Spotlight: Potter Kazu Oba

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Kazu Oba. Photo by PAUL MILLER

Visit the Longmont home of Japanese-born artist Kazu Oba and you enter a world of beauty, simplicity and utility. Outside the home sit graphic cross-sections of large trees waiting to be transformed into sculptures. Inside, the living room is dominated by a long, central table that Oba designed and built to perform multiple functions, from dining to displaying his pots. His simple handmade chairs are assiduously wrought: wide enough so one can sit cross-legged on them, but also 2 inches higher than normal, he says, to make it more comfortable to reach for dishes during meals. Everything, it seems, has a purpose and a reason for being. The same is true of his austere but gorgeous pottery, which he has thought about carefully and then made with precision: A small cup has almost imperceptible indentations to make it easier to grasp, a teapot meant for cool tea has no handle and little grooves in the spout to strain out the tea leaves, hand-hewn wooden placemats are just the right size for his plates and bowls.

Oba studied international relations at the University of Colorado before switching to fine art, apprenticing with famed Boulder sculptor Jerry Wingren and then returning to Japan to work under 13th-generation master potter Takashi Nakazato, whom he first met at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass. Oba, who has had recent exhibitions in Tokyo and New York, is also making his first appearance this year at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival July 6–8. We sat down with him to talk about his work.

Were you always artistic?
Yes. I was one of those kids who liked to make things, to draw things. In grade school, I would put my sketchbook on my bike and bicycle for an hour to get to this famous shrine to draw trees and other things. But I never thought I would do this for a living.

How did you end up in Colorado?
Japanese people have this fascination with the U.S. music and movies—they all come from the U.S. When I first came to this country, in 1989, I landed in St. Charles, Mo., for three months to do an intensive English language course. Then I came to CU, where I studied international relations. But one day, a friend said, “Hey, Kazu, come over. We’re making art.” He really shaped my path. It was the first time I had done drawing in a couple of decades. I got myself a sketchbook and changed my major to fine art.

You apprenticed with the sculptor Jerry Wingren, but how did you ultimately decide to focus on pottery?
To me, there is no difference between sculpture and pottery, except for the functionality of pottery. They are both about three-dimensional forms. I started thinking about pottery because the whole time I was in school, I worked in restaurants. I cooked for maybe 15 years. I was making what was on top of the plates and bowls, so naturally became interested in what the food was served on. So I decided I’d like to go back to Japan to study pottery because they have a higher level of perfection there in creating functional dishes. I think it’s because of the long history of the tea ceremony, where everything is orchestrated, including the architecture and the serving pieces. I was looking for a guru and found Takashi Nakazato. I liked that he didn’t make his work bigger than it is. He wasn’t full of himself.

And what did you learn from him?
I learned about the skills, the techniques, but also about how to live my life. I learned how to make pottery but mostly I learned that it’s not about the pottery, it’s about the food that goes on it. I’m making a dish so this food can go on top of it for a better dining experience, for the time shared among friends and families. And I believe the dish is a big part of the experience of eating food. If I make a dish that makes you go, “Oh, put that on a shelf,” then I didn’t do a good job. That’s unsuccessful pottery. I like to make the kinds of pots that you might not even notice; my pottery is not completed until there is food on it.

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