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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 30, 2001

Potter 'collaborates' with fire

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer

In transforming himself from diplomat to artist, Clayton Amemiya became a master at painting with fire.

Potter Clayton Amemiya controls the intensity of the fire in his wood-firing kiln at his studio on the slopes of Mauna Kea in Waiakea-Uka above Hilo town. He said he is able to increase the heat to 1,300 degrees centigrade.

Clayton Amemiya photo

His work is defined by distinctive subtle colors and patterns left on pottery that is exposed to ash and flames for four days inside a type of tunnel-shaped, wood-firing kiln the Japanese call "anagama." Amemiya does only three firings a year at his three-acre "studio" on the slopes of Mauna Kea in Waiakea-Uka above Hilo town.

It's only fitting that his workplace sits on an active volcano.

The 54-year-old Amemiya, who was invited to China this month by Dr. I-Chi Hsu of Hsu Arts Promotion to help construct wood-firing kilns in Beijing and Fuping City, built his anagama 17 years ago with help from the late Seisho Kuniyoshi of Okinawa. It took the two men 41 days to design and construct the kiln, which is 12 feet long and 4 1/2 feet high and wide. There's no other like it in Hawai'i, says Amemiya. The fire box accounts for one-third of the space, which leaves enough room for about 250 pottery pieces inside.

Amemiya controls the intensity of the fire. Proper positioning of different-sized pottery items is important to the painting process, which Amemiya describes as a "collaboration of me and fire."

"The pieces must be loaded in such a way as to allow for the struggle of fire to get out (of the kiln)," Amemiya said. "Wherever the ash lands, I can predict a spectrum of colors from emerald green to yellow to brown. Where the ash doesn't go, it'll be different shades of brown because of the clay."

Amemiya's fire feeds off hard woods. He uses kiawe during the first half of the four-day process, mainly to start the fire and create charcoal. He switches to 'ohi'a and lychee to enhance the fire.

"In Japan, they only use pine, which is a soft wood," he said. "They get an emerald-jade look from it. But when ashes from hard wood goes on pieces, it becomes glazey."

Amemiya is able to turn up the heat to 1,300 degrees centigrade, which he says is hotter than flowing lava. "You can see the color of the fire inside is white," he said. "At that temperature, the glaze starts to melt."

His use of 'opihi and other sea shells is also unique to the process. Each piece in the kiln is placed on three or more shells. "I use them as posts to get salt into the pieces," Amemiya said. "Germany invented salt glazing but I don't need much. From the salt, I get these patterns of eruption in the glaze."

Amemiya only does three firings a year because the preparation work is time-consuming and labor-intensive.

Clayton Amemiya worked for the State Department in Japan and South Korea before becoming a full-time artist in 1979.

Clayton Amemiya photo

For example, it takes him about three months to collect the wood — three to four cords of kiawe and at least two cords of 'ohi'a, which he usually buys. The wood, stacked in a pile 4-8 feet high, must then be chopped. At the same time, Amemiya has to sketch, design and make the pottery pieces for the firing.

"It's blue-collar work," said Amemiya, who plans to do firings in September and November. "I've chopped so much wood that I've developed a tennis elbow."

Amemiya's son Zenn and an apprentice help tend the fire over the four-day firing period.

His pieces are priced between $25 (for a rice bowl) and $7,000.

"My most successful pieces are the wall vases," said Amemiya, who has a downtown Hilo gallery called "Rain" on Mamo Street. "I'm just scratching out a living. My second major interest is landscaping and growing tropical flowers, like growing heliconia to sell in Japan. It goes good with ceramics."

Amemiya joined the State Department in 1972 and was assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Okinawa. After stints in Tokyo and Seoul, South Korea, he decided in 1975 to change careers. He became a full-time artist in 1979.

To support himself during his early years as an artist, Amemiya worked as a flight attendant, at hotels and even in the pineapple fields.

The youngest of seven children, Amemiya graduated from Punahou School and University of Hawai'i-Manoa. His brother Ron is a former state attorney general, and one of his four sisters, Grace Sakai of Los Angeles, sang with the popular Hawai'i Shochiku Orchestra in the 1940s and 1950s. He's also the uncle of Keith Amemiya, head of the Hawai'i High School Athletic Association.

While in Okinawa, Amemiya became interested in wood-firing after meeting Kuniyoshi.

"He wasn't my sensei, he was a friend who allowed me to observe him at work," Amemiya said. "He believed that if you teach somebody, the student will only copy your work. It's only in the last 10 years that I've learned to predict what will happen (with the firings). As long as I don't cut corners, I know things will come out OK."

Correction: Kiawe is the algaroba tree wood. The word was misspelled in a previous version of this story.

Contact Rod Ohira at rohira@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-8181.