Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

The Little Things

Story by Catharine Lo Griffin.

The first time he got on the wheel in high school, Jon Almeda was hooked on “being able to form something out of nothing.” The self-taught ceramist started in the usual way, with full-size decorative pieces. But his desire to explore led him to shift his approach from “bigger is better” to “how small can I go?”

Working in miniature gives Almeda the freedom to experiment while minimizing the cost of materials and the space they occupy. With his “micro curios”—long-necked vases no taller than candy corn, pots that would overflow with only a teaspoon of sesame seeds, delicately painted bowls that could sit on a pencil eraser—he has found his niche. And challenged his skill: “If something’s slightly off on a larger piece, your eye doesn’t pick that up,” Almeda says, “but in miniature it’s very apparent. I’ve been trying to refine that over the years —getting that shape to where, without any kind of context, you can’t tell how big it is.”

Almeda mostly shapes with his fingers —“No coffee for me when I work!”—and then refines with pottery tools. He likes to throw outdoors, on a battery-powered wheel he designed. The idea for what he calls “plein-air pottery” came when he produced an instructional time-lapse video. Disappointed with the staid classroom environment, Almeda devised a way to show a pot coming to life with the background in motion—“clouds drifting, waves rolling in, city scenes with people.” His Hawai‘i plein-air sessions have yielded many Island-inspired designs. The Ocean Series, for example, features stoneware with glazes that allude to the turquoise shallows at Lanikai and the cobalt depths of Makapu‘u.

One of Almeda’s favorite processes is a style of raku that involves pulling the piece out of the kiln while it’s red hot and putting it into a can with combustible materials, producing surprising patterns and textures. “Each piece becomes its own thing,” he says. “Every time you open one of those cans, it’s like Christmas all over.”

On a recent summer day, Almeda plucked tiny yellow flowers for a newly finished vase from a patch of greenery beside his driveway. “In a few minutes I saw a baby gecko, an ant community, tiny blooms and ferns,” he says. “It is easy to get caught up in the big picture and miss the little details.”