I first met John Toki in 1981, the year we settled in Berkeley. I was looking for artists who would work on a project initiated by Steve Costas, who directed a non-profit for city beautification, to retrofit a defunct fountain into an outdoor café in downtown Oakland to be called Franklin Plaza. After advertising at Pro Arts, an east bay association of artists, John came by and I went to his studio in Richmond. At the young age of 27 he had a large workspace and experience with making and installing large ceramic sculptures for a noted Berkeley sculptor. John was heir to a major ceramics supply business and knew how to get things done. For the café he designed eight individually colored concrete tables cast in a silicone mold that he made himself. There were large dark brown boulders sitting in planting beds at each end of the site. John’s chose colors to harmonize with the boulders.
We were about to pour a new earth colored concrete slab at the site when it started to rain. We could not hold up the trucks carrying the donated concrete. We had to pour without expansion joints. The result was surprisingly effective, looking like a smooth mud flat with natural appearing cracks. Ross Drago, another artist, using a vocabulary of energy symbols he has invented, pressed Styrofoam molds with these energy patterns into the wet concrete. He also painted large umbrellas for each table. Ross also included scenes of joggers and other people celebrating scenes painted on the umbrellas. We selected steel frame with metal mesh arm chairs surfaced in white enamel. New planters filled with bright red and white blossoms and other landscaping were included by an Oakland landscape architect. Another architect friend, Thad Kusmierski, also collaborated with is on the project. At the opening ceremony I was touched when I overheard an attractive and nicely dressed female and presumed office worker say that the renovated plaza was the most beautiful thing she ha ever seen.
In 1990 I asked John if he would collaborate on an installation for the Cincinnati Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition was dedicated to Prairie School architecture past and present. Our installation was about fifty feet in length and about sixteen feet wide. Bart Prince was to do a similarly sized installation. The long wall in the gallery showed material from Prairie School architects. There was a large beautiful stencil by Sullivan and drawings by Barry Byrne, a very fine ten foot high decorated glass door from the Price studio by Bruce Goff and other works. John and I ended up with a long sculpted Styrofoam wall about sixteen inches thick and painted to remind of rock formations and clouds. Overhead were two curving beams cut form plywood and stained a dark burnt sienna. Thin strips of white canvas spanned between the beams.
Currently, Jim Gresham, my college roommate whose firm has produced outstanding architecture in Tucson, myself and John are promoting a Building with Artists project with the mayor of Payson, Arizona. With the assistance of my great niece, Maria Cohen, a real estate broker who is developing housing for Indians on nearby Indian lands, we hope to carry out a build arts project involving the Indian residents. Jim designed a large health care facility for the Hopis on their reservation in northern Arizona. It is a fine piece of architecture and should give our team credibility.
Over the years John has continued his teaching at the California College of Arts and Crafts, co-authored a text that is at once a history of and how to ceramics that has sold over two-hundred thousand copies and participated in several arts for the public projects. He has much expanded his Dad’s business, Leslie Ceramics. His parents were interned during World War Two over Eleanor Roosevelt’s fierce objections that the internment was unconstitutional. Upon release they returned to Berkeley to rename their ceramics store Leslie’s after John’s mother’s first name.
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