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August 2008

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East meets West in the pottery studio

For 17 consecutive summers, Donald Taylor (Art) has offered a nighttime Raku ceramics class at St. Norbert College. This July, the course was made even more meaningful for those involved, as four native-born Japanese students worked side by side with their American counterparts to create modern pottery inspired by the ancient eastern art technique.

Ikuko Torimoto (Modern Languages and Literatures) was one of Taylor’s Japanese Raku students this summer. Originally from Tokyo, Torimoto explained that, historically, the term “Raku” became the family name of a ceramic dynasty founded by Chojiro in the 16th century. He made a tea bowl to heighten the aesthetic appeal of the tea ceremony advocated by the leading tea master, Sen Rikyu. Today, however, Raku is more widely known as an Americanized Japanese ceramic technique, generally utilized to make non-functional items.

Shoko Neya ’10, said she does, in fact, imagine a Japanese tea ceremony and tea bowl when she hears the term “Raku.” Both are traditional elements of her native culture, of which she is proud.
“The knowledge of Japanese culture helps me to imagine and make Raku ceramics works because I saw ceramics products so much in Japan,” she said. “But I am also interested in the American students’ work because I think that they do not know what Raku ceramic is.

“Their works are fresh ideas for me,” she added. “I have never seen their designs and color patterns. I learned radical new designs and American originality from this class and [its] American students.”

One of Neya’s American peers, Adam Van Fossen ’10, said he first became interested in Japan’s unique culture after spending three months abroad in the island country, working a summer job upon the recommendation of a friend. This interest, combined with a fine art minor, prompted Van Fossen to participate in Taylor’s Raku class this July. With its special techniques, materials and firing process, it’s really cool to learn what people have been doing in Japan for hundreds of years, he said.

Because it is only offered during the summer months, Taylor’s course is not only ideal for St. Norbert students interested in Japanese culture, like Neya and Van Fossen, but it is also ideal for full-time native Japanese faculty members, like Torimoto and Yoko Mogi-Hein (Education).

“Since I teach education courses during the regular semesters, it was such a treat to be able to join Professor Taylor’s class this summer as one of his students,” said Mogi-Hein, whose mother also joined her in the making of her own Raku ceramics.

“I think that [the] Raku ceramics class has provided my mother with a creative outlet,” added Mogi-Hein. “She is absolutely delighted to be able to express her energy and imagination with her art.”

Although she does not speak any English, and a lot of translating took place, both Taylor and Van Fossen commented that Mogi-Hein’s mother was a pleasure to have in class.

“I used my few words of Japanese,” joked Taylor.

But despite these differences across languages and cultures, Torimoto believes the creation of Raku ceramics gives a spiritual connection to the moment of concentration and appreciation.

“I do not think it is necessary to have any previous experience or knowledge of Japanese culture,” she said. “The experience with clay and making some objects is not only the culture of Japan, but universal. If you are interested in making something in clay, you would really enjoy taking this class.”

Exhibit of Japanese design

This summer’s Raku ceramics course was not the only Japanese-themed event on campus in July.

“Monyo: Pattern,” or Japanese pattern design, was the theme of an exhibition held in the Baer Gallery of St. Norbert’s Bush Art Center July 7-31. The exhibition featured an array of Japanese-designed and Japanese-made kimono, obi, and chiyogami pieces from the personal collections of Torimoto, Taylor and the Rev. Jim Neilson, O.Praem., ’88 (Art).

According to Torimoto, the exhibition was a wonderful addition to the summer’s events, as it combined three representations of the culture of Japan definitely showed both the artists’ craftsmanship and their sense of beauty.

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