For some, a bowl is simply that. Though the pattern may change depending upon the season or useâ€”glistening snowflakes at Christmas, cartoon characters for the kiddies’ morning cerealâ€”a bowl usually is considered a vessel for food and is promptly stored away after being washed and dried.
But for Tom Tierney, bowls are at the center of his extensive art collection and are lovingly curated alongside an assortment of works gathered from all corners of the globe.
These bowls, along with other various ceramic sculptures, are the creation of acclaimed Japanese-American ceramic artist and painter Toshiko Takaezu, who was born to Japanese immigrant parents in Pepe’ekeo, Hawai’i, and helped elevate stoneware and porcelain from pieces of mere function to collectable works of art.
Tierney first learned about Takaezu and her work through his partner, Paul Sakai, who had attended school on O’ahu with many of Takaezu’s nieces and nephews. Their first meeting with the artist was at a wedding of one of those former classmates in San Francisco (“Intimidating is one word to explain it,” Tierney recalls), but it wasn’t until attending a showcase of Takaezu’s works at the Honolulu Museum of Art and the Contemporary Museum in 1993 that Tierney and Sakai became full-fledged fans of the artist.
“The breadth of her work and talent was showcased very well, with a large selection of her weavings, paintings and ceramics over the span of her career,” Tierney says. “That exhibition made us realize we wanted to purchase her work.”
Within the year, the pair decided to personally reach out to Takaezu, who promptly replied with an invitation to her home and studio in Clinton, N.J.
Upon their arrival, Tierney and Sakai were amazed at the beautiful gardens of flowers and vegetables growing in her garden, as well as the warm spirit and positive energy Takaezu exuded while showing them around the grounds.
At one point during the tour, Takaezu stopped at a clustering of bronze-cast temple bells she had fashioned and hung in their own supports.
“She told each of us to put our head inside a bell-while she was standing with a wooden mallet. Our initial reaction was, she was crazy!” Tierney says with a good-hearted laugh.
“After getting over that feeling, we did as instructed, and she gently tapped the bells and we experienced a wonderful sensation of gentle sound and vibration surrounding our heads,” Tierney continues. “This was her welcoming us to her home and her world, something we would see repeated when we brought other friends to visit her.”
From there the procession led to Takaezu’s studio, where plates, bowls, closed forms, planters tea pots and large forms in varying levels of completion sat interspersed among various rooms, shelves and floors. “The color range was incredible, and though you found a piece you liked, you found 10 or 20 more that appealed equally to your sensibilities. We were on the proverbial search, like two kids in a candy store,” Tierney says.
After a brief intermission for lunchâ€”a salad of fresh vegetables from her garden, along with free-range chicken, all enjoyed from a seat on her deckâ€”Tierney and Sakai continued on their treasure hunt before finally settling on the pieces they wished to take home.
“She went over each piece, telling us about the glaze, the clay and where it was fired,” Tierney says. “We left her home very happy and cradling our new treasures, which we quickly unpacked and displayed in our hotel room when we returned to New York City.
As cliche as it may sound, that visit was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, one that covered many years and included many adventures.
“We were fortunate to share many good times and attend exhibitions of her work in different cities across the nation, observing the changes in her work and purchasing a variety of her pieces,” Tierney says.
Today, their vast collection includes bowls, closed forms and a small moon dating from the early ’60s to the end of Takaezu’s career. (Takaezu passed away at the age of 88 in 2011 in Honolulu.)
“The volume of work she produced is staggering, and each piece has a part of her inside,” Tierney says. “Many have her finger marks from holding while she was glazing, and a rattle inside as an added bonus!”
When pressed to single out his favorite collectable, Tierney names not one, but two: a closed form colored in red, turquoise and black that is part of Takaezu’s Ocean Edge series, and a small bowl.
“It has a wonderful blue inside that reminds me of my mother’s eyes,” Tierney says. “It made [Takaezu] happy that the bowl reminded me of my mother.”
Sakai favors a round closed form deemed a “moon pot,” as well as a large closed form named “Storm King” acquired after a visit with Takaezu to a large sculpture garden by the same name in upstate New York.
“It was on the floor in the upstairs bedroom we stayed in during a visit to her home, and we fell in love with it while we were there. Of course, it became a part of our collection,” Tierney says.
And while Tierney cannot put an exact number to their horde-which Sakai displays in the living and dining rooms of both their Florida and Guatemala homes, changing what goes where whenever the mood hits-he assures each piece is significant in its own way.
“Toshiko’s ceramics are very special to us, primarily because of the relationship we developed with her over the years,” Tierney says. “Each piece we have brings back many memories of cooking together, sharing meals, cleaning the pots and shelves and organizing (each visit came with cleaning duties, which was a great way to see hidden treasures) and, of course, road trips to visit other artists or homes she wanted us to see.”
For Tierney, it is clear that a bowl is much more than a bowl-it is a vessel for a friendship that is meant to be remembered and shared.