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To spend a few hours with potter and sculptor Kazu Oba is to more deeply contemplate the purpose-filled existence of everyday objects. As I write, a small, cone-shaped porcelain sake cup of Oba’s making, glazed in streaky shades of sandy ochre, mustard, and chestnut, sits on my desk. It’s beautiful, sure, but now, after meeting Oba, I feel a fresh obligation to the thing: not merely to admire it but to use it. It occurs to me that he has turned me into a mystic, perceiving a latent energy in this object, an active expectation of use.
Japanese-born Oba lives in an unremarkable house on a street in Lafayette. As you pull up, though, indications of arty business are rampant. From a steel structure shaped like a large swing set hangs the hollowed-out stump of an enormous tree, completely blocking access to the garage. This will be a sculpture, eventually. (For now, he says, it is “just waiting for my attention.”) More weathered and contorted bits of trees mark the path to the back of the house, where Oba’s studio is situated. There, rows of recently thrown red-clay bowls dry under a canopy, nearly ready for transport to a more controlled drying room and then firing, glazing, and shipping to a New York City ramen shop. (He has supplied bowls to Sunnyside’s Ramen Star, too, so you can help a local Oba bowl fulfill its destiny while slurping house-made noodles and tonkotsu broth.)
Inside the studio, among boxes of clay and pieces of sculptures, is a throwing wheel and a high, jury-rigged stack of seven shelves a-jumble with examples of Oba’s useful productions: tiny plates and bowls for snacks and pickles; little cups with loopy handles he made for his daughter, Maya, who is almost three (Maya’s mother, Yuka, is a jeweler and a former pottery instructor); rough-surfaced plates the color of rusting steel; flower vases; teapots; and water jugs. Glazes run from pearlescent white to ghostly celadon to cobalt to black.
“I am a 3D person,” Oba says as he sits at his wheel before a mound of red clay. He’s almost 50 but looks 10 years younger and sports a crown of dyed blond hair. “And I have been a sculptor longer than I have been a potter. I don’t make pottery for the sake of making pottery. It’s fun, it can be meditative, all the good things people talk about. But I am not advocating that. I make the pot only for the pot to serve certain purposes.”
He continues, insisting that an object is not even finished when it leaves his studio for a show in New York or Tokyo or a customer in Telluride who purchases a piece through his website. “I try not to finish the work in my hands,” he says. “It’s up to the people who use it to do that—the chef, the mother, whoever cooks or serves. That’s the person who is perfecting the pot.”
I’ve observed this approach among many Japanese artists during my trips to the country—a preoccupation with the relation between natural and human-made forms, the desire to seek in function and design a quixotic perfection manifested only by imperfection. But Oba’s story is far from purely Japanese. It took him almost an hour to describe the journey of his life and work.
Oba was raised by his mother in Fukuoka, Japan, and moved to Colorado as an exchange student in 1989, landing at, of all places, Gilpin County High School in tiny Black Hawk. He attended the University of Colorado Boulder, originally pursuing a degree in international relations before switching to fine art. From 1999 to 2003, Oba apprenticed with internationally known wood and stone sculptor Jerry Wingren, whom he met at a Boulder Open Studios event. Soon after, when Oba was in his early 30s, he secured an apprenticeship with a master potter named Takashi Nakazato in Japan.
Life under Nakazato’s wing proved vexing. By day, Oba helped in the busy studio. By night, he struggled to produce a satisfactory example—one good enough to merit being fired in Nakazato’s studio kiln—of the first required pottery form of his instruction: a bowl. “I would make a hundred bowls, and not even a single piece was allowed the whole time I was there.” He pauses and smiles. “I’m not a fast learner.”
After almost 18 months spinning his wheel, Oba left. But by then he was close friends with Nakazato—who Oba says enjoyed him as a “drinking partner”—and in the years that followed would sporadically travel with Nakazato on his global art journeys, assisting and even cooking for the potter. (Oba supported himself in his 20s by working in Colorado restaurant kitchens.)
Otherwise, Oba pursued pottery on his own terms and at his own pace on the Front Range, developing a long relationship with the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities as a student, volunteer, studio assistant, and teacher. During the COVID-19 pandemic, travel between America and Japan (and beyond) became impossible, and Oba hunkered down in his Lafayette home and studio with Yuka and Maya. Several important pottery shows in New York and Japan were canceled, and money was tight for the artist couple.
When I visited, inventory crowded the family’s living space, where Oba-designed chairs sit before an Oba-designed table. One of the chairs sports a booster seat for Maya that Oba carved from a single block of wood—so that she can drink from her Oba-made cups at the proper elevation.
It was impossible for me not to consider Oba’s sculpture in contemplating his pottery, if only because several examples of Oba’s Utsuwa (Vessels) series, shown in 2012 and 2019 at the Golden Triangle’s Walker Fine Art gallery, populate the studio: big, organic, flowing, ribbony rings of wood coaxed from the outer layers of trunks, just below the bark, then polished and stained. Oba also works in stone and occasionally in concrete; some of those pieces showed in Loveland at the Artworks Center for Contemporary Art.
To Oba, these works contain and express the natural energy that results in form. “Just as all pots are moving toward a potential ideal of symmetry and line,” he wrote in an artist’s statement about the pieces in Utsuwa, “so my sculptures are stirring toward an ideal of shape.” That stirring is their purpose as art.
Oba turns a pot over to show me the bottom of one of his bowls, where the piece was separated from the mother clay by a process called trimming. The curving marks of the trimming tool are clear, a fingerprint Oba relishes. For him, whether working in wood, stone, or clay, beauty and meaning seem to be liminal, found at the places where things transition into other things. Edges are his particular preoccupation, as a blogger for Entoten, a San Diego gallery that sells his work, noted: rims of cups, spouts on soy pots. The world is full of lips.
I left Oba’s studio, sake cup in hand, deciding that art is surely the original branch of philosophy, an attempt to describe the true nature of the world. The little cup on my desk may look simple, but it contains multitudes—meaning, purpose, beauty, imperfection, earth, aspiration. What it doesn’t contain, as I write, is junmai daiginjo sake. I need to go out into the world and buy some. The cup’s maker has made that absolutely clear.
View Oba’s works during an open house from August 6 to 15, 8 a.m. to 7:50 p.m. daily, at 1061 Mercury Drive in Lafayette (reserve your time slot at obaware.com).