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State of the Arts: Jun Kaneko's Giant, Colorful Ceramics Transform The Akron Art Museum

Mark Arehart
The exhibition "Blurred Lines" features giant ceramics that weigh more than 1,000 lbs.

Artist JunKaneko’s work can be seen from New York to Tokyo. He’s known for his larger-than-life ceramic sculptures. Now you can see them in Akron.

It’s a bustling Friday night opening at the Akron Art Museum. People move from gallery to gallery crowding around Jun Kaneko’s exhibit "Blurred Lines."

His sculptures are filled with dots, stripes and geometric shapes that stand out to onlookers like Barbara Feld.

"The first thing that struck me was visually the colors. And I think especially at this time of the year when it’s rather gray and cloudy in Northeastern Ohio, to come into these galleries that are infused with color, it just makes us come alive again," she said. 

Feld is standing in the shadow of two bright ceramic heads as big as refrigerators. Each piece weighs thousands of pounds.

"When I saw the size, I couldn't believe it. And then I thought about the kilns. I thought 'Is his house a kiln?'" 

Jun Kaneko’s house might not be a kiln, but his studio in Omaha, Neb., was designed to be more than big enough to handle his largest pieces.

Making the Move
But how do you get ceramics this big from Nebraska all the way to the second floor of the Akron Art Museum? The answer is hard work. 

Credit Mark Arehart
Mark Arehart
Special lifts and patience were used to install the exhibits larger pieces.

"You know moving a 1,500-pound piece is easier than moving a 400-pound piece because you just get a forklift. There is no misconception about lifting it by hand," said Jun Kaneko's Assistant Studio Manager Trevor Lare. 

He and a team filled two semi-trucks full of artwork and traveled 850 miles to help install the show here in Akron. He said after more than four years on the job, he’s used to it.

"Walking into his studio, it’s amazing when you hoist a 2,000-pound piece over your head. My heart was racing when I first got there. Now it’s like no big deal. You don’t even think about it."

A Personal Connection
More than 30 pieces fill the Akron exhibit, including several that had to be carefully driven into the gallery on a forklift. That level of precision installation isn’t lost on Akron Art Museum Executive Director Mark Masuoka.

"Although the pieces are extremely large, they’re also made out of clay. Ceramics can be fairly resilient, but it’s fired clay and it will break," he said. 

Masuoka actually has a personal connection to many of these pieces.

"(For me) the exhibition really started 30 years ago."

Credit Mark Arehart / WKSU
Jun Kaneko's 60-foot painting "Mirage" surrounds a crowd at the "Blurred Lines" opening.

Back then, he was Jun Kaneko’s student, seeing how the artist worked first hand.

"This exhibition is really the culmination of the time that I’ve spent with Jun, but also the experience in getting to know him as an artist, getting to understand his work."

Masuoka said his mentor’s health prevented him from making the trip to Akron to see the installation.

More Than a Ceramicist 
Kaneko is a Japanese-born artist who came to America in 1963. He’s been based in Nebraska since the mid-80s. He’s mostly known for his large-scale ceramics and public art, but Masuoka said he’s also an accomplished painter.

"So whether or not you’re looking a large sculpture sitting in the middle of a gallery or a large painting or drawing on the wall, the work itself is powerful in the respect that it starts defining the space around."

No work better defines the space than the painting "Mirage." At more than 60-feet-long, it curves around the gallery space taking up two walls, instantly commanding attention.

Like much of Jun Kaneko’s work, it’s a sight to behold. Just be glad you don’t have to lift it.

"Blurred Lines" is open now at the Akron Art Museum, it runs through June 3rd.

Mark Arehart joined the award-winning WKSU news team as its arts/culture reporter in 2017. Before coming to Northeast Ohio, Arehart hosted Morning Edition and covered the arts scene for Delaware Public Media. He previously worked for KNKX in Seattle, Kansas Public Radio, and KYUK in Bethel, Alaska.