Pottery and cuisine don't have an obvious connection in American culture, but it's common in Japan for people in the food business to also be interested in ceramics. It's not as common for restaurant veterans to become fulltime artists -- but that's the course that Kazu Oba, a native of Kyushu, took after working in the restaurant business for about fifteen years.
And this week, his work is being showcased at the Den Show, an exhibition that combines the traditions of pottery, cuisine and sake in a very fitting place: the space that once held Ototo, now known as Den Corner, right across from Sushi Den and Izakaya Den.
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"I don't come from a pottery family, like many potters do in Japan," Oba says. "Like my teacher is a thirteenth-generation potter. But I don't come from tradition like that." So he decided to learn the art through hands-on apprenticeships. In 2003, he returned to Japan to work with Takashi Nakazato, one of the most celebrated potters in the world. From Nakazato, he learned more about the connection between pottery and food. "My ceramics teacher would say, 'It's not about the pottery, it's about the food that goes in it,'" Oba says.
"Pottery is such a big part of the Japanese culinary scene," he continues. "It's not a chef doing his own thing on a blank canvas, meaning a white plate. But it's really a collaboration between the pottery maker and the people who cook." Having a specific type of food in mind helps potters decide the shape, size and function of a particular piece, he explains, adding that the pieces are not really finished until they are given a use.
"In my mind, the most successful pottery is not something that will stand out, something that might be seen as beautiful," he says. "In my mind, good pottery is pottery that you look at and go, 'Hmm, so?' Meaning that it needs something, it's not completed. When the food is served in it, it's in the finished stage of the whole process."
Oba is also a sculptor (his work was featured at the Walker Fine Art Gallery last month), and he says a sculpture, too, is not really finished until its new owner gives it a use -- whether simply setting it on a shelf or filling it with flowers. "What's mostly interesting to me is what you bring into the piece," he says. "Maybe your cat will crawl on it and claim it as his, but then that's exciting. It's more than what I would ever do with my own hands. I like this unknown possibility part of this whole thing."
The Den Show will be open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday, December 21 and Saturday, December 22 at 1501 South Pearl Street. There will be demonstrations of the traditions of a chef and potter, the elevated dining experience in Japan, and kick-wheel work. Sake, wine, beer and coffee will be served in Oba's designs.
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