Life Forms and Their Environment: The Art of Tomoo Kitamura

By Kate Nation

Tomoo Kitamura is primarily a ceramic artist whose large-scale clay pieces are recognized for their texture and pattern, both visual and tactile. His sculptures are abstract, organic, and often figural. Carved with deep, undulating patterns, they evoke a sense of life and movement. The artist’s use of muted color intensifies the surface design, allowing these elements to create interest and express the creative process.

In 2013, as a McColl Center Affiliate Artist, Kitamura explored his surface methods in abstract oil paintings that related to his 3D work. Interested in capturing the sensibility conveyed in his sculptures, the artist built a multi-layered surface of paint on canvas, then scraped areas away, creating depth, gesture and history. Texture is a deeply important aspect of Kitamura’s body of work. The expressiveness developed in the exterior of his pieces creates an immediate and profound connection to the natural world.

Currently concentrating on sculpture, Kitamura carries his interest in abstract form and organic surface elements into his new work. Inspired by Japanese Daruma dolls, these pieces explore the relationship with self. Kitamura’s focus on the surface of these forms gives them life, providing a sense of inner energy. They seem to embody the possibilities inherent in both nature and man. 

Tomoo Kitamura, Daruma, 2016, clay, 32 x 18 inches (Courtesy of the artist)

I recently talked to Kitamura via email to gain insight into his work.

Surface design is a strong element in your work. What draws you to explore surface elements?

Tomoo Kitamura: My surface design comes from movement in nature. From the patterns I see in the mountains, the water, and the layers of earth. And to balance the carved patterns and design, I use quiet contemplative white glazes.

While an Affiliate Artist at McColl Center you explored the relationship between your clay sculptures and paintings. How does one inform the other? 

The relationship between the sculptures and paintings are life forms (sculptures) and their environment (paintings). I started my journey as a potter and my work grew into more sculptural forms. So generally, the idea starts as a sculpture. 

How has your personal experience affected your artistic practice and interests?

I was born and raised in Japan. My mother has always been a painter and my father a carpenter so their tools were my toys and I always liked to create things. 

What comes first, the media or the idea? 

At this point my main medium is clay but I do like to add wood, concrete or metal sometimes.  So I would say the media is first.

Tomoo Kitamura, Collective, 2016, clay on concrete, 12 x 42 x 10 inches

Who do you relate to artistically?

Shoji Komoda. I admire his work and philosophy on creating art.

Describe a day in the studio. 

It’s different every day. Sometimes I have to wait for clay to dry so I paint. Some days it’s making concrete or wood pedestals for the sculptures, repairing a kiln, chopping wood for a firing or building frames for my paintings.

What are you working on now? What is currently inspiring or exciting you? 

I have new ceramic sculptures. They are based on the Japanese Daruma doll.  We always had them when I was a child. They are small paper heads and you color one eye and when you finish your goal you color the other. They are supposed to keep you focused on achieving your goals. My new ceramic sculptures are titled Life Form. They are about looking inside yourself, sort of introspective. I think everyone has this; they think about who they are and where they come from and where they are going.

I have also rebuilt my wood-fired kiln and will be working on a series of Japanese tea cups and bowls. That is how I started my journey in ceramics, making mostly functional ware. It’s something I still love and a very big part of my culture.

Top: Tomoo Kitamura, Isolated, 2016, clay on concrete, 12 x 13.5 x 13.5 inches

Kate Nation is a designer, writer, and ceramicist.