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by Charlie Aldinger, Honolulu Academy of Arts


Raised on the island of Kauai, Kuraoka confesses to having been rather naive, with no conception of art when he moved to the Bay Area in 1964 to attend San Jose City College. Classes in art captured his attention, and he transferred to San Jose State College to continue his education, earning first a B. A. in Art and then an M.A. in 1971, with ceramics as his graduate focus. Kuraoka started teaching that same year at San Francisco State University, where he is today the head of the ceramics program.

In addition to teaching, Kuraoka maintains studios on Kauai and in San Francisco, where he produces his own work, with an exhibition record that includes shows in Hawai‘i, the U.S. mainland, and Japan. His work is included in many private and corporate collections as well as the Honolulu Academy of Arts, The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, the Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, and the Rotterdam Modern Museum of Art in The Netherlands.

While in graduate school, Kuraoka gravitated toward what is today referred to as primitive firing—raku and pit-firing—and became a pioneer in the processes. With raku, a technique first developed in Japan during the 16th century for the production of tea ceremony ware, glazed bisque ware is fired for a brief period in a red-hot kiln before being withdrawn, cooled quickly, and placed in a closed container filled with combustible materials. Exposure to the combustion process affects the clay body and glazes in unpredictable decorative ways, with the accidental effects of different combustibles being among raku’s greatest appeal.

Today a well-known tradition, in the 1960s when Kuraoka was a student, raku was only just emerging in the field of contemporary crafts. Kuraoka spent his graduate years specializing in raku, experimenting with kiln design, fuel, firing temperatures, and glazing, moving from one studio to another around the Bay Area, “staying one step ahead of the police,” as the smoke from his kilns displeased neighbors and local fire departments. Kuraoka says that during these years characterized by anti-war feeling and social upheaval, he found in the low-tech, so-called primitive process of raku a way to “go back to the basics.”

In the late 1960s, teaching ceramics at San Jose City College, Kuraoka took his raku firing out to nearby beaches, where his activities would be less disruptive. As friends, other teachers, and students joined him, spending several days at a time camping while doing their raku, Kuraoka tapped into the party atmosphere and organized the first Waddell Creek Full Moon Raku Festival in 1969, an event that was followed annually by 15 more either there or at Pescadero Beach.

Together with Bay-area ceramist Joe Hawley, who was then teaching at the University of Hawai‘i, Kuraoka transplanted the event to O‘ahu, helping to organize the first Raku Ho‘olaulea, a raku festival held annually at Kualoa Regional Park since 1976.

For more info, call Honolulu Academy at (808) 532-8700.

Kuraoka produces ceramic forms on the wheel that are either perfect in shape and glazed with transparent celadon or are altered and manipulated by hand before pit-fired with sawdust, rock salt, and copper carbonate.

Photo courtesy Honolulu Academy of Arts


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