Friday, June 17, 2011

2010 GOOS Interview

I figured out how to post pdf files on blogger! This is an interview from in 2010. They interviewed me last week for their July 2011 issue, so I'll post the update when available to compare ...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Toshiko Takaezu

I remember three professors from Princeton fondly. The ones that taught me more than what was on their syllabi. Eric L from Engineering Thermodynamics, Bob B from East Asian Studies/Art History, and Toshiko T from pottery. Toshiko passed away this year and my email box has been crammed with various memories from her students at PU in the 80's and 90's. Pretty much everyone seems to remember her as tough and critical in class, but open and warm at her house where she brought us to raku firing picnics.

Funny, I don't remember her as tough at all. One of the first pieces she asked us to make was a sculpture from identical forms at least 28 inches high. Mine was enormous, it measured far more than 28 inches in every direction. It also exploded in the kiln, so instead of the rather mundane monstrosity I had actually envisioned, it came out as an intriguingly disjoint tryptic. Toshiko loved it, decided as a result (incorrectly) that I was a favorite student and never spoke a critical word to me for the rest of the semester. Because I enjoyed her class, and playing with clay, I signed up again every semester until I graduated. It was an unrelated bonus that this served to pad my mediocre Mechanical Engineering/East Asian Studies GPA with A's.

The next semester my mother asked me for some pottery, so I thought I'd try to throw a big bowl with a fitting lid - a daunting technical challenge for me. The lid cracked while it was drying out, but having put so much effort into producing this functional item for my mother, I carefully disguised the crack as a spoon hole. Toshiko, to my astonishment, and for the first and only time with any of my lousy work, put this piece in the pile of rejects on the floor. Having never experienced this, I went to her with it. A 'duck' she said, which was her word for 'functional handicraft that cannot therefore be art'. I explained my mother wanted it so I had to make it. She was not moved in the least. Trying another tack, I explained the hole in the lid was completely serendipitous, I had only put it there in order to remove a drying crack that appeared because I was so bad at throwing on the wheel. It was not a preconceived slot to be used for a spoon, but evidence that the clay was in control, not me. Oh, she said, in that case you better glaze it.

Here's another early wheel piece. Toshiko took a quick look at it and said 'too thick.' So I took one of the little wire tools and scratched it down until it was paper thin like hers. If you look carefully, you can even see the shape of the trimming tool in the grooves. I fired it at one of her raku picnics.

What's the point of all this reminiscing? Toshiko taught me about the importance of unintended consequences beyond our control. I use this lesson all the time in my job working for the United Nations trying to address global environmental problems. Toshiko taught me, through clay, the hubris of thinking we can engineer the Earth into a sustainable resource delivery system for societal benefit.