By Lina Zhu
Kazu Oba, a potter and sculptor based in Boulder, Colo. was born in Kobe, Japan. He was inspired to travel on his own and live in the U.S. after watching the American movie “Grease” in 1989. He then dropped out of high school in Japan and attended Gilpin County High School in Colorado and graduated in 1990.
Oba worked in restaurants for about 15 years. During his time, he became increasingly interested in the vessels for the food he was serving in the restaurants. While studying at the University of Colorado Boulder, Oba apprenticed under Jerry Wingren, a sculptor in stone and wood for four years.
He then decided to go back to Japan to study under one of the world’s most renowned potters in Karatsu (one of the ceramic centers in Japan), Takashi Nakazato. After his training in Japan, he returned to Colorado in 2004 and eventually started his own studio, O’baware, creating ceramics and sculptures with his wife, Yuka.
What does the process of making an O’baware look like?
Each O’baware is made by our hands one piece at a time to bring out the natural curves and the warm textures that only handmade pottery can bring. They may be slightly odd shaped and irregular, just like us, but that’s a part of the beauty.
The process of making an O’baware always starts with a need for that particular vessel. For example, Takashi, owner of Ramen Star (located in Denver), and I spent four years trying many different shapes and sizes of bowls for his ramen while he was in search of a restaurant location.
Kazu’s pottery is dedicated to functional, everyday ware to be used in the home. His background as a chef distinctly influences his work, as he maintains a constant focus on the relationship between his pots and the food that will occupy them.
He initially wanted deeper bowls for his Shoyu and Miso ramen that have more broth, and shallow but wider bowls for his signature Ramen Star ramen. Now he serves all hot ramen in the deeper bowls and uses the wide and shallow bowls for his cold ramen. The shape of the bowls were made to meet their function.
How have things changed for you since becoming a parent?
I never made dishes for babies before but now have created various versions as my daughter Maya* is getting bigger. She is still tiny, but as she learns to use different utensils like chopsticks and to interact with vessels differently, I’m making bowls and plates with different features.
(*Maya was born in Colorado in August of 2018)
How does your work represent your own identities, cultures, and ideologies?
My table and chairs at home make it a lot more comfortable to use dishes in Japanese fashion (lifting various vessels off the tabletop) because my chairs are two inches higher than the standard height, so my forearms don’t come in contact with the tabletop. The standard height tables and chairs are in fact made for a dining experience where all the dishes are left on the table. This includes Chinese and Korean table etiquettes.
My work and designs come out of my lifestyle, a Japanese living in the western world, a family with a small child, surviving through Covid. My pots are about all those things.
Many of the tools and techniques I use in the studio required years in development, but the final products often take a few minutes, if not seconds to produce. I view pottery making as calligraphy. We spend our lifetime perfecting the simple gestures, with the least amount of fussing at the potter’s wheel. I believe the pots made in the simplest and quickest fashion are the healthiest and most honest dishes.
How has your business been affected by the pandemic?
Most of my shows this year got canceled, starting with a show in New York in March and one in Tokyo in April along with two others in Japan this summer. A local event that was planned for this spring is now happening at The Source. An all-wood sculpture show at Arvada Center, which was planned for this fall, is taking place in January.
Although many events were canceled due to COVID-19, Kazu Oba is arranging future events to showcase his works and exchange ideas. Connect with him and find out more about O’baware’s events on their website (obaware.com) and social media (@oba_ware).