John Toki: Ceramics as a Family Affair
By Paul Dorn
Enterprise art critic
One of the key participants at this year's CCACA is John Toki, an East Bay ceramic artist who teaches at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, and is the co-author with Charlotte F. Speight of several books on ceramic techniques, including Make It In Clay and Hands In Clay. Toki will create a collaborative installation with Daniela Pulido, Memories Of The Land, which opens during the CCACA and continues through June 15 at the Davis Art Center. "The conference is a great opportunity to meet other ceramic artists, exchange ideas and view each other's work."
With regards to why Northern California is such a hotbed of ceramics work, Toki attributes it to a "critical mass" of talented, passionate and influential figures working in the medium. "You had Robert Arneson, of course," says Toki. "But you also had Peter Voulkos, Viola Frey, Stephen De Staebler, Richard Shaw, and many others. These people were all active during the 1960s, when there was a great a desire for creative freedom. It was a ripe environment for innovation. And the art department at UC Davis was notable for embracing this spirit of experimentation."
Toki is well-placed to consider the regional ceramic scene. Toki's family business, Leslie Ceramic Supply in Berkeley, has been the main supplier of sculptural clay in Northern California for more than 40 years. More than that, the store has been an important resource for technical advice, inspiration and encouragement; which resulted in shop matriarch Akiko Leslie Toki and her family acquiring more than 300 works over 40 years through purchase or gifts, by a broad range of ceramic artists.
Many of these works where shown in the shop, as a kind of "sounding board" where ceramic artists could see what their peers were up to. In 1998 the Pence Gallery presented "More Than Clay: The Toki Collection of Ceramics," an exhibition of more than 50 works, which later was also shown at the Richmond Art Center.
For John Toki as an artist, the satisfaction of working with clay comes from the material itself. "It can be used for large-scale works, as well as more intimate pieces, with equal success. You can apply color by painting, glazing or mixing it into the clay. It's a quiet activity that you can manipulate with only your hands, you don't need tools really. You can use it for representational works, as well as abstraction. And I really like the physical presence of clay."
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