The town of Mihama, Aichi Prefecture, nestled in the mountains,
is surrounded by green fields and wooded slopes. Steven Ward, 31,
an American, and his wife, Ximena Elgueda, 37, a Venezuelan, are
busy creating a mountain plaza here. The plan calls
for an open-air theater featuring a circular stage backed by a ceramic
wall. At present work is proceeding apace on the sound-absorbing
wall, nine meters long and two and a half meters high. When the
wall is finished, it will be enclosed in a huge temporary kiln and
fired for about a month.
Both Ward and Elgueda are potters. While studying ceramics in art
school in Venezuela, Elgueda came across a book on the works of
Kazuo Yagi, one of Japans leading postwar avant-garde potters.
Excited by the quality of the clay he used and the distinctive nature
of his pieces, she became interested in Japanese pottery. She came
to Japan for the first time in 1992 with the Japanese governments
Ship for World Youth, a youth-exchange program, and while here she
visited potters and craft and cultural centers. Something
about Japan attracted me, so I was determined to come back again,
she recalls. She did so in 1994, with a scholarship to study architectural
ceramics with Junpei Sugie at the Nagoya University of Arts, where
she earned a master of arts degree.
Ward, too, first visited Japan in 1992, when he was traveling through
Asia as a university student. After touching down at Narita airport,
outside Tokyo, he embarked on a bicycle tour, starting from the
northern island of Hokkaido, where he spent a month. He then traveled
through the main island, Honshu, making his way from Aomori Prefecture
in the north to the ancient capital of Kyoto. After a side trip
to Pusan, South Korea, he wended his way farther down the archipelago
to the islands of Shikoku and Kyushu.
Altogether Ward spent seven months cycling around Japan. I
felt safe, and people were kind. And wherever I went there was pottery.
I was impressed by the way it was integrated into everyday life.
He studied ceramics at university and then taught at San Franciscos
Jewish Community Center. In 1995 he returned to Japan as artist
in residence at the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, Shiga Prefecture,
where he worked as an assistant to Ryoji Koie.
Ward and Elgueda, both of whom had been drawn to Japan by ceramics,
met at a workshop in Shigaraki. The attraction was mutual. They
also had the same philosophy of and aesthetic approach to ceramics.
Since then they have lived and worked together. In 1999 a son, Sora,
Six years ago the couple moved to the city of Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture,
famed as one of Japans six great historical centers of ceramic
production. This came about when the mayor of the nearby town of
Nishiharu commissioned Elgueda to create a public ceramic installation
and they found a studio with a kiln in Tokoname. Were
surrounded by nature, and its a really comfortable place to
live, says Elgueda. I think its an especially
good environment for Sora, who can learn about living things and
the importance of nature. Besides, my next-door neighbor has become
a kind of surrogate grandfather, and the volunteers working with
us are honorary aunts and uncles.
Ward and Elgueda work in an 80-year-old Japanese-style house that
used to be used for weaving. The studio is full of art objects,
vessels, chairs, and other distinctive works made individually or
together. Our joint works combine our stories and memories,
incorporating the history, natural power, and sense of happiness
of both North and South America, says Ward.
The mountain plaza represents the couples biggest
joint work to date. Elgueda explains how the idea of the open-air
theater arose: On a visit to Stevens hometown, San Francisco,
the three of us were walking in the woods when we came across a
huge tree hollow. When we went inside our voices echoed softly,
and there was a feeling of serenity, like being in a different world.
This made us start wondering whether we could create a ceramic space
that would bring together nature and people.
A farmer friend in Mihama, Tsuyoshi Sugiura, provided the land.
The project will cost about ¥1.4 million. Ward and Elgueda are
putting in their own money, augmented by funds from a charity concert
and donations. Neighbors are lending the truck and fork lift needed
to transport bricks and clay. Every Sunday volunteersover
a dozen altogetherfrom as far afield as Gifu and Mie Prefectures
take turns helping out. One young man says, The network grew
as we brought along friends and acquaintances. We all do what we
can, and we have a lot of fun in the process. It is this
cooperation from like-minded people that is bringing the couples
dream to life.
When the open-air theater is finished, we want it to be a
community space everyone can enjoy. Concerts, workshops, barbecuesanythings
fine, says Ward. Id like to see functions like
environmental seminars, too. It would be the perfect setting, situated
in the middle of nature as it is.
Kneading clay, shaping it, and building up the wall under the hot
summer sun is hard labor. But Ward says hes come to enjoy
toiling outdoors, surrounded by nature, more than working in a studio.
The target for completion is the autumn of 2003. What is holding
up things right now is a shortage of fireproof bricks for the kiln.
Ward and Elgueda are begging anyone with surplus fireproof bricks
to donate them.