Artist Spotlight: John Nishio
An important part of the Japanese American National Museum’s mission involves the sharing of stories—family histories, narratives of life in internment camps, and reflections on life as Japanese Americans. Likewise, many items in the Museum Store have their own stories to tell through the artists who created them. One such artist is John Nishio.
Those who have seen John Nishio’s ceramic pieces, in the Museum Store or elsewhere, may have wondered about the artist behind these creations. Nishio says that he got into ceramics “by accident” when he was given a box of plastic modeling clay instead of a drum set for Christmas. His father, concerned about the noise a drum set would make, opted instead for what he thought was probably the quietest toy on the market. Although he needed some initial coaxing from his father, the young Nishio was soon hooked. From that point on, his interest in art never waned. He eventually earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Art History at California State University, Long Beach, but found that a career as an art history teacher was not his calling. Instead, Nishio began selling some of his crafts in the quad at the university. They sold so well that he decided to drop teaching and, in 1970, he made the decision to become an artist full time.
As an artist, John learned everything by trial and error. He began with animal sculptures, moved on to throwing pots, and also sculpted dragons to satisfy his customers’ demands. Over the last fifty years, he has produced tens of thousands of pieces which are in collections in at least 120 foreign countries.
One of the most significant influences in his life was a man he met during a summer spent visiting his grandparents and other relatives in Japan. On one particular excursion, he visited a mountain village above Kyoto where Arakawa Toyozo, a Living National Treasure Potter lived. Toyozo invited him to stay with him for a couple of days, sharing a great deal of his wisdom. For example, Toyozo told Nishio that the artist has a responsibility to the kami (spirit) in the clay, to do his best so the kami will not lose face. An artist must do his best work with every piece because no creation of man lasts longer than ceramics “millions of years.” Because of Toyozo’s influence, Nishio believes that an artist must do more than work to make a profit: he must dedicate his life to his craft. Like Toyozo, Nishio is committed to the idea that art and knowledge do not belong to an individual, but to all people. Thus, these things must be shared with others. True to his philosophies, he always tells other artists and teachers about his private techniques, keeping nothing a secret if they are curious enough to ask.
Because Sanseis and Yonseis sometimes know very little about Japanese culture, it is John Nishio’s hope that his ornaments, like other ornaments often passed on from generation to generation, will teach people about and preserve Japanese culture. Cards explaining the legend or story behind the design are included in his ornaments of classic Japanese icons. He has done a great deal of research for these ornaments, and, in return, he has received thanks and compliments from all over the country and from residents of other countries as well.
John Nishio’s ceramic ornaments have been available through the Museum Store gift catalog since 1998. The Courtyard Kaeru ornament, created in collaboration with the Museum Store, was featured on the cover of the 2001-02 catalog. In 2002, his Lucky Cat ornament was the most popular item ordered on Museum Store Online. His ceramic works continue to be popular items in the Museum Store’s annual gift and publications catalogs. Through the ceramic artwork of John Nishio, the Japanese American National Museum is able to share yet another Japanese American story, this one, a success story.