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Aichi mountains provide dramatic setting for terra-cotta amphitheater

Chunichi Shimbun

In the mountains of Mihama, Aichi Prefecture, a curious art space is emerging. Ceramics artists Ximena Elgueda and Steven Ward are building “The Mountain Plaza,” a terra-cotta amphitheater.

The husband-and-wife pair have been working on the project for the past 14 years and hope it will provide local people a place to enjoy music and drama.

Their central focus has been the acoustic shell, which forms the amphitheater’s rear wall and projects the sound from the stage to the audience.

In August, they piled 200 tons of bricks around the shell and fired up the kiln, which will be dismantled in October once it has cooled.

American Steven Ward, 44, and Venezuela-born Ximena Elgueda, 49, came to Japan in the 1990s to study ceramics.

They met at an event in Shiga Prefecture, married and spent time working for NPOs. They currently teach English to children.

In spring 2000, local farmer Tsuyoshi Sugiura organized an open-air concert for his friends in the Mihama mountains, where he had an orange grove. The couple were in the audience and recall seeing the spectators’ faces light up with the music and the bucolic surroundings. The event prompted them to wonder if they could use the skills they had learned “to create a space for the locals to share.”

As artists, they were also inspired by the idea of creating a truly original space.

The couple approached Sugiura. He let them use his land for free. Furthermore, a tile manufacturing company was persuaded to provide 60 tons of clay that otherwise would have been thrown away.

The two spent the next three years building the theater’s foundations before starting on the all-important acoustic shell.

Initially, Ward planned to complete the project in three years, but he soon realized it would require much more time.

Setbacks included a typhoon that caused humidity to spike and the clay to crumble, necessitating repairs that took six weeks. Furthermore, the curing process is time-consuming. To ensure the clay dries evenly, it must be swathed in cloth, unwrapped and covered again, in a routine that lasts almost a year.

The pair spent 2½ years building the acoustic shell, which is 3.5 meters by 7.4 meters, and is 6 meters deep. Off and on, they had the help of about 2,000 local volunteers.

The next step was to pile bricks around the shell to create a kiln.

Ward and Elgueda managed to get a pipe manufacturing company in the neighboring town of Taketoyo to give them some leftover bricks, but building the kiln was still an arduous process.

First, they had to lay the bricks, which weighed 20 kg apiece, next to the shell to create walls on each side.

They then connected the top using bamboo to create the roof before placing more bricks on top of it.

“At this point, we are more like construction workers, not artists,” said Ward.

To immerse themselves in the project completely, the couple decided to move from Tokoname to Mihama two years ago.

It might take the rest of their lives to finish the project, including the seats, but the couple will continue working on it as “a lot of people” are looking forward to its completion.

“Our goal is to create a space for local residents to enjoy different events throughout the four seasons,” Elgueda said.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Aug. 30.