Artist Profile: Harry Nakamoto, Potter

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson March 15, 2015 01:35

This profile was part of a five-article feature called “The Age of Creativity” that appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Friends and Neighbors Magazine. Featured artists shared how they found their artistic calling, the challenges and rewards of their art, and their advice to other boomers and seniors ready to explore creative callings. For FAN’s list of creativity resources in the foothills, see Creative Outlets: Art Classes, Writing Groups & Much More.

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He sits at the wheel, and the 82-year-old hands on the clay are his. But inspiration for his work comes as much from her as it does from him.

Columbia potter Harry Nakamoto and his wife Florence, 81, have been married for 57 years, and when the ceramic artist discusses his work, he describes a loving partnership.

“My art is important to me,” he explains, “but we are more important than the art. The pots are ours, and we look at them as belonging to us, not me. They are our creation.”

Recognized in 2013 as one of the 100 best wood-fired ceramic artists in the world, Nakamoto twice a year fires the 10-foot-long anagama – Japanese for cave kiln – he designed and built 12 years ago. With help from Florence and a handful of ceramic-artist friends, two cords of pine are loaded into the anagama’s firebox over three to four days.

A pot’s location in the kiln affects its final appearance. “Ash falling on a piece creates a pattern determined by the flow through the kiln,” Nakamoto says. “The ash by itself doesn’t melt but mixes with the clay surface and becomes the glaze.”

While Nakamoto also creates beautiful raku-fired pieces, his passion is anagama.

“The appeal of wood-fired pots is that I am taking something from nature and making it into something useful. I’m reorganizing nature,” he says.

“A tree that took years to grow comes to me packed with energy to heat my kiln, and minerals drawn through its roots in just the right proportions glaze and color pots formed with clay from the same forest.”

Nakamoto did not come to art early in life. Born in Hawaii to first-generation Japanese immigrants, Harry was the seventh of 10 children and spent his youth helping his father grow vegetables on leased land.

H-&-F-DSC_0961-editedHe joined the Air Force when he was 18 and spent 22 years on active duty and another five or six in the reserves. As a pilot and Cold War warrior, Nakamoto flew B-57 bombers and then C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft as tensions escalated in Vietnam.

Also while in the Air Force he met Florence.

“She was from Hawaii, too,” he notes, “but we really didn’t get to know each other until we were both living in San Francisco.”

The two were married in 1957, and have a son and two grandsons in San Jose.

In his 40s Nakamoto retired from the military as a lieutenant colonel. He was studying molecular biology at San Jose State and had an opening in his schedule that Florence suggested he fill with a pottery class.

“She had learned ikebana (floral design) when we were stationed in Japan, and she wanted me to make some pots for her flowers.”

He smiles and adds softly, “You see how she influenced me toward my art? I’ve been influenced by two people, Florence and James Lovera.”

pot-on-wheelfn00500-editedLovera taught that first pottery course and convinced him to pursue a master’s degree in ceramic art, concentrating on pottery. And pottery is what he has done, with inspiration from Florence, for the last 35 years.

Florence influences his work “in all ways,” he says. “Intellectually, we critique the work together. Both of us entertain new ideas, and we are always discussing pottery, whether it’s ours or whether it belongs to someone else.”

His wife says the partnership works “because we respect each other. Of course we love each other dearly, but we’re best friends, too. We just enjoy each other’s company.”

And what constitutes a great piece? “An emotional response,” Harry Nakamoto says. “It’s something the kiln and the fire give me. I’m hoping it’s something unusual and exciting that I’ve never seen before.

“Potters are often blinded by a desired effect,” he explains, “and don’t really see the whole piece. They are too close to the work. Right out of the kiln the pots will let me know I’ve achieved a technical objective but not necessarily an aesthetic one. But Florence can react less objectively. She may see something right away that may have taken me a month or two to realize.”

couple-1-fn00624-editedWhen a new piece emerges from the anagama, Florence first looks for the coloring of the glaze and the shape. “But I also run my hands around a piece and look for the feel. If I find something really striking, I put it away and keep it for a while.”

Both Nakamoto and his wife hope those who buy their art find pleasure in it. “We’re just satisfied somebody liked it enough to take it home and keep it there,” Harry says.

His advice to others who may find art later in life?

“They shouldn’t work for a grade in a class or try to achieve a certain level,” Nakamoto says.

“They should do it just to enjoy themselves. If they’re lucky, they’ll be consumed by it – and if they become really interested in their art, other people will appreciate it too.”

 

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine
Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson March 15, 2015 01:35
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1 Comment

  1. Judy April 1, 15:29

    During the eighties I purchased a beautiful raku vase at the American Crafts Council Show in San Francisco. It is a beautiful raku piece and I am currently wrapping it up to give to my neice who is an artist and recently married. I know she will enjoy and appreciate it as I have these many years. Keep up the great work!

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