Meeting Jun Kaneko

Meeting Jun Kaneko

Jun Kaneko with Jim Bailey

In late November of 2018, I had the opportunity to travel out to Omaha to tour the Kaneko Center and meet the iconic Jun Kaneko. His story is made up of equal parts of unstoppable determination, vision, boundless imagination and serendipity.  Born in 1942 in Nagoya, Japan during WWII, his artistic talents started to emerge through impressive drawings that he fashioned in his free time while in high school.  Jun resisted the strict structure of traditional Japanese education. His mother (a dentist by day, and a painter by night) recognized his self-driven passion to be creative and arranged to have him study painting with Satoshi Ogawa.  This ended up being an early thread to his eventual journey to study art in the US. Jun wanted to expand his art education beyond the traditional structure in Japan.  Already, he was exhibiting a need to break out of the mold and seek out new avenues to cultivate his creativity. It turned out Ogawa had connections with Jerry Rothman who was teaching ceramics at California State at Fullerton.

After graduating from high school in Japan, Jun was soon off to study art in the US. He arrived without any command of the English language.  Jerry Rothman picked up Jun at the airport and deposited him directly into the home of Fred Marer who taught mathematics at LA City College. Fred and his wife were passionate about ceramics. When Jun walked into their home, he was virtually side stepping around a fantastic ceramics collection that they had put together from the likes of Soldner, Mason, Volkous, Ken Price, Henry Takemoto, and others.  How did they get all these pieces? Although Marer was a math teacher, he spent many hours helping stack kilns with the aforementioned. He loved to engage in art, ceramics, and political discussions with this dynamic group.  They would give him free pieces “hot out of the kiln” for his assistance and his comradery.  

Finished work for viewing

So within hours of landing in the US, Jun had essentially landed into the bubbling epicenter of the LA avant-garde ceramics movement. Not only that, he was staying with Fred Marer who was friends with about every important ceramics teacher in LA.   Jun spent many hours studying the Marer collection and as a result, fell in love with the medium.   Fred took him over to Scripps to meet Paul Soldner and get a taste of working in clay.  Jun made some raku pieces and then decided to shift his focus to ceramics. He enrolled in a ceramics program at Chouinard Institute of Art. Susan Peterson and Vivika and Otto Heino were teachers at Chouinard, but Ralph Bacerra was instructing when Jun attended. Apparently, the studio was small and Jun was already determined to work large.  Bacerra didn’t want Jun making big pieces, so not to be deterred, Jun started finding hiding places in the arts department for his large pieces. When the school shut down during Christmas break, Jun crawled through the ceramics room window so he could continue his work.  Ralph Bacerra was not happy! 

Jim gives scale to one of the large Dangos

Pieces ready to load into the enormous updraft kiln

Jim Bailey admiring the impressive scale of the large Kaneko kiln

I love these early stories as they show a young Jun Kaneko so driven and passionate about his art that no one could hold him back.  Given that Jun has arguably made the largest high fired ceramic sculptures on the planet, I have the greatest appreciation for his unstoppable drive to visualize, to journey deep into unknown technical territory and his willingness to take major risks, always having to problem solve on a grandiose scale, doing whatever it took to realize his vision. 

Outside the entrance to the Kaneko Center

A large exhibition of Dangos in one of the many exhibition areas

Coming to Kaneko Studios and seeing the accumulation of a lifetime of work was extraordinary.  The breadth of his creations and the array of directions his monolithic work have taken was a touchstone for me.  Equally impressive was how his presence in Omaha ended up revitalizing a part of the city. 

After the extensive tour of the studio and the exhibition area, I had the honor to meet Jun in his home.  It was a very special moment, and it gave me great pleasure to grasp the hands that formed, shaped, and fired the clay into creations that now adorn museums, public spaces, and galleries around the world.  Jun’s journey of unstoppable creative spirit and unbridled imagination is an inspiration to all.

Jim Bailey