Esther Shimazu is the granddaughter of Japanese immigrant laborers and was born and raised in suburban Honolulu, Hawaii in a large, close-knit family. She attended public schools and the University of Hawaii/Manoa near her home before transferring to the University of Massachusetts/Amherst to obtain her Bachelor of Fine Art in 1980 and a Master of Fine Art in 1982.
Over the years, Shimazu has established herself as one of Hawaii’s best-known artists. She received a Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation Purchase Award in 2001, and an Individual Artist Fellowship award from the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. Shimazu’s rise to success was not an isolated process, however. She drew inspiration from the great Toshiko Takaezu, also Japanese-American from Hawaii who left home to study on the mainland and in Japan. Shimazu’s work references Japanese culture often, specifically the delicate folding fans; ceramics itself is a medium rooted in Shimazu’s ancestry. Shimazu’s art is further influenced by her interest in nature, history, and family. In creating her distinctively charming stoneware pieces, she draws heavily from her experience as an Asian-American living in Hawaii. She is best known for her stoneware sculptures of bald, nude, chunky Asian women constructed with hand-building techniques. Her figures are created without complex details in order to accentuate their ceramic origins.
“I greatly prefer the fluid lines and rounded abstraction of the body over the more realistic Hellenistic and European traditions. There are several adorable fat guys like Ganesh (the Hindu elephant-headed god) and Hotei (the Japanese god of happiness and prosperity who carries a bag holding his possessions and perhaps treats for children); both have bulging, exposed bellies and benevolent intentions. The native Hawaiian ideal of beauty is pretty heft as well. We don’t wear as much clothing here (in Hawaii). Bodies are everywhere. We have Polynesians, who are the most robust people on Earth, and Filipinos and Southeast Asians who are among the smallest and most delicate,” Shimazu says.
Despite the heft of Shimazu’s creations, their joy and technical perfection are like the miniature Japanese netsuke figurines in their delicacy, precision and ability to delight as they tell their tale. Along with the glazing of the tiny fingernails, the fine detail of the teeth in her figures’ characteristic smiles is a perfect touch.
Her work has been in such museum exhibitions as the Fuller Art Museum, Brockton, MA – the Nude in Clay II, Perimeter Gallery, Chicago IL, the International Asia-Pacific Exhibition, the Taipei County Yingge Ceramics Museum in Taipei, Taiwan among others.