I first heard of Vaea Marx from John Toki. Vaea is an old family friend of the Toki family. John’s parents founded Leslie Ceramics Supply in Berkeley in 1946. Their business was built on integrity and a deep spirit of support for both aspiring and established artists who came into their shop, first as customers and then, quite often, as friends.
John told me stories of Vaea and Peter Voulkos, both friends of the Tokis, who worked closely together for decades. Then one day artist Ann Weber handed me a catalog saying, “Here’s an artist you really should interview. He’s been around for a long time and should get more attention.”
The catalog was from a twenty-two year survey of Vaea’s work at the Oakland Museum, curated by Phil Linares. It was impressive, but I was so busy all this soon slipped out of mind. It must have been two years later that John Toki invited me to a gathering at Russ McClure’s home—a party for AMOCA [American Museum of Ceramic Art]. John told me I had to meet Russ. “He’s got a tremendous art collection. You won’t believe it.”
I went. It was great fun, and squeezing past groups of people in order to look at the art, I was stopped by one particular piece, a ceramic sculpture.
“Who made this?” I asked Russ.
“That’s by Vaea Marx,” he answered.
At that moment I decided to ask Vaea for an interview. And I soon learned that Russ has perhaps the strongest collection of Vaea’s work anywhere. Later on, he treated me to a personal tour, stopping before each of Vaea’s pieces to expound enthusiastically on its power and originality.
He made a strong case that Vaea’s work belongs with that of Voulkos and John Mason. “When you look at these pieces, Richard, you have to remember that there was nothing like them at that time. These are not imitations of Voulkos’ work or of John Mason’s. Just look!”
But Vaea was never one for promoting himself, Russ explained—although he’d gotten some recognition. He’d had a show at SFMOMA, for instance, and has a solid cv. Looking at one remarkable piece after another, I had no inclination to quibble with what Russ had to say.
Vaea agreed to an interview and invited me to his East Oakland studio. When I arrived, he greeted me, but clearly wondered who I was and gently probed for my credentials. I explained I’d been quietly publishing a magazine for quite some time, but that it was still something of a secret.
It’s not always my best opening line, so I added that I could boast of quite a few big time subscribers.
I could see he hadn’t quite made up his mind, but after a few more minutes, it seemed a decision had been made in my favor. He encouraged me to look around, always a special pleasure on a studio visit. Soon I couldn’t resist asking some questions about one piece or another and before long a conversation was underway.
Vaea mentioned that a video crew from PBS had recently been to the studio to film him…
It was for Craft in America
. The whole thing was about soldiers on the G.I. Bill who wanted to study crafts someplace, like Peter Voulkos did. They interviewed me about Pete. When I saw it, I was on for like two minutes. But it’s all right.
I’d certainly be interested in anything you want to share about Peter. But first, you’re French.
Did you study art in France?
No. I studied in Japan. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Mingei-kan
Yes. It’s connected with Soetsu Yanagi, right?
Yes. I knew all those people.
You knew Hamada?
Hamada, Yanagi, Kawai Kanjiro; I studied with Kawai Kanjiro. I knew all those people. In fact, I even met the filmmaker, Kurosawa, before he was known here.
That’s amazing. How long did you study in Japan?
I was there for two years.
works: What was that like for you?
Vaea: It was very good. I was in Kyoto, which was very much like the old Japan. In the 1960s, Kyoto was still not developed like now. I went back in ‘83 with Pete; he had a show there, and I couldn’t believe the change. Where I was is still there, untouched, but on the other side of the street it’s unrecognizable.
works: What did you do there for two years?
Vaea: Well, I did everything. I mixed clay with my feet. There would be a huge wood platform all around, and they would bring clay from different parts of the country. There’d be like ten of us. We’d be barefoot and holding shoulders. And when it’s cold, it’s cold. There was a bucket of water on the side to warm our feet. We’d pick the rocks and sticks out of the clay, you know. In those days there was no machine. We did everything. I did throwing and mold casting—all the rudimentaries of ceramics.
works: What took you to Japan?
Vaea: Well, I lived for about four years in Australia. I worked on ranches in the Outback, riding horses all day long. Running cattle and so forth.
Vaea: Yes. And then a friend of mine, Claude LeLoux, who actually studied in England with Bernard Leach—I don’t know if you’ve heard of him?
Vaea: I met him in Australia. He was working on a boat, and he went to Japan because Bernard Leach introduced him to Kawai. Leach told him to go to Japan. So he went and I decided well, I want to go there and check it out, too. So I went and, lo and behold, I met all those people.
works: When you were in Australia, had you already gotten involved in art?
Vaea: No. I was a pastry chef.
works: A pastry chef?
Vaea: Yes. I went to hotel management school in France, and when I went to Australia, of course, I had this knowledge. So it was easy for me to get a job.
works: How long did you do that?
Vaea: Five or six years, I think.
Works: Gosh, there are several threads here. But how did you end up in the Outback?
Vaea: After I earned some money, I would leave town and go into the Outback, get my own horse and work on a ranch.
works: Really? What drew you to the Outback to work on a ranch?
Vaea: I just love the country and I just love horses. That was ideal for me. It was like an adventure. I was all over Australia—north and south and all over the place.
works: You were a young man then.
Vaea: Yes. I left France when I was 18. I went all over the place. In France, I was on my own since I was 15 because I was in the Underground during World War II. So when I went to Australia it was like a new world. It was incredible! Because in France when I was 18, you couldn’t find a banana or an orange in Paris.
Vaea: Yes. Then I went to Japan and, through Claude LeLoux, I met Kawai Kanjiro. I stayed in Kyoto. There was a French school there and they let me bed in one of the classrooms that was empty. Then I traveled all over in Japan with Kawai. I met Yanagi. Bernard Leach came over; I met him there, too.
works: So how did you take up clay? Because when you got to Japan, you hadn’t been working in clay.
Vaea: No. I didn’t even know anything about art.
works: That’s amazing.
Vaea: Yes. I was probably called. It was 1952 when I went to Japan and met all those people. Then I studied there and, basically, I learned the mechanics of ceramics. I didn’t realize the art part of it. You know what I mean? I got a good relation with Kawai and his son; his son could speak English. So we communicated in English and a bit of Japanese. Then we kept communicating by mail and he kept telling me, “Come back, come back and visit us.”
I told him, “I don’t want to come over there as a tourist. I want to learn something from you guys.” So they did everything for me. They did the paperwork with a Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, and then I had this visa and everything. It was incredible.
works: So how did you get introduced to working with clay in Japan?
Vaea: Well, Japan is very Francophile. I mean, in Japan, they know a lot about French literature. In fact, every coffee shop in Japan is Proust this and Proust that—and a lot of Japanese speak French. I was going to Tokyo and met this girl, Michiko Terai, on a train. She sat next to me. I was, you know, floored—this beautiful Japanese girl in a kimono. After half an hour, I looked at her and asked, “Do you speak English?”
She said, “No.” Then after a while she said, “But I speak French.” So it was like that. She became my girlfriend while I was in Japan.
works: When you said you didn’t want to go back to Japan as a tourist, how did that work?
Vaea: They said, “Come on over. You can stay in the house.” So I was sitting there for a week, and I said, “What am I doing here?” I told Kawai, “I want to get out and do stuff.” So they took me into the studio, which was one block away, and I started working there. Then they put me in a house—an old, old house, Kawai’s house. My room was upstairs. I said, “I don’t want to sleep in your house.” So I slept in a bunk in the studio, which was nice because I had more freedom.
works: So they put you to work mixing clay?
Vaea: I was doing everything that an apprentice would be doing.
works: Did you like it?
Vaea: I liked it. I like working with my hands. Then every Sunday, Kawai would rent a car with a driver. He’d take me around Kyoto and we would go into a temple, or a castle, or this and that. One Sunday, we drove to a Zen monastery—because he was Zen, you know—and I met the abbot. It was a beautiful place. Kawai says to me, “If you want to learn about me, you have to stay here.”
So I left the house and I lived in a monastery. Every morning I would get up at 4 a.m., work in the garden, take a cold bath, do Zazen, and so forth.
works: Gosh, that’s something!
Vaea: It was a complete transformation of my body and mind! And do you know, all my family on my mother’s side, all my family were priests and nuns—Jesuits. So it probably was in my genes, you know?
works: That’s amazing. So every day you followed the routine of the monks?
works: How long did you stay there?
Vaea: I was there for a year.
works: I imagine that would give you something that would never leave you.
Vaea: No. It never leaves you. In fact, I would work with Kawai during the day, and then in the evening, I would go back to the monastery. By the time I got there, the monastery would be closed. You couldn’t get in. So a monk showed me a little door on the wall, on the other side of the entrance. I’d have to bend to get in there. And the door was always open. So when I’d come back late at night from Kawai, I would go through the little door. But right across the street there was a bar and first I would stop at the bar, get a beer. The women could see I was weird and they knew I was a gaijin, a foreigner, you know. My head was shaved. And the women all wanted to take me to bed. But I didn’t want to deal with that and I said, “No, I’ve got to go across the street.”
works: That’s amazing. Did they practice Rinzai Zen there, or Soto Zen?
Vaea: It was a Rinzai.
works: So that’s very tough. What do you remember the most from living at the monastery for a year?
Vaea: Everything! But the tough part was getting up at 4:00 a.m. and getting in the cold baths, winter or summer. But to me it was all right.
You know, when I was in France during the war when I was like 14, I got caught by the Germans. One of my chiefs, who was an older man, and I—we blew up a building run by the Germans. So they were looking for us. There were a bunch of us. They stripped us to our underwear in the snow, and made us stand there for hours. We thought we were going to get shot, but they let us go because we were young kids. They didn’t know what the hell we were doing, you know?
works: You were captured by the Germans in World War II and they let you go?
Vaea: Yes, because they couldn’t quite figure out, like they couldn’t connect us with what was happening.
works: They couldn’t believe these kids were doing all that?
Vaea: Right. Today, when I see what’s happening in the Middle East, or when the Americans can’t believe that a young boy or a young girl would blow themselves up or attack them and so forth, that’s why I know it’s normal. Your country is being invaded. You become something else. And when you’re that age, you’re invisible, invincible. You never think you’re going to die. I got shot at many times and it never occurred to me that they would hit me. You know what I mean?
works: In a way maybe, but I never had an experience like that. So Australia. That was this new world for you, and you loved it. You loved the horses, you said. What do you love about horses?
Vaea: There’s just something about a horse. After you raise one, the animal is part of you. There’s just an affinity. When at the end of the day or the middle of the day, I would stop and tie my horse up to a tree, the horse would try to bite me. He didn’t want to be left. I mean, I got bitten by my horse. He’d come at me like this [gestures].
works: What was he trying to tell you?
Vaea: He didn’t want to be tied down.
works: I’ve never owned a horse, but there’s something special about horses.
Vaea: It’s funny because my name is Vaea and I have a Japanese friend, Jimmy Suzuki, who said I should have a chop made. He said, “Use the word va.” In Japanese, va is horse; ma in Chinese is horse, the same sound. My first letters are the same, so it was like short for my name, you see.
works: I see. You’ve had a very interesting life.
Vaea: Yes. And then I came here. My sister came to the U.S. before I did. She married a Frenchman here and asked me to come over. She was going to open a bakery. So I decided, well, I’ll come over and help. Then I came here and four months later I got drafted into the army. It was the Korean War and I got sent back to Japan.
works: As a U.S. soldier?
works: Wow, that’s crazy.
Vaea: If you come with the green card, you have all the privileges of a citizen and all the duties of a citizen. You actually can refuse, but if you refuse, then if you leave the country, you can’t come back. So that’s the way it was. I said, “What the hell.” So I went to basic training in Fort Ord. I was twenty-five and everybody at Fort Ord was eighteen. I was the old man. All those kids were scared stiff because, you know, in basic training they shoot bullets over your head and stuff like that. To me, it was like Boy Scouts. I’d been through so much before it was no big deal.
works: Okay. So you get sent to Japan in the military. How long were you there?
Vaea: I was in for two years.
works: And then you saw Hamada and Yanagi and those people, again?
Vaea: Yes. Anytime I had a leave, I would take a train to Kyoto and see all my friends. So it was fantastic! It was like another vacation. And the army was no big deal for me because I was a French interpreter for the army. They sent me to a camp, which used to be the West Point of Japan, and then they gave me a job. I had a desk job. I was a chief clerk for a warehouse to send stuff all over the place.
Vaea: And I used to fence. They gave me permission to go into competition with the Japanese, and all over.
works: You mean fencing with a foil, that kind of fencing?
Vaea: Yes. I learned that in France, and in Australia, when I was there. I used to fence all the time in competition. Then when I was in Japan, I learned how to do Japanese sword fighting. They beat the shit out of me, because it’s very different from fencing. You know, in the fencing, you always go like this [demonstrates thrusting]. But in Japanese-style sword, when you take your sword out, you’re already fighting on this first sweep up and out [demonstrates].
works: I see.
Vaea: You know, I’d go in there and practice with them with bamboo swords and they beat the shit out of me.
works: They beat the shit out of you?
Vaea: Yes. It was just a new thing to learn, you know—like anything else.
works: Did your experience with the clay, and with Hamada and Yanagi and with the abbot in the Zen monastery—did that awaken a kind of a Zen relationship with the clay?
Vaea: I wouldn’t know how to define it. I made quite a few pieces in Japan, which were actually very traditional Japanese ware—all the pots and vases, and stuff like that. It was more like doing what everybody else was doing. I learned a technique, but I didn’t really learn how to explore, how to express myself. I was following the tradition, doing exactly the same with my imprint and you couldn’t tell the difference between my pieces and the others.
works: Would you say that you didn’t work at it long enough to bring your deeper self into the pot? Something like that?
Vaea: No. It’s not that. It’s just that I didn’t know anything else. Like if you’re learning something with somebody, and they keep doing the same thing over and over again, you’re going to do the same thing, too. You have no idea that you could do something else—because in Japan, there’s a very defined structure. There is traditional, and there are those people that are out of the traditional. Kawai himself was considered not traditional, because he was doing stuff that was not in the same vein. He was exploring stuff with glaze and shape. So he was already out of the traditional. But I didn’t know that. I thought it was a run of the mill-type of situation.
works: Okay. So then when you’re through with the army, you come back to the U.S.?
works: So how did that work?
Vaea: It’s a long story. Earlier, I’d met Peter Voulkos by accident through Jimmy Suzuki here in Berkeley. Jimmy said, “You’ve got to meet Pete.” So I met Pete for about half an hour. We drank some Scotch; we smoked a cigar. He had bottles all over the place; empty bottles of booze, you know. And I left for Japan.
So when I came back from Japan, I communicated again with Voulkos and we became good friends. I managed to get a studio on Gilman Street, Gilman and 6th, which is now a coffee shop. It used to be a warehouse; it was owned by an electrician. He didn’t use it anymore so he rented it out. I rented his place for $50 a month. But see, there was no bathroom, just a sink with cold water. There was no kitchen, nothing.
To me, it was like being back in the monastery—like it was back to zazen, you know what I mean? My studio was about the size of this [a small room] and that was everything. I had a palette on the side and a mattress on the floor. I had a sink with cold water. If I had to go to the bathroom, I’d cross the street to the gas station. You know?
Vaea: But I did a lot of work there. Then eventually, Peter asked me to be the studio assistant at UC Berkeley. So I worked there, which was good for me, because I had access to the kilns and everything.
works: Did you and Peter hit it off pretty well?
Vaea: Yes. We were like brothers.
works: Like brothers. You were with him a long time. Right?
Vaea: Yes, until he died.
works: What was it about Peter that made you want to connect with him?
Vaea: Well, he had a big studio to start with, and he actually took me in. I worked with him all the time. I used to come over and cast bronze all night with him. We’d play pool and go to dinner together, and all that stuff. I was practically living there. He and his wife, Anne, were very nice to me. In fact, this building [where Vaea has his studio] is owned by Voulkos.
works: Peter Voulkos was such a famous figure in the ceramic world. What do you think were some of the most important things about him?
Vaea: When I met Pete, I didn’t know who he was, really. I knew he was doing ceramic stuff and was teaching at UC Berkeley. I had no idea of his history. I learned that later on. The point is, when I met Pete, it was like when I met you. I didn’t know who you are. I didn’t put Pete on a pedestal like a lot of people did, you know?
Vaea: To me, he was just another guy. And he liked that—that we could bullshit and get pissed at each other and so forth. It was no big deal.
works: So it was relaxed, comfortable.
Vaea: Yes. We worked together every night and traveled all over the place together. We went to Hawaii because he had a commission to do a sculpture there. We worked on the sculpture together with a bunch of other people. And we had to transport that sculpture to Hawaii, so we flew to Hawaii together, and so forth. I think he liked the idea that there was somebody with him all the time. A lot of people don’t have the time available to do that. Me, I was free and willing; I could go anywhere, anytime. Do you see what I mean? It was good.
works: You weren’t tied down to conventional things.
Vaea: No. Eventually I had a studio down the street from Pete. So we were neighbors. In fact, at the back of our studios, there were doors and we could practically walk into each other’s studio, you see.
works: That’s nice. Well, when you began to learn how famous Voulkos was, I mean, did you wonder what it was all about?
Vaea: Pete was from Montana. He came to teach in Los Angeles at Otis. But before that, he broke the mold of traditional ceramics. If you go to the Oakland Museum, they have one of Pete’s early sculptures he did in Los Angeles when he was sharing a studio with John Mason. It’s called Little Big Horn. I think it’s at the Oakland Museum. It’s a big piece.
He broke the mold. He got the idea that you could do something other than pots and vases and stuff, and he gave that idea to a lot of people. In fact, that’s how I got to do what I’m doing, because when I got to see Pete doing stuff, it was like, oh, my God! I can do something myself! It was a breakthrough. So he broke the mold for me. I became aware of how I was making stuff and it was evident that I wasn’t doing what I really felt like doing.
So after all that time of riding a horse, I realized I can make a saddle! That’s when I started making those saddles. And I had a show at the San Francisco Museum with nothing but saddles.
works: It makes sense that a saddle would have all this meaning for you.
Vaea: It was like my trademark.
works: Is that right?
Vaea: Well, kind of. Like nobody does that out here. One person did a saddle, long ago—Butterfield. Have you heard of her?
works: Deborah Butterfield? I’ve heard of her, yes.
Vaea: She was a student at Davis. I met her because I knew Robert Arneson and all those people there.
works: She’s done beautiful sculptures of horses.
Vaea: Yes. Before that she was making saddles, but they were like traditional saddles. It didn’t occur to me that eventually I would make a saddle. [we stop and walk to another studio space where I notice a table crowded with ceramic figures]
works: Are these yours?
Vaea: Yes. I call them Enku. There used to be a monk in Japan in the 17th century; he was a young guy, and he used to walk around. His name was Enku. Everybody’s house in Japan has a pile of wood for the baths, you know. Enku would carve wood like this [pointing to his figures on the table]. That’s how he’d pay for his lodging. He carved thousands of those. He traveled all over Japan and so did I, kind of. Then I got the idea of making these figures with, more or less, a mixture of Hindu, Japanese, and Western art. So I’ve been making those, which is kind of fun, because I don’t make big pieces anymore. First, I don’t have a kiln; it’s too expensive, and it takes too much work. And so it goes.
[we walk over to look at some photos on the studio wall]
works: So this is you as a pastry chef?
Vaea: Yes. For a while I was pastry chef on Matson Line. And I worked for President Lines, too.
works: So you were sculpting cakes.
Vaea: Yes. That’s baked Alaska.
works: What were the best things about that?
Vaea: Well, I travelled all over the world. I went back to Tahiti where I was born. My ship went there every six weeks! Then, when I worked for President Lines, I got to be back in Japan. So I would quickly get out of the ship, go to Kyoto, and come back again [laughs].
works: And this one? [photo of a young Vaea] You kind of look like a Latin lover.
Vaea: And I was a lover, too! [laughs]
works: How old are you today?
works: Eighty-five. But going strong.
Vaea: Yes. How old are you?
Vaea: You’re catching up with me [laughs].