Episode 5: John Toki, Sculptor, Businessperson, Teacher and Community Leader


John Toki knew and stud­ied with some of the San Fran­cisco Bay Area’s lead­ers in the fine art ceram­ics move­ment — Stephen De Stae­bler, Ron Nagle, Peter Voulkos, Clay­ton Bai­ley and many more.

He met many as a young boy, the son of Rayer and Leslie Toki who started Leslie Ceram­ics Sup­ply in Berke­ley, a Mecca for sculp­tors and pot­ters look­ing for high qual­ity mate­ri­als and solid advice.  Through­out his child­hood, John Toki’s par­ents wel­comed artists into their home, giv­ing their son a real­is­tic view of what it was like to make one’s liv­ing pro­duc­ing art.

Toki went on to earn his B.F.A. at Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­sity, Hay­ward, (now Cal-State East Bay) where fam­ily friends Ron Nagle and Clay­ton Bai­ley taught.  He com­pleted his M.F.A. in ceram­ics at Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege of Arts and Crafts (now Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege of the Arts), where Toki later taught the fine art of clay for 13 years.  At the same time he learned the impor­tant busi­ness and inno­va­tion skills that has kept  Leslie Ceram­ics in oper­a­tion for 50 years, even­tu­ally becom­ing owner and com­pany pres­i­dent.  He is the inven­tor of the Toki Kiln and improved elec­tronic tem­per­a­ture con­trollers as well as over 400 glazes.

Toki is the co-author of sev­eral notable books on ceramic sculp­ture, includ­ing the fifth edi­tion of the clas­sic “Hands in Clay” with Char­lotte Speight, and is cur­rently serv­ing as a con­sul­tant to New York painter Chuck Close on a ceramic tile project.
An active leader in the Bay Area sculp­ture com­mu­nity, Toki recently served as a pan­elist at a Stephen De Stae­bler ret­ro­spec­tive event at the De Young Museum in San Fran­cisco.  With John Nat­soulas of the Cen­ter for the Arts in Davis, Calif., Toki is orga­niz­ing the Ceram­ics Annual of Amer­ica, a three-day Sep­tem­ber 2012 event at Ft. Mason in San Fran­cisco that will fea­ture about 100 sculp­tors, includ­ing sev­eral from other parts of the world.

Toki’s own large-scale ceramic sculp­tures have been exhib­ited in Cal­i­for­nia, Ari­zona, Ohio, Mary­land, Wis­con­sin, Japan and the Nether­lands.  A recent piece, installed in Davis, Calif., comes equipped with an elec­tric chip for smart phones that allows the viewer to con­nect with a website.

Men­tions:  John Wor­ley, Char­lotte Speight, Roberta Laid­man, Euro­pean Ceramic Work­cen­tre, John Michael Kohler Arts Cen­ter, Viola Frey

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