CREATING PRACTICAL ART FOR THE HOME: Arakawa, a Bay Area original potter


MR. POTTER WORKS HIS MAGIC ­— Thomas Arakawa has a wide range of wares for sale, each crafted with a personal, but functional touch. He uses a wide variety of firing techniques, glazes and clays to create his works. photos by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly
MR. POTTER WORKS HIS MAGIC ­— Thomas Arakawa has a wide range of wares for sale, each crafted with a personal, but functional touch. He uses a wide variety of firing techniques, glazes and clays to create his works. photos by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

Thomas Arakawa brings a Japanese influence and aesthetic to his pottery, yet he has no formal training from a pottery master in Japan. The 38-year-old ceramics artist was primarily taught in the United States and professes he has learned his Japanese techniques from YouTube videos and reading. He describes his works as being distinctly “Japanese American” and takes pride in being Japanese American himself.

Arakawa was born in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, and immigrated to the United States in 1993. His father was a Nisei who settled in Japan after marrying Arakawa’s Japanese mother.

Nichiren Legacy
“My grandfather was a Nichiren Buddhism minister,” Arakawa said. “He was minister for the Nichiren Buddhist Temple of Portland for a while. … After the war, he heard a lot of Nikkei were moving out to Chicago. So he joined them and helped set up the Nichiren Buddhist Temple there.”

Arakawa’s grandmother, Seiho (Shizue) Arakawa, was the founder of Ikebana Mishokai of Chicago and a floral arrangement master. “When I first moved to the U.S., I lived with my grandparents in Virginia,” Arakawa said. “I think she ultimately inspired me in my pottery.”

Arakawa recalled a giant tea pot that his grandmother owned. “When I first saw it at 19, I thought it looked disgusting.” The oversized piece, when the lid was removed, allowed for unusual floral arrangements. “It never left my mind though, as it later came back and I had to remake it,” he said about his own oversized teapot he keeps as a part of his collection.

While Arakawa came to the U.S. to pursue art, he was not always a potter. “I first came to the U.S. as an art student,” he said. He stayed with his grandparents in Virginia before moving to Columbia College in Chicago to study photography and drawing. He then came to California with his wife. (The couple has since divorced.) He stopped his artistic endeavors, however, while he held a number of odd jobs.

Personal Tragedy Leads to Change
Arakawa’s life changed a few years ago when his house burned down. The blaze almost killed his wife and he lost everything in the fire. “I noticed that all material possessions can be taken away in a second,” he said. “So I quit my job and studied full time.”

He worked his way into accounting and got a position at Ernst & Young. Then he received word from Japan that his father had committed suicide.

“I did not even go back to Japan and kept on going with my study and new work. But eventually, my mind started to give up,” he said. Arakawa suffered from depression and took up pottery at the Blossom Hill Crafts Pottery School in Los Gatos. “Loss of my job and divorce was inevitable.

But clay was always there. And my master, Joanne Brice, always had faith that I will be a good potter.”

Brice, who started the school in 1970, said Arakawa came to the school three and a half years ago as a beginner. Brice said an enormous amount of effort is required for a person to become a professional potter. The average potter takes five years to become a professional, and even then, not many can quit their day job.

“There is no innate talent required to learn pottery, just perseverance, but there is a learning curve and some people can progress faster than others,” Brice said. “Thomas had two advantages. He is Japanese American, and his work looks Japanese, but modern, which is very appealing to the market today. He is also good at it and progressed very quickly.”

Brice and other instructors taught Arakawa to follow his heart in creating his pottery. He said he owes his success to Brice’s faith in his talents and guidance in everything from form to pricing.

From Student to Teacher
While Arakawa had no Japanese teachers, he studied Japanese pottery by himself and created works by combining what he learned. He is now an instructor at the school. He lives there as a resident artist to help watch over the kilns to fire the students’ works. Arakawa said the more than 100 students each produce about three or five pieces a week, all of which need to be fired by the resident potters.

The Nikkei ceramic artist said he works closely with others to improve his work. He claims his pieces serve a function, whether for dining or floral arrangement. “I often talk with whoever is commissioning me,” he said. “I’ll need to know what colors my work needs to go with … what kind of food are they serving it with … It also needs to suit the American lifestyle; bowls might need to be bigger for larger portions, customers might demand works be lighter, all sorts of things.”

In creating works for plants, Arakawa said he considers them as a picture frame for bonsai and ikebana, and that most of his works are “incomplete” unless they are used.

“Our school’s owner (Brice) encourages the students to sell their wares,” Arakawa said. “A potter’s life is sponsored practice. Functional wares are important. … I take what I learn there and apply that to my art pieces and vice versa.”

Arakawa recently started promoting his work to sell. He first set up his own shop at last year’s San Jose Spirit of Japantown Festival. Since then, he’s sold at local venues and also provides pieces for Hiroshi Hayama of Utsuwa Floral Design, a bonsai and garden store with two locations in San Francisco, including the New People building in San Francisco’s Japantown.

From Creator to Seller
According to Hayama, the two met two and a half years ago, shortly after Hayama arrived in the United States from Japan. “I came to San Francisco to start a bonsai shop,” Hayama said in Japanese. “I was initially going to use a Japanese antiques dealer but found that would get fairly expensive. Then my wife found him (Arakawa) on the Web.”

As Arakawa’s first repeat customer, Hayama now orders 50 or so pieces a month, which he uses on his bonsai arrangements sold at his shop.

The process has helped Arakawa grow as an artist. “Hiroshi gives me a lot of freedom when he orders from me, and I use his feedback,” Arakawa said.

Over the years, Arakawa has come across a number of methods and styles in making pottery. The wood firing process for kilns are “very involved,” and can take anything from 30 hours to four days to finish one firing, he explained.

Arakawa said firing a kiln takes practice and patience. “It’s like when teaching someone to mold the clay,” he said. “I cannot express how to hold the clay or what the feel of the clay should be to students. We have to feel it for ourselves. Just the same with wood fired kilns, we need to listen to the flame, smell the oxygen levels and look at the color of the flames. … There’s no guessing.” He also said that the works might change, depending on the type of clay used as well as the wood used to fire the kiln.

“It’s the exact opposite from numbers. When I was an accountant, I’d see all these numbers, but I never actually saw any of the actual money,” he said. “With pottery, I get to meet my customers and talk about it. I get to create my wares.”

Arakawa’s works range from $12 dinnerware pieces to $200 wood fire pieces. He also produces larger decorative works.

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