Beloved artist’s largest outdoor exhibit opens at Lauritzen
By Augusta Olsen
Twenty-eight Kaneko sculptures dot the lawns and nestle into floral glens at Lauritzen Gardens this spring and summer, creating a profoundly tranquil opportunity to experience Kaneko’s work in nature.
“Outside Kaneko” is the largest outdoor exhibit of Kaneko’s work to date. Troia Schonlau has curated the show in cooperation with Lauritzen Gardens to celebrate the gardens’ 10-year anniversary, and to celebrate the return of “Madama Butterfly” to Omaha, the opera that Kaneko designed for Opera Omaha in 2006. The majority of the pieces in “Outside Kaneko” have come from Kaneko’s private collection and the studio’s inventory of works for sale, said Schonlau.
Inside the main pavilion at Lauritzen Gardens, a collection of Kaneko’s drawings and paintings hang in the hallways leading to the botanical library. Spanning his career from the mid-‘80s to present, the drawings offer a visual element of building energy, while the paintings are frenetic and active expressions of movement and power. The paintings and drawings are a perfect balance to the solidity and stability of Kaneko’s dango and head sculptures throughout the gardens, which also span from the mid-‘80s to present.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Kaneko at his studio last Friday, Earth Day, a fitting occasion to learn from a master of clay. Kaneko’s studio, located at 11th and Jones streets, is a vast artistic adventure in and of itself. There, he and four assistants work seven days a week building the famous Kaneko dango and head sculptures. He also works on a multitude of other art projects there, including painting, drawing, glasswork, bronze casting and opera design. Currently he is completing the set and costume design for Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” for the San Francisco Opera.
Although Kaneko has enjoyed great success with his opera designs in the past five years, it is his artistry with ceramic sculpture and painting that has made him internationally famous for decades. His work is owned by more than 50 galleries and museums, as part of their permanent collections, and he has been commissioned for more than 30 public art installations. The appeal of the colorful dango and head sculptures is universal, and local residents can take great joy in the fact that Kaneko was inspired to make his first dango and heads here in Omaha.
“I think the original inspiration for dango came from wedging clay,” said Kaneko at his studio. “Most ceramic artists wedge the clay before they make piece. When you are wedging it, it becomes a round shape. I always liked that shape but I never made it. I liked it so much, one day I said, ‘I got to try that.’ That’s how it started, the art form. Before that, most pieces were not rounded.”
He made his first large-scale dango in Omaha after leading summer workshops at the Bemis Center in 1982 and 1983. Previous to those visits, Kaneko was already established on both coasts as leader in the Contemporary Ceramics Movement, having worked with artists such as Peter Voulkos, Paul Soldner and Jerry Rothman since he moved to California from Japan in 1963. After his work at the Bemis Center, Kaneko considered permanently locating his studio in Omaha. A man of methodical means, Kaneko worked here for five years before purchasing his studio space at 11th and Jones streets in 1988.
“I felt this city is pretty nice. I don’t like a big city. I lived in New York, and my hometown is three and a half million people. Just to make a living, everyday it seems it takes more effort in a big city. I was trying to maximize my studio time. Omaha seemed like not too big a city, but not too small, because I need certain services to maintain the studio. Omaha has turned out to be about the perfect size.”
Kaneko is a prolific artist. He estimates he has constructed several hundred dango and head sculptures with his assistants over the past 30 years. In that time he has personally trained about 40 ceramic artists in his studios. He says it takes close to one year to complete each ceramic sculpture, which can range from a few feet tall to towering heights. Ultimately, the dango and heads become a large, three-dimensional canvas for Kaneko.
“For some reason, this dango shape, I have been interested it for a long time,” said Kaneko. “It’s really interesting how it changed surface painting, to deal with a large form. You can change a round form by painting different patterns on top of it. So it could act almost as a canvas,” he said.
The dango are generally a variation of one of three shapes; a rounded shape, a triangular shape, or an oblong shape. All three shapes reveal an exquisite rendering of roundness, a Kaneko hallmark.
“Looking at shapes in the pure sense of shape, [the triangular shape] gives you more feeling of lifting off, or expanding into the air. If it’s round, it has more of a strong gesture of containing something. [The triangular shape] is expansion, out into space – a huge basic difference there. The way I see shape is different than most people. I see it in the pure sense of what shape is offering,” said Kaneko.
The first dango required about 11,000 pounds of clay, he said. “I didn’t have any idea, I didn’t have the technical ability,” he said. “I could probably do the same piece with 3,500 pounds now.” Smaller dango require around 700 pounds of clay, which is shipped by semi-trailer to the Kaneko warehouse.
Kaneko first attempted the head sculptures in the mid-’90s. “I didn’t like the idea of figurative, that is the only figurative piece I make,” he said of the head sculptures. “Dango is abstract form, nothing figurative. I have this craziest idea about figurative pieces – it’s too easy. If it’s a head, you say, ‘Well, that’s a head, and a hand, that’s a hand.’ That’s already giving the viewer a big break,” he said.
“It took me five years to try to make something,” he said. “I made 10 six-foot heads, kept it here, looking at it for five years, after that I started to make it. It took me 10 years before I was comfortable enough to make a head.”
Through the years in his career, Kaneko has developed his intuitive relationship with color and a deft control over clay.
“It moves any way you want, it’s pretty hard to control, and the same time it moves so freely, so in that sense, it is a very honest and natural material,” Kaneko said of clay.
“Wood or steel, you have to chisel it or bang on it to make a shape. Clay has much more natural movement. That gives you great possibility but at the same time, because it is so free, it could give you big trouble, too. If you already have a preset idea of what you want to do, I don’t think you’ve learned so much out of it. If you approach the clay, just watching and keep you eye open while working with it, you might discover lots of different things.”
“When you go take a pottery course or ceramics course, they will say you have to wedge the clay this way, and then you will make a pot, this is sort of a standard teaching technique of ceramics. But this is I think a very restricted or limited offer of how clay can be used. If that’s the way you start and are taught, it is hard to break through that. It’s really amazing, it’s taken people a long time to see other possibilities.
“I was lucky nobody told me this thing. The first time I had clay was with this guy, I was helping him as an assistant for summertime. He was not rich, so he said, ‘I can’t pay you. I can give you clay and I can feed you. That’s all I can do.’ So I said, ‘That’s fine.’ So first clay experience, he mixed one pound clay and he dumped it on the floor and said, ‘Here’s your clay.’ He didn’t teach me anything. That gave me very open start without having any kind of preconceived idea of instruction. I think that helped a lot. If I went to some ceramics course and the teacher started to show me how to wedge clay and start throwing on the wheel, it would not have given me the opportunity to think of other ways to deal with clay.”
Kaneko on innate artistic abilities and developing one’s qualities:
“I’m pretty sure I have developed sensitivity while I do things. Definitely, but when I started, I must have had something in order to develop that sensitivity. I don’t think we could grow something out of nothing. Even though it is way underdeveloped, there must be something there to grow. In that sense, I might have had something there. Experience, wonder, and trying helped to develop whatever I had.”
Kaneko on the questions, “Do you meditate? Where does your sense of inner peace come from?”
[Hearty chuckle] “No. I don’t. I sleep a lot, at least eight hours a day, so maybe that’s where it comes from.”
Kaneko on his artwork as a meditation:
“I don’t see my work that way. When I see a piece, it’s more trouble. Immediately when I look at it, ‘Can I improve that a little better? Maybe that line there’s got to be changed, or something.’ I keep on seeing different ways the piece is finished. That’s how I look at my work always, ‘Did I do my best, or could it be improved?’ Constantly, it is endless, but I know I can’t be painting the same painting the rest of my life. I think artwork is never complete, but for now it’s finished.”
Kaneko on mistakes (from a talk at the KANEKO center on March 31):
“To me the biggest thing is, don’t be afraid to make a mistake. When you make a mistake, you should learn from it. You think you made a mistake, but that’s your own judgment. If you think about it, there might be fantastic opportunities there you were not able to see.
If I experience a mistake or a disaster, I really look at it. As a ceramics artist, you make a piece, when you open the kiln, that is a final result. When you open the kiln, you look at the piece. When I was young, when I opened the kiln, I had a big trash can right next to the kiln. If I didn’t like it, done, if I liked it, I put it on the shelf. If you keep on doing that thing, for four or five years, you start to wonder, what are you doing?
I’m making a decision just for the moment. If I made some piece and it came out of the kiln, and then I go back to the studio the next morning, sometimes I have a hard time to figure out why I felt this particular piece looked really good. And then today, I don’t feel this way. That showed me my ability for evaluating what I am looking at. So, is that the way I am?
I have some piece that I really hated, I kept about 15 years. Sure enough, I am learning a lot from them. So it’s interesting to take advantage of things you dislike. You might find something interesting.”
Kaneko on art critics:
“Art critics, I understand, it’s their job, they have to say something. So they come out with their translation, but it’s a difficult idea. So, there can be a serious problem or challenge for people who are interested in translating the visual experience.
“How can you explain, we had a great dinner last night? Try to explain that experience to some other people. No matter how you describe it, they don’t taste it. It’s just information coming in. There’s no way to duplicate how it tastes to the other people, but if you have dinner with a friend, you don’t have to say anything. I understand how an art critic will struggle with that part, translating the visual experience, so I’m glad I don’t have to do that.”