American Craft Magazine

One Artist, Two Lives

BY Joyce Lovelace, Jan. 31, 2011

Cuong Ta’s ceramics would look right at home on the set of Mad Men. With their playful, abstract surface designs, these primitive-modern forms exude retro cool, yet appear fresh and contemporary. While Ta does like mid-century style, his work isn’t consciously an homage to an era. His own aesthetic is more Peter Parker than Don Draper. “As a kid I always sketched. I loved comic books, Marvel super-heroes," says the California artist. “In some ways, I feel the graphic nature of the work I do now goes back to that.”

In true superhero fashion, Ta has something of a dual identity. By day he teaches math at a high school in the San Francisco Bay area. Evenings and weekends he’s in his studio in the Berkeley Potters Guild building, crafting earthenware vases, mugs, and decorative wall “buttons” that are sold in galleries around the country, and at the American Craft Council Show and similar events. “For me, they’re two very separate lives,” he says. “When I do clay work, I’m in my own head, doing it for my own pleasure and satisfaction. When I’m teaching, I’m more in the community, interacting with students and parents. It's a nice balance.” Like math, creativity is essentially problem-solving, he says, in teaching as well as in art. “Every kid is different, and how you break through to them is an inherently creative process.”


Vase, 2006-2010; slab-built stoneware; 6 x 6.5 x 4 inches

Born in Vietnam, Ta was 9 when his family fled Saigon in 1975, days before the city fell. They settled in Los Angeles, where he thrived academically. Though math came easily to him, he was more fascinated by the English language, and majored in rhetoric (the study of “how persuasion happens,” as he puts it) at the University of California, Berkeley. He won a scholarship to the University of Michigan's graduate school of public policy and was on track for a career in politics, but enjoyed his teaching-assistant duties so much that he chose education instead. Along the way he took an evening class in pottery, just for relaxation. “I became addicted to the wheel, to the point where I got tendinitis,” he recalls. “I loved clay, the immediacy of it.” These days Ta builds his forms out of slabs, then uses resist and masking techniques to decorate each surface before glazing and firing. Drawing from a vocabulary of lines and shapes, he’s able to design an endless variety of free-form geometric compositions in light/dark color pairings (often tan and black), all meant to illustrate “the play of positive and negative space and the tension between boundary and flow,” he explains.

People who know about his day job tend to "see math in my work," says Ta—who doesn't, not really. Nature is his main inspiration, especially landscape and topography. His patterns might be interpretations of a pebble walkway, rocks on a beach, the silhouette of a hillside, or kelp in the waters at Monterey. He envisions his vases filled with reeds, leaves, and blossoms, and sometimes adjusts a design to hold stems more securely ("I“hink of flower arrangers when I do these”) Form and function, plus fun: It all adds up, beautifully.

Joyce Lovelace is American Craft's contributing editor.