David Kuraoka: Legacy of Fire
San Francisco State University, 1971 - 2009
essay by Susannah Israel
David Kuraoka has profoundly influenced generations of artists who share his passionate commitment to working in clay. Ceramics at San Francisco State University has seen much change, from administrations veering from conventional to controversial, art building reconstruction, and unpredictable budgets which sometimes increased but mostly shrank. The campus strike of 1968 -69 changed the university permanently. The furious battles for resources among disciplines and departments became a crucible for the skills Kuraoka would need to build a strong Ceramics program at the university.
Gifted leadership in art strengthens the individuality of the student's vision. In scanning the thirty-eight years of students you will see no Kuraoka clones - no clones at all, in fact. Potters, sculptors, chemists and fire-masters are to be found among us. We have strongly different work, and sharply individual voices. The strength and diversity of our voices is a lasting legacy of our ceramics education.
In 1971 David Kuraoka was hired to teach Raku at San Francisco State. The two-year program, located in the "old" art building, offered a Master's degree in Art. Kuraoka introduced the bisque-firing of student work and built new kilns. He brought his experience and background from graduate studies at San Jose State University.
“I first met David Kuraoka when I was just entering the Ceramics program at San Jose. There was tremendous and contagious enthusiasm in the department at that time and David was at the center of it. I caught glimpses of his work in the grad lab and observed the effect he had on the studio when he passed through. He was open and curious about everyone and about their work. His amazing wheel thrown forms were stunning and a real inspiration to those of us learning to throw.” Sylvia Rios, MFA 1999
The opportunity to study with Kuraoka was a motivating factor for students from the very beginning of his teaching career.
“I was in David’s first Raku Class at state in 1971 and we had to build a kiln. It was a perfect opportunity for me. Going into ceramics for grad work was a tough decision for me as I was equally involved in glass and sculpture. The opportunity to work with Kuraoka was the deciding factor, he was the teacher I connected most strongly with. The energy around him was contagious. It was more than just his clay skills and artistry. It was his leadership on a tribal level that inspired me. David had charisma.”
Bill Abright, MA 1974
“In 1972 I enrolled in Textiles, selecting ‘Ceramics’ as an elective. I was quickly drawn into Ceramics by the energy and enthusiasm of the students and instructors. David Kuraoka invited me to enter the graduate ceramics program in the old building. It felt so familiar. I had finally found ‘my people,’ the community to develop and focus my creativity.”
Kathryn McBride, MA 1975
In 1982, Kuraoka became the official head of the Ceramics department. Always a practical visionary, he taught students to take full responsibility for the studio, working in teams. Students in the graduate program may become Graduate Assistants for their term, and are expected to work diligently at taking care of studio business: tracking the clay inventory, keeping the glazes mixed, loading class kilns, knowing just when Cone 10 was tipping, and related duties.
“No ceramics graduate student’s story is complete without comments about the graduate assistant duties. As one of David’s last graduate students, I have benefited from those who preceded me and left their mark in the studio. Each GA has made improvements along the way to help the studio run like a well-oiled machine, with everything in its place.”
Steven Allen, MFA 2008
“David’s ability to motivate people to participate and work their asses off inspired me and gave me insight into what good leadership skills were.” Bill Abright, MA 1974
“I learned a lot in the ceramics room. I learned to create glazes, fired hundreds of kilns, threw large pots and taught. And although I worked extremely long hours and was sorely underpaid, it was my favorite job.” Rachel Porter, MA 1973
“The first major challenge that was given to me and my “graduate school sister”, Tomoko Nakazato, was to be Graduate Assistants. We took on a leadership role in the ceramics studio and trained the undergraduate assistants to run all of the equipment. I came through learning so much.” Tiffany Schmierer, MFA 2004
“I was constantly challenged to work harder and be more involved in ceramics. This combination of total commitment to creating sculpture as well as hands-on daily involvement in running the studio prepared me for the demands of teaching and being an artist.” Jennifer Brazelton, MFA 2005
Renovations were finally scheduled for the "old" art building. Though badly in need of work, it was much beloved.
“My most vivid memories at SFSU are of the “grad room”, consisting of small studio spaces we graduate students were allotted within one large room. There was a constant outpouring of creative ideas, techniques and support. Our work was diverse, yet there was camaraderie among us.” Jane McDonald, MA 1983
“The whole atmosphere of the ceramics studio was warm and full of life. It was rough around the edges but active. When I started there were ten or twelve of us. We were all so different. The thing we had in common was our commitment. We worked at all hours. Many of us worked outside jobs, but would always be there after work to put in the time. If we were locked out of the building on the weekends we climbed through a window. The graduate room was at the western end of the art building on the first floor. I loved that room. It was light and airy, with large windows. It was home…” Margaret K. Haydon, MFA 1989
The graduate program for Ceramics was expanded to three years in 1989, and now conferred a Master in Fine Arts degree. The years of construction on the art building, however, took a toll on the studio setting.
“I came to San Francisco State just as the Art Building was being remodeled in 1992. Two of my graduate years were spent in a metal building lacking bathrooms, reliable electricity or water, with the occasional visit by a grumpy opossum from the nearby trees.”
Kelly Connole, MFA 1996
The completed facilities for the Ceramics program are a testament to Kuraoka's stewardship during the construction years. There is an excellent, well-equipped kiln room, glaze lab and studio classrooms, with space for graduate and advanced undergraduate students, rightly one of the finest available for students of ceramics.
The beach pit-fires are a ceramics event with decades of history at SFSU. Kuraoka comments " We've been kicked off every beach in California." Even with permits, our smoking trough filled with burning wood tended to alarm firefighters. We had to persuade them to put their hoses away, while we cringed at the vision of exploded pieces raining down all over the beach. But there was nothing else like it: compelling, exhausting, and community-building.
“As I walked down the beach sighting propane cans, stacks of wood, plumes of smoke and piles of pots, I knew 'I have found my people'. Inspired by this experience, I entered Ceramics to complete my long-deferred degree. I immediately became a part of the Raku Beach Festival Committee, and to this day I count as family the people I worked with. David was the spirit of this whole event. It was his inspiration that created it, and his energy and ability to engage his students that made it successful for thirteen years.” Kathleen Hanna, MA 1981
“The Raku festival took a year to put on – but it was magic. I especially loved the kiln contests - make a Raku kiln out of a Volkswagen Bug. I remember driving down the coast on Friday morning, the sun coming up, spring in the air. It was beautiful, putting up tents and digging the pits. Joy Vansell and I fired a small pit one night, staying up all night stoking the fire, watching the stars and listening to the pounding waves. On Saturday afternoon the whales would swim by to see what all the fuss was about.” Rachel Porter, MA 1973
As a mentor, David Kuraoka had a unique ability to foster, develop and push a student's vision to refine and shape what is strongest and most individual about them. For many, he provided inspiration through his own approach to clay.
“David’s big stretched Raku pots inspired me to expand my throwing skills and refine my forms. He gave us the space to make decisions and offered us advice at critical moments. His sensitivity to the clay was unique. He was so natural with it, discovering a little detail in the making or trimming process and exalting it to become a feature. I learned how to see in greater depth and recognize natural textures in clay and glaze.” Bill Abright, MA 1974
“My four years at San Francisco State University were critical in my development as an artist. David Kuraoka, from the start, was very generous with his time, energy and insights. Now that I am a studio artist and an educator, I know how hard it can be to do both. David was always available to talk. I remember his insistence on attention to detail, the importance of the unbroken line, the beauty and relevance of organic form, had a lasting impact.” Farraday Newsome, MA 1987
“He was a mentor in the truest sense of the word. David recognized me as a maker like himself, helped me find myself, and taught me to sing. It was a time I will never forget. David never gave us answers but he helped us find our own solutions. In this way we developed our own voices in the medium. If you were willing to work hard, he was willing to help you.” Margaret K. Haydon, MFA 1989
For many of the students, Kuraoka's insights were a path to clarity with their work.
“I began a transition from working as a potter to experimenting with hand-building. I created a life-size ceramic dress over winter break. My inclination was to return to pottery but David strongly encouraged continued sculptural work. Over several years my voice evolved in sculptural ceramics.” Amanda Best, MFA 2003
“David always managed to find the time for an impromptu individual critique. If you were struggling with composition, narrative content, color, David was there with an immediate evaluation and solution. Upon reflection you would realize that his suggestions were always right on. I hope as an educator I am able to develop that keen eye.” Steven Allen, MFA 2008
For some students, the most influential lessons came from Kuraoka's own well-disciplined work habits.
“David Kuraoka taught us by example more than we could have heard in words, with his strong work ethic and commitment to the creative process: how to fill a studio with work, accept challenges, take risks, and find new ways of working through obstacles with practice, practice, and more practice.” Kathryn McBride, MA 1975
“I learned to think about my work in the context of the art world and the world of ceramic sculpture. I deepened my knowledge of the technical side of ceramics and learned the workings of operating a studio. As graduate assistant I learned many valuable lessons about hard work, dedication to one’s craft, consistent and high quality art production. These have been the most valuable to me.” Francisco 'Pancho' Jiminez, MFA 1997
“David expected a strong work ethic in his students and modeled one for us through his approach to his own studio work. It was unsaid but there was certainly a bit of competition to arrive at the studio early and not leave until the campus police required us to. Outside of class time you didn’t know exactly when David might stop by, but you certainly wanted to have made progress since his last visit.” Cameron Crawford, BA 1986
“David was tough, demanding. He insisted upon time in the trenches. He cultivated within me a habit of working that has sustained me ever since. Commitment to studio work has yielded countless joys and opportunities and given me the fine life of a working artist.” Michelle Gregor, MFA 1992
The practice of intensive studio work and fellowship evolved into a tight-knit creative community, inspired and led by Kuraoka, and sustained by a sense of real accomplishment.
“When I was applying for graduate school I wanted a program where ceramic processes were central. Kuraoka was enthusiastic, acknowledging what I had achieved, but tough about the expectations he held for me. I felt a resonance with his love of clay and its potential. He created a life of integrity around clay and working with students, always encouraging, with a keen eye and sense of what to say.” Sylvia Rios, MFA 1998
“I sometimes dream that I am back there. It was enriching, exciting, challenging, rewarding and growth-filled. I close my eyes and can still feel the thrumming of energy - from peers in the MFA program, from inspired teachers like David, from being surrounded by people who, like me, were focusing 100% of their energy on becoming the best they could. If I could I would go back and re-live the years I spent at SFSU…” Heidi Buscher, MFA 1999
“One of the strongest aspects is that the professors' studios are in the same room with the graduate students. This constant interaction is energizing and fruitful. The connections we made by working together every day are lifelong. I now have a second family of friends, mentors, and colleagues, and that may be the greatest benefit of all."
Tiffany Schmierer, MFA 2004
Discipline and practice emerge as essential elements in David Kuraoka's thirty-eight years at San Francisco State University. Intensive, hands-on education in studio art has produced ceramic artists with sound, professional-level capability. Habits of discipline and teamwork continue far beyond the student years. Kuraoka's lasting legacy is our work ethic and sense of community, which span both time and distance.
Today, we are all still working. We pay attention to each other's progress - you might say that we try to keep up. David Kuraoka continues to teach us by example. Describing a recent project to me, he mentioned his sabbatical schedule - into the studio in early morning, working all day, washing everything down at night so the studio would be ready the next morning. Just hearing that, I can promise you that everyone in Legacy of Fire will be in our studios tomorrow morning too.
For this and so much more, we say, Mahalo!
Susannah Israel, MFA 2000