Then there is the sweat equity of splitting the wood before it hits the kiln, another kind of investment.

Ninety-six hours translates to four days, and in the case of anagama firings, those four days entail constant attentiveness.

Kilns must be stoked every 10 minutes, so Amemiya enlists the help of his son and two friends. The four men each take six-hour shifts a day to tend the continuing fire.

Even for all that effort, Amemiya said it was only after owning a gallery in Hilo that he began to have confidence in his work. (He ran the gallery for a decade, until about a year and a half ago.)

“;I met people from all around the world who collect pottery,”; he recalled. “;They made me realize that perhaps what I'm doing is worthwhile.”;

Today, collectors still come calling each time Amemiya repacks his cave kiln with fresh pots and ohia.

It is their presence that tends the fire within this artist.