This week the museum opens three new exhibitions at its First Hawaiian Center gallery: Justin Davies’ Unsonmay: Recent Work by Justin Davies, Bruna Stude’s Changing Light: Presence of Absence, and David Kuraoka’s Industrial Scale/Artistic Precision.

Named a Living Treasure of Hawai‘i in 1987, ceramics artist David Kuraoka was born in Līhu‘e and received BA and MA degrees from San Jose State University, and a Doctorate of Art from San Francisco State University, where he became head of the ceramics department and taught art for 43 years.

Over the past seven years, the Kauai-based artist has participated in the Arts and Industry Program at the California-based Mission Clay Building Product Company’s factory in Phoenix, Arizona. Through this singular program that has connected artists with commercial clay pipes since 1979, Kuraoka has had access to the factory’s large studio space and industrial kilns, allowing the artist to work on a much larger scale—the clay forms with which Kuraoka works in the factory often weigh over a ton.

Last week Kuraoka was in town overseeing the installation of his towering ceramic sculptures at First Hawaiian Center for his upcoming exhibition. While he was on island he generously took time to speak with us about his work.

Why did you decide to make the columns out of stacked rings, rather than one solid form?
That really came about because of a logistics problem. My team and I work in Phoenix, but once the clay is molded, underglazed, glazed and fired I bring it back to Kauai. And the clay is so heavy that the one-lane bridges to my studio on the north shore would not be able to support the weight.

That’s when I had the idea to cut the sculptures into tire-sized rings. That way I am able to move the rings individually and then re-stack the finished works.

Your works are big.
I guess the scale is impressive, but what’s more important to me than the size is sculptural proportion and the use of surface treatment. I want to make sure that it was sculpturally relevant, not just big.

Are your sculptures symbolic of anything?
Not really, I don’t like to focus on a narrative. There’s nothing literal about the work. Aesthetically there is certainly some tropical influence in the colors. Everybody brings their own experience to a work—however they react to it, I’m excited for people to see it. 

What was it like when you first got into the Arts and Industry program, working with large-scale equipment?
Working in an open factory without any insulation was uncomfortable at times, which is why we usually work in the spring and fall, when the weather is ideal. But overall the experience was one of the more challenging and rewarding opportunities of my professional career. The artistic process and physical demands of handling the factory’s huge clay forms, often weighing a ton or more, are exhilarating.

 I’m lucky to have the factory to help with the challenges of working on large scale, and they’re really generous to the artists. For example, when they fire their kiln to make industrial building materials like bricks and pipes, they allow artists to use the space in the middle of the kiln where the heat is more even in temperature.

How is the installation going at First Hawaiian Center?
This is the first time that I’m doing a show at this scale. There are seven columns that are approximately seven feet tall, and one column that is 10 feet. Each weighs over half a ton. At first I was unsure how they would look at First Hawaiian Center because I’d only seen them in a dusty, working factory environment, and FHC is such a clean, open space. Now that I’ve seen them installed I have to say I love it. It surprised me how good they looked in the space.

Kuraoka with his installed works at First Hawaiian Center

Kuraoka with his installed works at First Hawaiian Center

Industrial Scale/Artistic Precision
is on view through June 17.

Honolulu Museum of Art at First Hawaiian Center:
999 Bishop Street
Honolulu, Hawai‘i 96813