Guest Post By Debra E. Sloan
Dates: 1908 – 1982, Tanuma-shi. Tochigi-Ken, Japan
Production dates: approximately 1950 – 1978
Location: Burnaby, British Columbia
Types of Work: sculpture, functional ware, decorative vases, small animal figurines,
Preferred Kiln Type and Firing: electric kiln, cone 6 -8
Preferred Clay: mainly stoneware
Biography and Gallery
Thomas Kakinuma is an intriguing figure in Vancouver/ BC ceramic history. He was a highly regarded potter and sculptor in the 1950s and 1960s, and throughout his working life he received recognition across Canada, particularly in central Canada. Interest waned in his stylized work during the 1980s and 1990s, when Modernism in general fell out of fashion. However, in the last decades, along with the upswing of interest in Mid Century art, his work is once again gathering interest,
Kakinuma was born in 1908, in Tanuma-Shi, Tochigi-Ken, Japan, near Tokyo. As a child he drew extensively. His parents discouraged him from studying art, as they feared poverty was inevitable for artists in Japan at that time. However, before he left Japan, he did quietly pursue art training by taking correspondence courses in painting through the Tokyo Wased University.¹ At the age of 29, in 1937, he immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, where he worked as a domestic servant determined to pursue his dream of going to an art school, possibly in New York.
It can only be assumed that events transpired to interrupt Kakinuma’s studies during the WWII years, and that he would have been caught up in the Japanese internment or the mandatory expulsions of Japanese from BC – 1942 to 1949. In a 1969 Vancouver Sun article, Kakinuma said:
“When the war came and the evacuation, I lived in Toronto and decided to become an artist”.¹
What we do know is that Kakinuma persisted with his studies in Toronto, and by 1947 graduated with Honours from the Ontario College of Art in the Fine Arts program.
He became a naturalized Canadian in 1951
I think there were a number of factors that have contributed to the regard with which Kakinuma was held during his working life. Foremost would be his work, which received immediate recognition nationally and internationally. His stylized approach reflects Mid-Century aesthetics: his stoneware sculptures are strongly rendered, abstracted and dynamic, his pottery is technically fine with clean design elements, and his handsome vases are embellished with formalized detail. It is in his animal figures, with their indefinable charm, where Kakinuma’s character is apparent.
Another factor that added interest in Kakinuma’s work was the growing appreciation, during the 1950s, of Japanese aesthetics. In Vancouver this appreciation was augmented by the popularity of the Nitobe Memorial Garden, created during the 1930s by landscape architects and gardeners brought in from Japan. The garden honours Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933), from Victoria, whose goal was “to become a bridge across the Pacific.” It was a popular practice amongst Vancouverites to attend traditional tea ceremonies held in the authentic Tea House in the Garden. This contact contributed to an appreciation of ceramics as well as Japanese aesthetics. The growing regard for anything Japanese was also informed by the 1940 A Potter’s Book by Bernard Leach that introduced the evocative notion of Mingei, a blend of nineteenth century eastern and western art movements.
The final factor was that Kakinuma’s story of immigrant struggle and success was affecting, and that would have been coupled with the collective shame over the treatment of citizens of Japanese origin during WWII.
As mentioned, Kakinuma had graduated in 1947 from the Ontario College of Art, in Fine Arts. Japanese citizens had been formally expelled from British Columbia until April 1 1949, so instead of returning to BC after graduation, Kakinuma kept moving east, and from 1948-1950. He attended the Art Students League, in New York, studying with Yasuo Kuniyoshi who emphasized an appreciation of the beauty of Nature. Kakinuma was encouraged to revisit his Japanese roots .³ At some point, realizing that it would be next to impossible to survive as a painter, Kakinuma made a decision to re-train as a potter. He left New York, returned to the Ontario College of Art to take ceramic courses, and later to the University of British Columbia.
Perhaps one reason he chose ceramics was because of the deep respect the art of ceramics is held in Japan. After all he could have become a designer or illustrator with his background in painting. In a 1969 Vancouver Sun article he mentions that he had to work as a designer for ceramics to be able to support his family, and he went on to say:
“In pottery the designs come from painting, the forms from sculpture, and we have to know the study of chemistry. It is a very complex art. Yet the galleries pick up paintings first, sculpture second and ceramics third.” ¹
Despite this persistent devaluation of ceramics Kakinuma enjoyed combining all the skills required in a ceramic practice.
Kakinuma must have been a very able student, as he was adjudicated into and won awards in the Canadian Ceramics 1955 exhibition ² that was jointly organized by the Canadian Handicraft Guild and the Canadian Guild of Potters. Held in the Royal Ontario Museum [of Archaeology], Toronto, it then travelled to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. His fellow British Columbian artists exhibiting were Jean Clarke, Olea Davis, Rex Mason, Lenard Osborne, Gordon Stewart and Hilda Ross. Kakinuma received a $50.00 purchase award. The catalogue shows a lovely vase by Kakinuma.
Luke Lindoe was also adjudicated into that 1955 exhibition, and perhaps Kakinuma’s success led Lindoe to invite him to teach at the Banff School of Art in 1955/1956. Interestingly, in a Vancouver ceramic collection, there is a Kakinuma sculpture of a calf that the collector believes was made in Alberta when Kakniuma was with Lindoe, and is somewhat reminiscent of the style of Joe Fafard’s early cows.
Thomas Kakinuma, Vase, ‘La Ceramique Contemporaire’, Ostende, Belgium July- October 1959
In 1957 Kakinuma won the Grand Prize in the Canadian Ceramics 1957, the second national exhibition of Canadian studio potters. From this exhibition his work was selected for the Canadian Pavilion in the 1958 Exposition Universelle et Internationale de Bruxelles, Belgium. The vase remains in that collection.³ This honour caused him to “shed tears of gratitude for his parents, his native country Japan, and his adopted country Canada.” ³
His work attracted more attention. A short article appeared in the Toronto Star, in 1960, during his exhibition at the Laing Gallery, Toronto:
“[Kakinuma] brings unusual charm and vivacity to his owls and penguins, hens and fish, and if he lacks originality in his forms, he makes up for it with sheer virtuosity. His vases of which there are half dozen or so in the exhibition, can’t be criticized on any grounds I know. They have a classical shape and homespun vigor, and their leaf and twig patterns seem to me to be rendered perfectly. “ 4
Either Gordon Smith or B.C. Binning arranged for Kakinuma to teach at the legendary Pottery [Army] Huts at the University of British Columbia, run by Olea Davis. He taught from 1956 – 60 and 1965 – 69. He only stopped in 1969 because the extension program was discontinued. It is from these classes that Kakinuma became a frequent and affectionately mentioned artist/teacher amongst collectors and students. According to a Vancouver Sun article he had been offered a teaching job in Dublin in 1969 – but did not think he would understand Irish/English.
Kakinuma’s teaching in 1960 at UBC was interrupted when he was awarded a Senior Fellowship from the Canada Council of the Arts for 1960-61. He was one of the first Canadian artists to win a Canada Council grant. He spent two months in Mexico, and eight months in Japan, studying with Satsuma Yaki in Kagoshima, and with Naniwa Yaki in Miyazaki-Ken.³ These residencies had their affect, and it was noted that his work became more polished. In 1963 he was awarded the silver medal in the International Exhibition of Ceramics in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
Interestingly, despite being such an isolated and young ceramic group, some BC ceramicists were already receiving remarkable recognition: later in the 1960s Hilda Ross received a gold medal at the Prague exhibition; and in 1966 Santo Mignosa’s class from the Kootenay school of Art received the silver medal as the Best Overall School, in the Annual Exhibition of Ceramic Arts in Faenza, Italy.6 Mignosa, himself, also received the Gold Medal at the Exposition International des Chef d’Oeuvres, de la Ceramique Moderne, at Ostende, Belgium in 1959.
While studying in Japan in 1960/61, Kakinuma met his future bride, Ikuko Kawata, a teacher of Japanese classic dance, (Fujima Ryu Odori). They were married in 1963. Kakinuma was fifty-three years old. As expressed in the “Issei, Stories of Japanese Pioneers”, they were blessed with a daughter and enjoyed a very happy family life.³ Kakinuma built a home in Burnaby that remained the family home until 2015. The Kakinumas also had a warm connection with the families of the painters B.C. Binning and Gordon Smith, with exchanges of ceramics and paintings. Their friendship and mutual respect illustrates the close relationships that existed within mid-century art circles in Vancouver, which were inclusive of architects, painters, furniture designers, potters, weavers and sculptors. In 1963 Western Homes and Living, ran an article about environmental sculpture in the garden and featured Kakinuma, along with Gerhard Glass, Jack Harman, Olea Davis, Ilek Imredy, and David Marshall, further demonstrating the inclusion of various media. The article read:
“ Changes in sculpture over the past two-three years has been so radical that it is not an exaggeration to claim that the West, in particular, Vancouver [BC] is now on par with, if not a step ahead of Toronto and Montreal in creation of environmental sculpture.” 5
There is a funny little article about the mystery of a lost Kakinuma sculpture, commissioned for the garden in front of the Kamloops City Hall in the early 1960s. In the article Kakinuma is spoken of as a celebrated Canadian artist. As it turned out, it was finally resolved in 1981 that the sculpture had been removed due to an ownership dispute.6
During the 1950s the public was fascinated by the novelty of the handmade and functional, and people began to collect. The Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) had five group shows of ceramics, and even held some pottery demonstrations. The VAG also had four solo exhibitions featuring BC potters: Robert Wegsteen, 1961, Thomas Kakinuma, 1962, John Reeve, 1973, and Wayne Ngan, 1979. This support was, in most part, due to Doris Shadbolt, a curator and Director at the VAG, who was acquiring an understanding of ceramics and was an active collector. Doris Shadbolt and Grace Cameron, another collector, were also seeking out the best of BC ceramics during the ’60s and early ’70s for the VAG gift shop. The VAG does have one or two Kakinuma’s in their collection, and very recently a Kakinuma collector bequeathed ten more pieces.
One work “Children Playing’, a particularly fine sculpture, was included in a 1961 travelling exhibition called “Small Sculptures”, organized by VAG and supported by a Canada Arts Council grant. Alan Elder and Ian Thom selected this same piece for the definitive VAG 2004 exhibition about British Columbian modernism, Art and Design 1945 – 1960. It was featured on a front plate in the subsequent publication. However, other than including some pottery in that exhibition, or celebrating Gathie Falk’s wonderful ceramic sculptures, and recently including a few Brendan Tang sculptures in a group exhibit, the VAG, currently does not seem to have the curatorial will to invest in learning about the aesthetics and complexity involved in the ceramic practice, particularly in the subtle knowledge required to evaluate the art of pottery.
Along with his celebrated sculptures, and handsome pottery Kakinuma made small rounded animal figurines: several types of birds – sparrows, chickens, seagulls, penguins and owls – as well as fish, monkeys and cats. I have seen only one dog (made for a personal friend) and one calf (previously mentioned) and I have a hybrid calf and boy sculpture from 1955, near to the time Kakinuma was in Banff.
Kakinuma fashioned his stylized animal forms from thrown pots with pinched and scratched details. There were many other Canadian artists, whose work he would have been aware of, who were also using stylized animal imagery – the Deichmanns, the Clarkes, David Lambert, the Schwenks, Ernst Lorenzen, Theo and Susan Harlander, and Jarko-Zavi – to name a few.
Kakinuma’s figurines are intimate, animated, and minimalist. They could be described as child-like and some find them trite, but those of us who love them find that something of Kakinuma’s own sweetness seems to been captured within them. These figurines are now resurfacing all over North America and the UK, and are much sought after. The most common is of a bright little sparrow-like bird, sometimes as a singleton, but often fashioned in a ring of birds. Another was of owls, a favoured mid-century image. Kakinuma’s figurines remarkably reflect Modernist sensibility, and the current interest in Mid-Century art and furniture may explain their increasing popularity.
Kakinuma’s animals have been likened to the Haniwa grave sculptures of prehistoric Japan. My thought is that Kakinuma’s figurines relate more, in spirit, to Darumas – the traditional symbolic Japanese paper mache figurines. They may have been a childhood memory for Kakinuma, and though considered a toy, a Daruma is also regarded as a talisman of good luck to the Japanese. They are rounded stylized figures that are hollow and weighted at the bottom so that they will always return to an upright position – an action that symbolizes the ability to successfully overcome adversity and misfortune. In my mind, Kakinuma’s figurines seem to bear a relationship to the Darumas in both their rounded stylized forms, the method of painting, and in their optimistic animated spirit.
Kakinuma’s glazing technique was direct. Most pieces were dipped, and sometimes the surface glaze was decorated using iron slip with simple brush strokes, or dashes of white and blue slip. He did have a fine red glaze, much sought after, found on his fish (also see Children Playing, above) and some pots. In a 1969 Vancouver Sun article he talked about the complexity of making glaze, and how he could not replicate the specialized ashes and minerals found in Japan.¹ He said that in Canada we all had to make do with our industrialized ingredients. He did not want to be perceived as complaining, it was simply a fact. Kakinuma worked in stoneware, firing to around cone 6 or 8, in his electric kiln. In the 1970s, I did hear that he was always experimenting with glaze, and that his health was eventually affected by working in his un-ventilated basement studio.
It is hard to find Kakinuma’s pottery, though it is very clearly marked and easily identifiable. My impression is that these pieces, particularly his vases, are being kept within the families that originally bought them. His tall cylindrical vases are perfect for large blossom arrangements –my own cousins still prize their Kakinuma vase bought in the 1950s. I have never actually seen any Kakinuma abstract sculptures, though I have seen images of very fine modernist work. They are dynamically different from his throwing. I wonder if they too are being kept and treasured in private collections.
Kakinuma supported his family through his teaching, sculptures, pottery, and his animal figurines. It was the figurines that sold out back east, with shop owners complaining that they could not meet the demand. They were his main source of income, and perhaps became his focus during the 1970s. The Quest, run by Bess Fitzgerald, an early supporter and proponent of craft in the West, represented his work in shops in Victoria, Vancouver, Calgary and Banff. His work would also have been available at the Vancouver Art Gallery shop, thanks to Doris Shadbolt and Grace Cameron. But it could have been that Modernism was slipping out of favour, and his work was too quiet for the flashier ’70s home décor. In the 1969 Vancouver Sun article, Kakinuma rather wistfully says:
“I really like to work on a one man show, rather than making small items for stores.” ¹
Artist Bob Kingsmill approached Kakinuma, wanting to include him in his 1976 A Catalogue of BC Potters. Kakinuma responded that he was uncomfortable promoting himself, and did not send in his profile.
Thomas Kakinuma was affectionately known as Tommy K, a beloved pottery teacher and a respected member of the BC ceramics community. He was on friendly terms with many potters, but he remained a very private man. His was a remarkable career, especially taking into consideration the many obstacles he had to overcome to live his life as an artist: leaving his family in Japan, working as a servant to go to school, coping with the war years, and managing to live and study in New York. He pragmatically sought re-training as a potter. Living as an artist must have been of paramount importance to Kakinuma, not which medium he practiced. He did not differentiate between the value of painting and ceramics, except that he could more easily sell ceramics. After a short period of training his work quickly captured interest across the country, and equally important, it is capturing interest again. He was able to buy a home and look after his family on the sales of work made with integrity and of aesthetic value. All in all, every aspect of his life was filled with extraordinary accomplishments.
Thomas Kakinuma died September 9, 1982, aged 73, after a lengthy illness. He so hated being in the hospital that his family brought him home for the last few weeks of his life. Doreen Lawson, an Alderman from the City of Burnaby, gave his eulogy. She said:
“ Mr. Tommy Kakinuma brought honour to our country and to his community of Burnaby with his work. He leaves a legacy behind – the memory of a warm caring man remains in his sculptures that are a celebration of life and love. He gave of himself to us all, and especially, to his family, he will be sadly missed.” 7
His family so treasured his memory that Kakinuma’s studio remained undisturbed for the next thirty-three years.
At the time of this article, July 2016, a conversation has started between Thomas Kakinuma’s family, some collectors, and a curator, about digitizing Kakinuma’s papers, photographing his pottery, sculptures, paintings and weavings, and planning an exhibition.
Slide Show of More Thomas Kakinuma Works
Awards and recognitions for Thomas Kakinuma.
- Canadian Handicraft Guild
- Vancouver Art Gallery
- UBC Fine Arts Gallery
- Winnipeg Art Gallery
- International Ceramics Museum, Faenza, Italy
- Confederation Art Gallery – Charlottetown, PEI
- Art Gallery of Windsor, Ontario
- Museum of Anthropology, UBC
- Vancouver Art Gallery
- 1955 Purchase Award, Canadian Ceramics 1955
- 1957 Grand Prize – Canadian Ceramics 57
- 1960-1961 Canada Arts Council Senor Fellowship to study ceramics in Mexico and Japan.
- 1963 Canadian Ceramics 63, for sculpture
- 1963 Silver medal International Ceramic Show, Prague, Czechoslovakia
- 1963 Best Ceramic Sculpture of Canadian Ceramic
- At Langara College, Vancouver, B.C., Canada – There is a Thomas Kakinuma Memorial Award for a 4th term ceramics/sculpture student who is eligible for the Graduating Exhibition, is judged to be the most outstanding in the area of Ceramics/Sculpture and shows the most promise.
In the exhibitions held at UBC during the 60s by the Northwest Institute of Sculpture Kakinuma’s work was always included. Editors of catalogues often used images of Kakinuma’s pieces. His is like everyman’s art, catching the eye and representing the aesthetics of that time.
- Potters Guild of British Columbia
- Northwest Institute of Sculpture
- BC Society of Artists
- Canadian Federation of Artists
End Notes and Bibliography
1. Vancouver Sun, September 8 1969, Eileen Johnson, National Gallery of Canada Archive
2. Kakinuma, Thomas — British Columbia #85 Earthenware vase (tall, relief decoration) ($50 Purchase Prize) $22.00 #86 Earthenware bottle (rutile matt and iron) $16.50 #87 Sculpture (two chickens) pr., 27.50 #88 Sculpture (two figures) $165.00. Canadian Ceramics 1955.
4. Toronto Daily Star, To, Ontario, May 21, 1960, National Gallery of Canada Archive. Writer unknown
5. Western Homes and Living 14, November 1963, 12-6, 13 ill. Eng. Sculpture in the Garden, National Gallery of Canada Archive
6. Where is the Tiny Now? http://www.kamloopsnews.ca/news/readers-reporter/where-s-the-tiny-sculpture-now-1.1250428
7. www.arch-bc.org Potters Guild of BC newsletter 10/82
- National Gallery of Canada Archive
- Burnaby Art Gallery Archive
- Vancouver Art Gallery Library Archive
- Rare Books and Special Collections, UBC
- Federation of Canadian Artists
- Museum of Anthropology, UBC
- www.arch-bc.org Western Potter #4 March 1966, Potters Guild of BC
- The New Design Gallery, West Vancouver Museum Archive
- The Studio, volumes 153 – 154, P.160
- Collection of Allan Collier, images and catalogues, with thanks
With gratitude for the dedicated archivists and librarians across Canada, and their kind assistance in locating the reference materials for this article,
Debra Evelyn Sloan
Debra worked six years 1973-79, in a self-directed apprenticeship, at a pottery school in Vancouver. From 1979-82 she attended Vancouver School of Art (VSA), returning to Emily Carr University of Art and Design in 2004, to complete a BFA. She has 4 young-adult children. She has adjudicated, taught extensively and presented at symposiums. Recently her work has been in 7 international exhibitions. She is represented in six LARK 500 publications, several international magazines, and has written articles for local, national and international publications. She has attended four international residencies, and was the first sculptor at the Leach Pottery, St Ives, since its founding in 1920. The MEK Gallery at SOFA, Chicago represented her work in 2014 and 2015. In 2015 she was the recipient for the Hilde Gerson Award, (CCBC) and Mayor’s Arts Award (Vancouver).