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Crafting a Universe in Clay

There was no excuse that Toshiko Takaezu, a formidable ceramist, deemed acceptable when students missed her class at Princeton University’s Program in Visual Arts.

Not even if a student was training for a place on the United States women’s field hockey team for the Olympic Games.

Martha Russo was a sophomore in 1982 who was absent for two weeks while traveling with her team. “I have given your spot away to someone who cares about ceramics,” Russo says Takaezu snapped at her. “Don’t ever come back.”

But after Russo’s Olympic dreams were dashed by a career-ending knee injury in 1984, she did return, begging readmittance from her teacher, who was recognized at the time as one of the pre-eminent figures in the field. And Russo said that she came to treasure Takaezu’s bluntness and tough criticism.

“Toshiko became my new coach,” Russo recalled in a recent interview. After graduating, she worked as an assistant in Takaezu’s class for three years, lived in her kiln shed as an apprentice and remained close with her until the artist’s death in 2011, at age 88. “She kind of saved my life,” said Russo, now a sculptor and instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Russo is among dozens of former students, apprentices, collectors and family members who have maintained an almost cultlike devotion to Takaezu and collaborated on national exhibitions from Boston to Bentonville, Ark., that are repositioning her squarely at the center of 20th-century art.

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