Artist explores California’s fault lines

Alondra Campos
Staff Writer

Ceramic artist John Toki exhibits his California fault line inspired sculptures at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona.

Toki’s ceramic sculptures include a totem-like appearance with variation in color, height, and design, according to the AMOCA website.

Beth Ann Gerstein, executive director of AMOCA, said Toki’s ceramic sculptures uniquely interact with the environment and do not necessarily have one specific style.

“His pieces seem sort of timeless. You can never tell if his art was made in the 1920s or yesterday,” Gerstein said. “None of his sculptures have styles that scream a specific era in art.”

Gerstein said that Toki’s family ceramic business and his roots in the Bay Area are what inspired him to become a ceramic sculpture artist. He grew up surrounded by the greatest artists in the area due to his family’s business and became greatly influenced by the art of sculpting, she said.

“He’s a 5’8 petite guy out here making these immensely heavy sculptures,” Gerstein said. “And these we have here at the museum are only mid-size stuff, ranging from 200 to 600 pounds. Some of his largest sculptures can weigh more than 1,000 pounds.”

Each of the sculptures include a variety of colors, rock material, designs, and forms.

Similar to the Bay Area, many of his sculptures contain colors or designs that represent the ocean. Topography, the arrangement of the natural and physical features of an area, is a huge aspect of the complex sculptures built by Toki that usually include some of his most exclusive details. Rather than create a sculpture out of a single rock or material, Toki instead uses a variety of different rocks and materials and builds his sculptures by piling them up and carving them out to fit each other perfectly.

“He frequently makes little cinder colorful pieces, fires them, and then inserts the pieces into clay and creates more cracks within his sculptures,” Gerstein said. “He puts more emphasis on the fault lines that way.”

Toki’s sculptures are anything but smooth, they usually have curves, bumps and rigid outlines with some of his cinder pieces placed at random locations within the sculpture. Some of his sculptures tend to be straight and then bend at the top, while others start off with twists and turns and end up straight at the top.

The mixture of colors are primarily a combination of three colors or more and are not always obvious when looking at the sculpture. The various colors and textures in Toki’s art represent the landmasses of Earth and all the crevices, hills, mountains, oceans, and fault lines of California.

Samantha Steffanoff, freshman studio art major, said fault line artwork is a form of storytelling and culture.

“Any form of art is just another form of expression about anything,” Steffanoff said. “Toki’s sculptures are his way of telling a story about where he grew up and the importance of the fault lines that exist in his community. By looking at his art I can see that there is some culture from both the Bay Area and his background.”

Dion Johnson, director of the university’s galleries and a distinguished artist, said there is history attached to Toki’s art.

“As I am looking at his sculptures, I see art history of the Greek and Roman Empires,” Johnson said. “They would have columns, similar to Toki’s, in order to tell stories and communicate in the form of monument and narrative.”

During the 1960s, the land art movement prospered in America and much of Toki’s art resembles that of land art, Johnson said.

Land art consists of art pieces that depict nature’s treasures, such as the mountains, landscapes, and oceans. Most of the material used for land art is natural, including soil, water, sticks, or clay as seen in Toki’s art.

Johnson added on that although there were artists before Toki during the 1960s that created art similar to his, it is clear to Johnson that Toki fits in that category, but has his own voice when creating his artwork.

“Although Toki may not be the first or last artist to depict nature and the environment in an experimental way through his large sculptures, he definitely has a voice in both his community and the land art community,” Johnson said. “What really matters is the experience his audience receives through his art and I think Toki does a great job at making a connection with his community.”

The concept of awareness and community outreach are two themes or messages seen in Toki’s artwork, Johnson said.

“Toki is responding to his environment and conveys his message of awareness and self exploration through his artwork,” Johnson said. “His collaborations with other people shows how he involves himself with his community and with his own self exploration.”

Gerstein mentions that his sculptures are also impressive from an engineer’s stand point and that Toki once told her that if an earthquake were to happen during one of his art shows, she should probably stand next to his sculptures since they would most likely not fall.

“You can’t just build stuff,” Gerstein said. “Not many artists work at this scale because of the difficulty of creating such large pieces.”

Carina Baca, freshman psychology major, observed Toki’s art exhibition and said Toki’s art is a different and unique approach to nature.

“His sculptures and the image they give off is so raw and real,” Baca said. “I can only imagine how detailed and accurate he has to be when he’s doing this.”

Baca also viewed some of Toki’s sketches and said one particularly grabbed her attention, a sketch titled “Conscience Has a Voice,” filled with abstract drawings, is what she would imagine the thoughts in her head would look like if she could see them.

“It expresses so many emotions, from anger to frustration to happiness,” Baca said as she was describing her interpretation of the sketch.

Citlally Grande, a freshman biology major, also attended Toki’s art exhibition and said she was impressed by the structure of his sculptures and their totem like features. Grande grew up in the Bay Area and said Toki’s sculptures partially represented the scenery of the Bay Area.

“The sculptures remind me of a game I play where a girl takes a trip around the world while following a totem,” Grande said. “It makes sense why he chooses to build his pieces in the shapes of totems. The fault lines are sort of mapped out within his art.”

Grande also said that it is surprising how physics and art come together in Toki’s art.

Grande’s favorite sculpture is titled “Spring Time Mirage” due to the different colors on the sculpture as well as the porcelain material that reminds her of the universe. She said Toki makes fault lines appear almost beautiful even though they are dangerous to think about.

Gerstein said Toki is someone well-known and loved in the Bay Area. His sculptures can be found not only at AMOCA but also at the Oakland City Hall, Oakland Museum of California and the California Shakespeare Theatre.

Toki is not only an artist, but an author, investor, businessman, and teacher of the arts. Toki is also the former President of his family’s ceramic supply company, Leslie Ceramic Supply Company, Inc., according to the American Museum of Ceramic Art.

This exhibit will remain at the AMOCA until June 23.

Alondra Campos can be reached at

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