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Seattle ceramic artist Akio Takamori, ‘a very gentle soul,’ dies of cancer at 66

Seattle ceramist Akio Takamori’s sculptural pot sits on one of the shelves of the Potter’s Shrine, constructed by Robert Harrison in the mid-19880s. (File / The Spokesman-Review)
Seattle ceramist Akio Takamori’s sculptural pot sits on one of the shelves of the Potter’s Shrine, constructed by Robert Harrison in the mid-19880s. (File / The Spokesman-Review)
By Matt Day Seattle Times

Seattle ceramic artist Akio Takamori spent Wednesday working in his Magnolia studio.

He put the finishing touches on some pieces with the help of his son, Peter, and loaded a kiln. Then he returned home, where he died. He was 66.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said James Harris, a friend whose Pioneer Square gallery is showing an exhibition of Mr. Takamori’s new work next month.

Mr. Takamori, who taught at the University of Washington for 21 years, had a career that spanned traditional industrial pottery, ceramic slab vessels and ultimately larger-than-life, sometimes cartoonish figures. His work drew heavily from his Japanese heritage, and from images from art history and culture.

“His work always had a sense of beauty,” Harris said. “And I think that came from a real love of people in the world. He really had a very gentle soul.”

Mr. Takamori was born in 1950 in Nobeoka on Japan’s Kyushu Island, the youngest of three children. His father was a doctor and his mother helped run a clinic attached to their house.

He studied ceramics and industrial design in Tokyo, and apprenticed as a production potter on Kyushu.

“I had to make 250 cups every day for two years,” he told The Seattle Times in a 2002 interview. “It’s very exhausting.”

He found a way out when American ceramist Ken Ferguson visited and encouraged him to study in the U.S.

Mr. Takamori enrolled at Ferguson’s Kansas City Art Institute, where he would meet his wife, the former Vicky Lidman. Later, he attended graduate school at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University.

He drew early recognition in the 1980s for a series of vessels made up of slabs in human forms, often with sexual themes.

Mr. Takamori joined the UW faculty in 1993 and was a cornerstone of a ceramics program that would be recognized as among the best in the country.

By then, his work had moved from vessels to distinct human figures. He mixed villagers drawn from his childhood in Japan with people in modern settings, as well as political and cultural figures, like depictions of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur and Japanese Emperor Hirohito with their height difference exaggerated.

“It was extraordinary that he was willing to take these kind of risks,” said Jamie Walker, a UW art professor who helped recruit Takamori to the school. “Here was this guy who was doing funny, highly suggestive sexualized work, suddenly talking about these incredibly powerful emotional, psychological relationships.”

Mr. Takamori’s stoneware, part of an abstract-leaning break from industrial pottery, often had a matte, watercolor look. His subjects stretched from mothers carrying children on their backs to laughing monks and babies with oversized heads.

As a celebrity in the ceramics world, Mr. Takamori could probably have gotten out of teaching introductory courses at the UW. But he never asked, and Walker said Mr. Takamori particularly enjoyed the opportunity to help guide students new to the art.

“He did a really good job juggling working as an artist, and a teacher,” said Ayumi Horie, a graduate student of Mr. Takamori’s in the late 1990s. “He was always evolving and growing; it never seemed like he was stuck.”

Mr. Takamori retired from the UW in 2014. That same year, he was diagnosed with cancer.

Recently, he had been creating figures that drew on images of men apologizing, from humbled chief executives to political leaders.

“My interest is humanity,” he told the News Tribune of Tacoma in 2006. “That doesn’t change, even over a thousand years. Everyone from a 2-year-old to an old man still has love, compassion, appreciates beauty.”

In addition to his wife, Vicki, and son, Peter, of Chicago, Mr. Takamori is survived by a daughter, Lena, of New York.

Services are pending.

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