Ceramic artist Clayton Amemiya literally plays with fire during the 100-hour firing process in his anagama kiln, where temperatures rise to around 2300 degrees. It is raining night and day when I visit three times in mid-March to learn the firing process and to see the results.
The three-acre tropical atelier in northern Hilo, Hawaii is visually stunning as it merges indoor and outdoor space. Amemiya’s modest home, studio, showroom, and anagama kiln punctuate a landscape alive with roosters, hens, birds, and fruiting avocado, orange, tangerine, lemon, and papaya trees. I learn that apple bananas are a small sweet variety, and green star apples, purple when ripe, taste like custard inside. A small bamboo forest rises fifty feet above native Hawaiian Hapu’u tree fern, the blossoming Ohia tree, Heliconias, Costus, and Jaboticaba – its fruit grows on the bark and tastes like Malbec grapes. Fruiting trees take twenty years to bear fruit. The hand of the artist is everywhere evident on the three acres he has shaped and cultivated since purchasing this land in 1979. On one visit, Amemiya has separated two roosters in a bloody cock fight and put one into a large cage for its protection and recovery. Feral hens provide free eggs—one has a nest on the porch – but Amemiya chases off vicious, destructive feral pigs.
Amemiya’s path to becoming a world class artist has been unusual. He grew up on the Dole pineapple plantation in Hawaii where his father, a foreman, spoke only Japanese while the artist grew up speaking only English. Amemiya studied Japanese at the University of Hawaii and soon became a United States Vice Consul, a diplomatic position at the United States Consulate General in Okinawa; he was then transferred to the United States Embassy in Tokyo. There, a friend introduced him to the great ceramic artist Seisho Kuniyoshi, and Amemiya began his study of forms of pottery. Kuniyoshi was also close to his teacher Hamada Shoji, the greatest ceramic artist of his time. Amemiya’s recent solo exhibition at the Honolulu Art Museum was highly regarded.[i] Most of the time, though, collectors have to travel to his home and studio to see his anagama kiln and his ceramic art.
Before the firing, Amemiya creates ceramic pieces through wheel-thrown and other processes. One technique is slowing down the wheel to incise marks. Another is using coils to create Jomon-like ridges in vessels; this alludes to the prehistoric Japanese Jomon culture that Mariko Mori has also re-discovered. The artist also creates tall, skinny vessels for plants, wheel-thrown tiny teapots, Korean-inspired rice bowls, large Japanese-style storage jars, and angled vessels with carved wave and nature shapes. Nothing is exactly symmetrical; the hand of the artist is especially remarkable in the making process.
Firing is dramatic and intense. Two cords of Ohia wood, split into small pieces, are stacked on both sides of the barrel-vaulted, semi-subterranean kiln, handmade with bricks and mortar, and about 10 x 4 x 4 feet. A corrugated overhead roof protects us from the rain; otherwise, the kiln is outdoors. The unglazed ceramics are packed onto four shelves. Each piece rests on a clam or limpet shell so that it will not adhere to the shelf. The fire is started outside the kiln to dry out the green pieces, than gradually moved inside. Four to five men work in shifts to feed the fire continuously for 100 hours. Amemiya uses cones but mainly judges temperatures by the color of the fire – red to orange to yellow to white hot. The circulating Ohia ash, the shells, and the position of each work give it its variegated hues – from dark to shades of brown, green, and yellow. The cooling period is also about 100 hours.
It was a real joy to experience Amemiya’s refined yet never predictable earth forms and the dramatic stages of anagama firing. His sensitive touch transforms clay, a humble material, into unique fire-finished art.
[i] September 17 – January 16, 2015. James Jensen, Curator of Contemporary Art, Honolulu Museum of Art. Thanks to Michael Marshall, Art Department Chair at the University of Hawaii, Hilo and Kevin Diminyatz, also in the art department, for introducing me to Clayton Amemiya.