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Famed artist and former Visual Arts professor Toshiko Takaezu dies

Toshiko Takaezu, who served on the faculty of Princeton’s Program in Visual Arts from 1968 until her retirement in 1992, died on March 9 in Hawaii. She was 88.

Carol Rigolot, Executive Director of the Humanities Council which oversaw the Program in Visual Arts during Toshiko Takaezu’s tenure, composed the following retrospective on the occasion of Toshiko’s death.

From 1967 to 1992, Princeton University was blessed by the presence of a "national treasure," Toshiko Takaezu, as a faculty member in the Visual Arts Program. Her legacy continues to the present and future. Across 25 years, Toshiko Takaezu contributed her genius, her energy, her example and her pedagogical skills to the University, to all who knew her, and to many who never met her in person but were able to admire her works in public places. In grateful admiration Princeton recognized Toshiko Takaezu by awarding her its three highest honors: The Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities in 1992, presented by Professor James Seawright, who was then Director of the Program in Visual Arts; an honorary degree as Doctor of Fine Arts Honoris Causa in 1996 and the Belknap Visitorship in the Humanities in 2004, which recognizes exceptional writers and artists. The roster of Belknap honorees includes Eudora Welty, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nadine Gordimer, Roy Lichtenstein, Athol Fugard, Doris Lessing, John Updike, Edward Albee, Czeslaw Milosz, Frank Stella, Arthur Miller, Merce Cunningham, Maurice Sendak, Chuck Close, Don DeLillo, Richard Serra, Meryl Streep and Ian McEwan.

In awarding the Doctor of Fine Arts Honoris Causa honorary degree, the President and Trustees described Toshiko in the following terms: “An artist of exceptional gifts, she has created objects in which the ancient craft-traditions of Asian ceramics are fused with a wholly original modern sensibility. Moving pottery beyond the utilitarian to the purely sculptural, her work has brought her world-wide recognition and taught us to see new forms and colors.  Generous and inspiring teacher, mentor and role-model, she has encouraged generations of Princeton students to use their creative powers not only to mold and sculpt clay but also to shape and center their lives.”

During her career, Toshiko Takaezu performed three different kinds of transformations: she transformed the lives of individual students, she transformed the Program in Visual Arts and she transformed the campus.

Ms. Takaezu instilled in generations of learners a sense of art, discipline, and the possibilities of clay. On the first day of class, she would instruct students to trim any long fingernails. Even Brooke Shields, Class of 1987, obeyed the rule, in preparation for beginning her ceramics course. According to legend at least, Professor Takaezu was the most difficult grader on campus: applying the hammer rule. In other words, she would take a hammer and destroy any objects that were not up to par.

Each semester she invited her classes to come to her studio, which is a magical place, to see where her work is created and to learn the ancient Japanese art of Raku firing.

In 1987, she arranged for Kichizaemon Raku, the 15th generation of his family to produce this unique ceramic ware, to spend two weeks in Princeton as a Short-Term Fellow of the Humanities Council. He worked with students, demonstrated his method, fired pottery in the ancient Raku manner, and presided at a Japanese tea ceremony, which is so closely linked with Raku ware and with Japanese culture. This was an unforgettable experience for the students and for the campus community.

Toshiko Takaezu's students revered her. On the occasion of her 80th birthday, alumni of her courses, Ceramics 211 and 212, filled a treasure box with messages expressing their gratitude and admiration.

During Toshiko's years on the faculty, the Visual Arts Program was directed by Professor James Seawright, the noted sculptor, who was an enthusiastic admirer. When introducing her at the Behrman Awards ceremony, he spoke eloquently of Toshiko's importance at Princeton, where she was one of the inaugural faculty members in the fledging Visual Arts Program. He also talked about her impact on students and on the wider world. This is an excerpt of Professor Seawright's remarks: “Toshiko has created a part of her world, her life, in the basement of 185 Nassau. And she has opened the rest of her world and life to the students. At that part of teaching which is the imparting of information, whether it be the basic facts of glaze chemistry or the more subtle dynamics of wheelwork, she is peerless. But to Toshiko, her art and her life are one and the same thing. She devotes as much care and concern to the preparation of a meal, the cleaning up afterwards, or working in her legendary garden, as she does to throwing a pot or mixing a glaze. From lunch every Wednesday noon in the ceramics studio with her apprentices and student assistants and sometimes a fortunate colleague to the occasions when a visiting potter is giving a talk and Toshiko prepares one of her famous kiln-cooked meals in which chickens clad in effigies of clay are broken open, chopped up and feasted upon, the students get to participate in the wonderful mixture of art-making and domestic ritual which is the essence of Toshiko's world. [...] Of the many hundreds of students she taught, most remember her as one of the greatest influences of their lives, not because she taught them how to hand-build or throw a pot or how to mix an ash glaze, or even how to cook a chicken in a kiln, but because she taught them all of it -- her way of life, a true way, or as potters say, a centered way.”

Toshiko Takaezu's art figures are in the permanent collections of all major museums, but one can also see some of her most beautiful works at Princeton University. Three pots, in her inimitable blue glaze, are featured in a lighted vitrine in the main corridor of the Lewis Center for the Arts, where Toshiko taught. They were given to the University by two alumni in memory of their friend, John F.X. Pozzi '78. Other of her works are housed in the Princeton University Museum, where a retrospective of her art was exhibited in 2010. And then there is the bronze Remembrance Bell in the center of campus. When the University sought to commemorate the victims of 9/11, President Tilghman recognized that the best possible tribute was one of Toshiko Takaezu's unique bronze bells. The architects and landscapers designed a lovely space around the bell. It is now a place for quiet recollection, under the peaceful influence of this masterpiece. The bell is a testimony to the variety of genres and media in which Toshiko Takaezu excelled.  For all of us who revered her, the bell will henceforth have the added dimension of being a memorial to her.

Carol Rigolot, Executive Director, Humanities Council
Princeton University
March 10, 2011

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