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After 30 years, she listened to what clay had to say to the artist within her

'Giving voice to clay' inspires Sacramento ceramic artist Kris Marubayashi

Sacramento ceramic artist Kris Marubayashi explains how she helps clay "find its voice" in her home studio.
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Sacramento ceramic artist Kris Marubayashi explains how she helps clay "find its voice" in her home studio.

The clay was calling.

For 30 years, Kris Marubayashi ignored that voice, too busy with other passions. With a doctorate in education, she dedicated her professional career to recruiting new teachers for public schools. Her hobby? Playing taiko drums.

Then this Sacramento grandmother retired and found some quiet time. That’s when clay spoke to her again.

“It was accidental,” recalled Marubayashi, who first worked with ceramics in college. “I went with a friend, who was getting into clay, to a store for supplies. Then, I immediately knew. I have to do this again!”

Since that rediscovery in 2004, Marubayashi has become a celebrated ceramic artist with a following far beyond her hometown. In a gigantic custom Tuff Shed in her South Land Park Estates backyard, she created a home studio where she could experiment and make one-of-a-kind calderas, bowls and other decorative pieces.

Cabinets line her living room, displaying her favorite work. Ragged edges on paper-thin bowls resemble cracked eggshells. Inky black calderas look more like hammered iron than clay. Other creations balance on the slimmest of bases.

“Shape and texture are my thing as opposed to color,” said the 64-year-old artist. “My father, who was an architect, used to tell me, ‘Things need a lightness.’ That’s what I strive for – that lightness of being.”

In recent years, she’s become a regular participant in the West Coast’s largest juried show of its kind, the American Craft Council show at San Francisco’s Fort Mason. Three times, she was one of only nine artists to have work showcased by interior designers in the craft show’s miniroom vignettes. One of her bowls appeared prominently in the show’s 2016 marketing campaign, including on the side of San Francisco buses.

“Drawing inspiration from geological formations, the Caldera collection so resembles the volcanic cauldrons after which it was named that I found myself peering into the depths beyond the rim of each sculpture,” wrote California Home + Design’s Sarah White of Marubayashi’s craft show display. “Her pieces stunned me with their level of detail.”

Now, Marubayashi is finally having her own one-woman show at a local venue. Through April 14, more than two dozen of her pieces are on display at Alpha Fired Arts in Sacramento.

“I love Kris’ work,” said Brian Tanner, owner of Alpha Fired Arts. “I asked her, ‘How come you’ve never had a show in Sacramento?’ She said, ‘Nobody ever asked.’ ”

Tanner promptly invited her to show at his gallery; Marubayashi immediately accepted.

“Her textures and forms are almost timeless in the way they look,” Tanner said. “She has a real keen eye for clay. Some of her forms are almost architectural. Her works are very sculptural, monumental but small.”

Others appear organic as if they “grew” by themselves like tree roots or rock formations.

“They have a real geology to them,” Tanner noted. “Her glazes, when she uses them, merge into the work. She exploits that in very interesting ways.”

The current show also allowed the artist to take a step back and appreciate what she’s accomplished.

“At the show, it was the first time I saw how it all connected,” she said. “It’s all me.”

Marubayashi’s work reflects her full and creative life as well as her deep respect for her cultural heritage and history. Her father, Kaneji Domoto, studied with Frank Lloyd Wright. Before World War II, his family owned a successful nursery in the Bay Area.

Kris was born after WWII, when her family relocated from internment at Colorado’s Camp Amache to New York, where her father became renowned for his Japanese-inspired rock gardens. Her mother was a textile artist and teacher.

As a child, Kris thought her career would be in another creative art – music. A classically trained cellist, she studied at New York City’s Barnard College and Ohio’s Oberlin College.

On a summer vacation, she took a ceramics workshop in California, where she learned how to throw.

“That was the real beginning,” she said.

Marubayashi transferred to San Francisco State University and studied with ceramic artist David Kuraoka. But then, she radically changed course again.

“It was the 1970s and San Francisco State; I got involved in student organizing,” she said. “I dropped clay – bam! Done! Didn’t think about it again for decades.”

Marubayashi devoted herself to education and recruiting new teachers. At age 40, she picked up taiko drums as a way to connect to her heritage. But clay was her true love; she just needed to rediscover its pull.

“I started trying new things,” she said. “I like to experiment.”

“She had a learning curve,” said Tanner, who has known Marubayashi a long time. “She struggled through anxiety of the clay to get her work to the perfection you see now.”

To Marubayashi, texture differentiates her work. She loves to explore new ways to create it. Some things happen almost by accident.

An example is her series of “pull aparts,” clay slab tiles that create mirror images of unique texture. Marubayashi cuts and pulls the clay apart as it dries, to reveal interior patterns.

“It has to be dry enough to pull apart without ripping,” she explained, “but if it’s too dry, it will just break.”

Looking as if it were covered with rough gray bark, a favorite bowl actually got its texture from ash. Marubayashi fired the piece on the edge of a wood-burning kiln, where it caught just the right mix of heat and embers.

Her waferlike bowls are crafted from “paper clay,” a mix of liquid clay and fibers. For the paper part of her recipe, she’s used shredded cardboard, insulation, even toilet paper.

More experiments yielded more textures. Perlite, a common additive to potting soil, creates a pebble effect when pounded into the clay before firing. Graters, scrapers and hairbrushes add finish details.

“To me, a lot of it is letting clay do its thing,” she said. “I let it speak for itself, then I tweak it. We have a conversation. Sometimes it says, ‘yes,’ sometimes ‘no.’ ”

But now, she’s always listening.

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

The work of Kris Marubayashi

Where: Alpha Fired Arts, 4675 Aldona Lane, Sacramento

When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; through April 14

Cost: Free

Information: 916-484-4424, www.alphafiredarts.com