Remembering Joe Koons

April 28, 2011
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Joe Koons passed away peacefully on May 4, 2010, but his friends and family continue to honor his memory.

Vitae Cremation Urn.


Detail of “Vitae Cremation Urn”.

Many in the ceramic industry knew Joe Koons as the senior technical advisor for Laguna Clay Co. Much of the expertise he shared, however, was gained during the period when he owned his own tile business, Designer’s Tile Studio. He was a wonderful teacher to fellow ceramic artists, potters and co-workers. Koons passed away peacefully on May 4, 2010, but his friends and family continue to honor his memory.

Detail of “Vitae Cremation Urn”.

Lifetime Accomplishments

Koons’ greatest success was with his development of red and metallic gold glazes. His red-glazed tiles can be found in Von’s Pavilion and Pizza Hut stores, as well as on the face of Circuit City stores nationwide. His community spirit can be seen in his hometown of Riverside, Calif., where the restoration tile he created at the historic Mission Inn is very similar to the original work.

In 2005, Koons was featured along with his dear friend Mel Jacobson at the American Museum of Ceramic Arts’ “Iron Saga” exhibition for their research on ancient iron glaze effects. His final work, a tile mural of his own design, was made for a creativity workshop in China that was to be co-taught with his daughter, Jennifer.

Joe also served on the board of directors for the American Museum of Ceramic Arts (AMOCA), lectured and gave workshops on a variety of ceramic techniques, wrote articles for ceramics and technical magazines, and often talked about the qualities of the humble and anonymous potter. Joe was a teacher and mentor to all who sought his direction.

“Koons to the Moon” by Frank Giorgini.

The Perfect Design

Joe worked extensively with Joan Takayama-Ogawa in the spring of 2010 to reinsert ceramics into the Otis College of Art and Design curriculum. Joan accessed Laguna Clay Co.’s Master Mold Class and invited Joe to critique student model burial urn designs for undercuts and other mold model issues. The designs, which were modeled in a 3-D program and then fabricated through rapid prototype (RP), were eventually juried by a company that would select several finalists for production. Joe returned to Laguna Clay with drawings and a great deal of admiration for a particular design by Otis student Maxine Wong.

Two days after Joe passed away, the students whom he had helped were holding a final show. The owners of Laguna Clay Co. attended Otis’ Industry Night in Joe’s stead and recognized Wong’s urn model. By the close of the Industry Night event, Wong had offered the use of her design; Joan Takayama-Ogawa had offered to glaze and decorate the urn; and Laguna Clay Co. had committed to make the mold and provide the slip, glaze and custom formulation.

“Joe Koons Angels” by Alfredo Ratinoff

Working Together

Laguna’s mold shop, previously supervised by Joe, embraced the project. Jessie Pinedo, production sales associate for Laguna, seamlessly assumed Joe’s supervisory duties in the shop and coordinated the project. The master mold maker Estaban Prawl and his assistant created a mold. Juan Aguilera, Laguna technical staff member, slip cast the piece, fired three prototypes, and began the glaze color tests while coordinating closely with Takayama-Ogawa and Wong.

The bisque pieces were then whisked away by Takayama-Ogawa to be glazed. A description from a showing in the Objct Gallery (Claremont, Calif.) illustrates the symbolic content of the surface and completed form: “The Gustav Klimt-inspired shroud of patterned gold creates a warm glow around the lid, which is a secreted compartment for keepsakes. Together they create a symbolic cradling of Joe in a beautiful garment. A trail of raised dots travels idiosyncratically, reminding us of Joe’s adventurous nature and energetic enthusiasm. The spirals of life and organic patterns drawn in gold bring to mind ‘tempus fugit’ (time flees) and the incorruptible beauty of life well lived.” The finished urn was viewed by Laguna employees upon completion and was then presented to the Koons family.

“Doves of Peace.” Joe designed this piece for a creativity workshop he was to team teach in China with his daughter, Jennifer.

Honoring a Memory

Many tributes were made at Joe’s memorial service in July 2010. The Tile Heritage Foundation posthumously awarded Joe the Tile Heritage Award, an honorary tribute conferred by the foundation’s board of directors to an individual who has made an extraordinary contribution to the tile world. The edition of incised tiles by Joe’s friend Frank Giorgini portray a grackle-a gregarious, chatty, free-spirited creature favored by Giorgini-in a red color that honors Joe’s work in the successful development of brilliant red glazes. The red bird and yellow moon are cone 6 glazes. Frank’s piece, named “Koons to the Moon,” reflects the energy flowing from the grackle’s beak into the universe.

Another heartfelt expression came from Alfredo Ratinoff, a Smithsonian resident who sent a platter entitled “Joe Koons Angels” that was made at the National Art Education Association convention in 2010 and promised to Joe just weeks prior to his sudden passing.

The most amazing tribute at the service was the mural presented by Joe’s family. It was Joe’s last design and had been screened for use during his trip to China. Friends and family sat together and glazed the cuerda seca design as they talked about Joe. As Joe’s friends left, each person was given a glazed piece that the family had made, decorated with a blue and white dragon (Joe’s design).

A Continuing Legacy

During the memorial service, instructor Donna Banning suggested that Jennifer, Joe’s youngest daughter, make a presentation at the 2010 California Art Educators Conference. Jennifer and her mother Julie accepted the invitation, and Laguna Clay provided lodging and transportation costs. During the conference, the California educators who counted Joe as a trusted advisor glazed Joe’s last design.

The resulting mural, which was fired at Laguna Clay, will be auctioned on eBay from May 22 to June 4. The proceeds will be used to provide funds for high school ceramics teachers to attend the 2011 California State Art Education Conference in Bakersfield (November 3-6) in Joe Koons’ name.

Joe’s voice still echoes, “I just love it when a plan comes together. You can do this, I know you can.” In this way, Joe’s family and friends can celebrate the astounding beauty of the object presented to the memory of the humble potter, mentor, father, husband, grandfather, son and friend.

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