UA Little Rock Ceramics Professor Receives Individual Art Fellowship Award

The Japanese artist is one of nine fellows who will be recognized during a ceremony Oct. 6.

UALR ceramics professor Kensuke Yamada sitting in a kiln
Photos courtesy of Ben Krain.

Kensuke Yamada took his first ceramics course about two decades ago while attending college in the United States. A native of Japan, Yamada was still working on his English so the instructor used gestures to teach him. 

In the art studio, language fluency wasn’t important. What mattered was the way creating the art made Yamada feel. While college students often dread going to class, ceramics inspired Yamada.

“It was the first time I just wanted to wake up and go and squish some clay and make something,” he says.

Yamada is still squishing clay today as an assistant professor of ceramics at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He is also a recipient of this year’s Individual Artist Fellowship awards. The Arkansas Arts Council will honor nine fellows during a virtual program Oct. 6.

Through the Individual Art Fellowship award, Arkansas artists in rotating categories receive fellowships of $4,000 each. This year’s categories are cinematic arts, poetry and contemporary crafts. 

Kensuke Yamada assisting a student in ceramics classOne of the appealing parts of ceramics for Yamada is its long history. Even after thousands of years, the process is very much the same. 

“We still have to make sure the clay is dry, you still have to take your time to assemble things together…it’s kind of beautiful in a way,” he says. 

In ceramics, artists generally start by making vessels like cups and bowls, but eventually Yamada wanted to produce sculptural work. He started by closing the top of vessels and making non-figurative sculptures that he says contained strong energy inside of them. 

Eventually, Yamada shifted to figurative work because people connect with figures, often relating the artwork to themselves or family and friends. Yamada realized the figurative work could be a vessel that holds emotion, which connected with his earlier work. 

“It’s a closed vessel form that has a human face on it, so it holds that huge emotion inside just like we are,” he says. “So it kind of made sense for me to start figurative work at that point.”

Ceramics professor Kensuke Yamada standing beside his art

Some of those vessels with human faces were on display as part of an exhibition called Collectively Alone, which was on view through March 26, 2021 at the Trinity Gallery for Arkansas Artists at the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock.

The exhibit, which also featured the work of Benjamin Krain, a former photojournalist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, featured the artists’ observations “converged with the aloneness of creating during the COVID-19 era,” according to organizers. 

For Yamada, the exhibit wasn’t about loneliness. Instead, his observations focused on finding the beauty in the situation, which is why he used more color and focused on the individual in his work. Seeing people less often during the pandemic has created a great opportunity to appreciate people and their energy, Yamada says.

“During that time, you noticed how precious individuals are and how strong individuals are even in that situation,” he says.  

The Arkansas Arts Council will recognize Yamada and his fellow honorees Wednesday night. In addition to Yamada, this year’s recipients include Rontaye Miquan Butler, Thomas James Deeter, Lisa Marie Evans, Aaron Calvert, Kara Gunter, Kaveh Bassiri, Hiba Tahir and Karstin Johnson.

The virtual event is presented in conjunction with ArtLinks 2021, the virtual statewide arts conference sponsored by the Arkansas Arts Council. Ron Finley is the keynote speaker of the free, two-day online conference. The South Central Los Angeles native is the CEO and founder of The Ron Finley Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching communities how to turn food deserts into food sanctuaries.

Registration and more information is available at www.arkansasheritage.com

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and a Northwest Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts in Arkansas for nearly 15 years.