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transper_1pic.gif Creating a Ceramic
Open-Air Theater

Steven Ward and Ximena Elgueda

Text by Akiko Onodera; photos by Tadashi Aizawa

The sound-absorbing wall goes up little by little.

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 Japan’s 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 government’s 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 Francisco’s 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, was born.

Six years ago the couple moved to the city of Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture, famed as one of Japan’s 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. “We’re surrounded by nature, and it’s a really comfortable place to live,” says Elgueda. “I think it’s 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 couple’s biggest joint work to date. Elgueda explains how the idea of the open-air theater arose: “On a visit to Steven’s 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 volunteers—over a dozen altogether—from 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 couple’s dream to life.

“When the open-air theater is finished, we want it to be a community space everyone can enjoy. Concerts, workshops, barbecues—anything’s fine,” says Ward. “I’d 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 he’s 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.

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