Berkeley potter Kimi Masui has spent a lifetime doing absolutely what she loves — throwing porcelain clay, molding it on a quick-spinning wheel, glazing her fired pieces with glazes she invents herself and selling her work to the thousands of collectors who love it.
But now, Masui is on the last of her clay, the last ton she will ever fire in the 50 years that she’s been making pottery, and soon she will give away her glaze recipe secrets. She is retiring from the craft, and the Berkeley Potters Guild in Northwest Berkeley, before the end of the year because Masui, who is in her 70s, is finding the work too physically challenging.
“It’s going to be very hard not coming into the studio,” even with her flexible schedule, she says, “but to not have to be here will be kind of amazing.”
Masui heaves open the door of her gas fired kiln that is essentially two stories tall and explains the process of loading work into it. She balances her vases, plates — even pieces that are used as human and pet urns — onto stands and stacks them high into the kiln. She must physically enter the kiln to fill it, and filling it takes hours.
And that’s just to fire the pieces. She mixes glazes and lugs clay around. Even the “sensual” aspect of molding the clay is getting difficult. And Masui is no stranger to hard work — she was a bodybuilder, runner, and aerobics instructor.
“It’s very, very physical,” she says. “You’re doing a lot of shlepping, pulling, carrying. That’s the reason I am retiring. My body can’t handle it anymore.”
A potter is born
Born in Lodi, Masui has lived in Berkeley nearly all her life.
While in college more than 50 years ago for sociology and psychology — and a pre-med-student — Masui found herself at a festival where she saw a potter working with clay and a wheel. She was mesmerized.
“It was beautiful, just amazing,” she says. “I stood there for a long time watching her throw.”
A friend encouraged her to join her in a pottery class, so Masui went and took eight classes for $50. She remembers her first day; she was able to make her first pot while others couldn’t mold the clay just yet. It took a ½ pound of clay to make the pot and “the rest of the six and a half pounds was all over me. It was mud at that point.”
She keeps the copper-colored pot, the first she ever made, with her on her studio shelf to this day.
She took more classes and got better and better, and it didn’t hurt that her roommate dated their teacher and that teacher ended up living in the house, giving her more pointers.
Once she had a decent collection of work, sometime in the 1970s Masui took her wares to Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue and laid them on a blanket to sell.
“I made more than rent doing that,” she says. At the time, she was an accountant at UC Berkeley and hated its dry, boring repetition. “I thought, ‘oh, I can do this. And I can quit my job.’”
And just like that, she became a potter. She never quit her craft, even during economic downturns that made it impossible to live on just exquisite pottery alone.
She has studied at Laney College, and was a visiting potter for a few days during a trip to a potters studio in Japan.
Perfecting the color red
To look at a Masui piece is to see a magical vessel full of color, sometimes decorated with small, Japanese-inspired accoutrements. Although always opaque, her pieces with leaves and fish look like you can almost see through them. And she is very well-known for being able to successfully fire pieces with glaze that turns out red, a process that is so difficult and volatile, very few potters attempt to use the color.
Masui explains that while firing glaze on a piece, color changes with the temperature and humidity of the air outside. One day, her reds will turn white or pink instead of red. Another day, they will look like the apple the old maid gave Snow White. She says using red can be “the ultimate delight or biggest disappointment to any potter” because they never know what is going to come out when glazing pottery red.
Masui, who calls herself a technology “luddite” mixes the glazes just perfectly, but the timing and weather are not always on her side.
“A lot of potters refuse to work with red because you end up having a lot of seconds (imperfect pieces) which I have,” she says.
‘A real perfectionist’
Berkeley Potters Guild President Pam Zimmerman has a lot of respect for Masui’s creative process.
“I just marvel, always marvel, at the precision that she brings to her work,” Zimmerman says. “It’s incredible dedication. She is just so dedicated to her craftsmanship. She’s just a really good artist who makes beautiful things.”
Zimmerman, a potter who has shared her studio space at the guild with Masui since the early 1980s, agrees that reds are difficult because “they do their own thing” but Masui always strives for perfection.
“Kimi’s a real perfectionist. She keeps notes on the firings every time, what she does. She’s quite the meticulous potter but often she’ll have many pieces of red in the kiln and they’re come out pink. She’s done nothing wrong; it could be something in the atmosphere, wind, maybe,” Zimmerman adds.
Not only has Masui been a valuable potter at the guild, but she also keeps their accounting books.
“I don’t know what I am going to do without her, quite frankly. She’s just a levelheaded, very clear thinking and soft speaker who will speak up when she needs to,” Zimmerman says. “None of us know what we’re going to do without her.”
As a potter whose wares are both decorative and useful, Masui always found herself at holiday sales, spring sales, and sales that always seemed to coincide with special occasions that could have been spent with her family. Now, she’ll have time to celebrate.
“Holidays will be very different,” she says. “I haven’t been able to do a lot of family stuff because the holidays are the busiest time of year.”
The Berkeley Potters Guild dedicated its gallery space to Masui to show many pieces of her work during the East Bay Open Studios event from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 5 and 6. Her work will be for sale during the event. Berkeley Potters Guild is at 731 Jones St., Berkeley. For more information, visit berkeleypotters.com.