The most remarkable aspect of Takami Yasuhiro’s baskets is the stunning beauty of every bamboo splint woven into them. Their evenness and glow create lines that are refreshing to the eye, and give his work a unique air of grace.
I met Takami-san in May 2012 at a special exhibit of crafts in a Tokyo department store. It was sheer luck to be able to meet this soft-spoken artist in Tokyo, because he is usually based in Yufuin city, Oita prefecture, in the southern island of Kyushu. He has been using bamboo to make a wide range of items from small trays to large ceiling installations for over 30 years.
When I saw his work, I was enamored by the contemporary look of his baskets that cleverly featured bamboo segments. Usually the segment part of the bamboo is trimmed off because it makes it more difficult for the artist to weave the splint. I loved that Takami-san uses the segment in his work because this, in my view, is the most iconic and beautiful part of bamboo.
Takami-san manually splits every bamboo splint (called Higo in Japanese) using traditional tools and methods. It is hard to imagine the amount of patience required in splitting and matching the width of the splints. Being adept at splitting bamboo is the most important skill for a basket weaver, because the beauty of each splint determines the appeal of the end product. It is said that this skill alone takes three hard years to master.
When asked why he chose to become a bamboo basket weaver, Takami-san simply said that “I wanted to become a person that absorbed all aspects of bamboo”. What I think he meant by this statement is that he deeply cherishes the qualities that makes bamboo special and has striven to emulate these attributes in his work: the importance of endurance, flexibility, strength, and continuing maturity.
Takami-san seems to have successfully achieved his long-sought goal after spending three decades in mastering this highly demanding craft. He passes on this gift to us in his spectacular work.
A selection of Takami Yasuhiro’s work is available at Studio KotoKoto.
In Yanagi Soetsu’s treatise The Unknown Craftsman, the founder of Japanese mingei spoke of an “unconscious beauty” in arts and crafts that results in part from a reliance on traditional techniques and materials. Importantly, he also believed that this beauty stems from frequent practice and production.
Yanagi encouraged production by hand in response to encroaching industrialization. Moreover, he believed it was an antidote to increasing egocentrism among fine artists.
The wood-fired ceramics of California potter Bill Geisinger possess the quiet, “unconscious beauty” that Yanagi admired. Despite Bill’s insistence on traditional, time-consuming making and firing techniques, he is remarkably prolific. In fact, he has several hundred works in his studio at any given time. He states quite simply, “I like to work.”
Bill’s home and studio are located in Northern California on property where he is able to carry out the labor-intensive task of wood firing his pieces. Prior to that step, however, Bill digs and processes his preferred local Sebastapol stoneware clay body.
Equally comfortable at the pottery wheel and bench, Bill currently hand builds most of his work from slabs of clay that are assembled and carved in various ways. The works accumulate until the point when Bill is ready to fire the kiln with the help of friends and colleagues.
The firings are a communal event because of the nature of the wood-firing process. The kiln must be stoked with wood every three to five minutes in order to bring it to the desired firing temperature. This temperature is maintained over the course of three or four days by adding wood every eight to fifteen minutes!
At its peak, the kiln reaches a temperature of 2470F/1354C. Obviously the kiln requires considerable fuel as well as attention. The four to six annual firings use four cords of split eucalyptus and oak. (A cord is a stack of wood four feet high x four feet wide x eight feet long.)
Bill’s work falls into two categories: Bizen-style and tsuchi-aji. Both types refer to traditional Japanese ceramic firing techniques which Bill has learned through extensive study, trial and error, and many trips to Japan.
Bizen-style pieces exhibit beautiful flame marks and pay homage to Japan’s famous Bizen kilns in Okayama Prefecture. Bizen is the oldest style of pottery making in Japan and dates back over a thousand years.
Tsuchi-aji means “clay flavor” and these works have relatively little ash buildup from their time in the kiln, thus displaying the clay’s original “flavor.”
It is important for Bill that each piece reflect its natural materials and the firing process. He believes that the simplicity of his work produces an “energy intrinsic to each piece.” After holding a particularly stunning example of Bill’s work, I’m convinced that intrinsic energy and unconscious beauty are one and the same.
Select works by Bill Geisinger is available at Studio KotoKoto.
These beautiful Shaker-style tea boxes are made by Kobayashi Katsuhisa, a woodware and furniture maker from Okayama, Japan.
I met Kobayashi-san at a craft show in Himeji in May. He has been making Shaker-style oval boxes for several years now, and feels that the Shaker design philosophy has truly helped to instill in him the importance of restraint in his creative process.
The Shakers were the pioneering masters of simple and utilitarian design, which is the heart of mingei as mentioned in our previous blog post. The Shaker creations, including the oval boxes that were first made over 200 years ago, are the very embodiment of their famous tenet that “beauty rests on utility”.
Putting “beauty rests on utility” into practice is not easy. Kobayashi-san believes that perhaps the most important aspect that a woodworker needs is the ability to resist the temptation to be individualistic, which too often results in unnecessary form that serves no purpose. These simple yet comfortable chairs that he makes are models of utilitarian beauty.
Making oval boxes requires much skill and patience. Kobayashi-san faithfully follows the Shaker design from the swallowtail fingers to the copper tacks securing the wood. To him, the Shaker oval box design is a perfect form that should not be altered.
Meeting Kobayashi-san made me realize that a good design has no boundaries. It speaks a universal language that is understood throughout different generations and cultures on opposite sides of the world. In this sense, the Shaker design is a unique and extremely valuable American cultural treasure and heritage, whose spirit can even be found in the heart and workshop of a quiet and talented Japanese woodworker.
Shaker-style teaboxes by Kobayashi Katsuhisa are available at Studio KotoKoto.
I feel that the great problem is how to make good things in the present state of society. I wish that everyone would realize that until recently beauty in things was commonplace and that it is our responsibility to demand that of the future. Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961)
Yanagi Soetsu was a philosopher and the founding father of mingei, the Japanese folk art movement; mingei means “art of the people.” We reference him because of a small but significant addition to our blog in the upper right corner of the page: the tagline Mingei For Everyday Life. We sincerely hope that this saying inspires a sense of curiosity within our readers.
It is our desire to create–through Studio KotoKoto–a place which offers an interesting introduction to mingei for those who may be unfamiliar with the concept. And for those already acquainted with it, we would like to provide exposure to the work and stories of artists and craftspeople so that mingei may be reconsidered within the context of daily life.
Folk art and craft are not unique to Japan, and Yanagi’s definition of mingei had many strict criteria. Central to his thesis, though, was the philosophy of yo no bi or “beauty in utility.”
We, too, believe in the importance of yo no bi and have encountered many contemporary and historical examples while working on KotoKoto. For instance, we were surprised to learn that a beautiful embroidered section on one of Sarah Nishiura’s quilts serves to strengthen an area of potential weakness within the recycled fabric that she uses.
The genesis of sashiko embroidery, the Japanese folk art, was similar. It is believed that thrifty farmers stitched in areas of wear to add strength to valuable indigo-dyed clothes. A decorative style of embroidery developed out of that functionality.
The antique Taghkanic basket seen below was woven for function but its unique design makes it a wonderful example of American mingei. And in an interesting twist, its beauty is enhanced by the metal hook around the handle. Although not original to the basket, it was clearly added long ago, likely to increase the basket’s utility in order to hang it from a branch while picking apples.
While we share Yanagi’s sentiment that it is our collective responsibility to demand beauty in things, we also hope that we’ve demonstrated that mingei for everyday life is accessible to all of us.
Studio KotoKoto is a blog and online shop which will be opening in the fall 0f 2012.
A bowl made by Hanako Nakazato is so succulent that the clay seems as though it is still pliable.
“I try to bring out the natural beauty of the clay and glaze”, says Hanako. She finds that the beauty of clay is in its unique plasticity, receptive to the slightest pressure from the fingertips. That characteristic of clay is masterfully brought out in her works. It is hard to resist the urge to pick it up and hold it in your hands.
And pick it up you should because Hanako creates wares that are intended for regular use. “A ware’s significance is only complete when it is used” she explains. “The same ware will manifest different expressions depending on the food it carries. I want people to enjoy that variation.”
Among the assortment of plates and bowls in the cabinet at home, a select handful keep getting used over and over to serve different kinds of foods. They are chosen because the cook can visualize how well the food fits with the vessel. Hanako’s creations easily trigger such visualizations. The Shinogi sobachoko, for example, is ideal for serving appetizers, soups, ice cream, and many more dishes.
Hanako wants her wares to be used often and for many years by their owners. She explains that the key to making such wares is to keep a neutral mind and to “go with the flow” during the production process. Too much planning, eagerness, and intent by the potter will result in works that suffocate and bore people over time. Hanako never measures her wares as she throws.
Hanako can only pull off such a feat because she is an extremely skilled potter. She is from the Nakazato lineage of potters that have been throwing pottery for 14 generations in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, Japan. Refined expertise can only come through rigorous study and learning from the best, and Hanako went through many years of tough apprenticeships under her father, renowned potter Takashi Nakazato, and also Malcolm Wright in Vermont, a student of Tarouemon Nakazato XII, Hanako’s grandfather who was designated as a living national treasure by the Japanese government in 1976.
Hanako’s unique approach is also shaped by the way that she is able to harmonize and find balance between the dual worlds that she inhabits. Born and brought up in Japan, Hanako went to high school in Florida and subsequently studied Art at Smith College in Massachusetts before returning to Japan to apprentice with her father.
This bicultural potter has expertly synthesized the deep traditions of the Nakazato heritage with her own modern American interpretations and experiences. Hanako now spends half of her time in Japan and the other half in her studio in Union, Maine.
Select wares made by Hanako Nakazato and Monohanako West are available from Studio KotoKoto.
As much as we at Studio KotoKoto appreciate the beauty inherent in handmade everyday items, our admiration for those objects extends far beyond their visual appeal. Learning from artists and craftspeople about their unique making processes ultimately informs our perspective of the finished product. This is especially true for us of the handmade, indigo-dyed textiles of Rowland and Chinami Ricketts.
The Ricketts’ artistic process is concerned with both what they make and how they make it. So much so, that in order for them to practice their art in the United States they must grow, harvest, and process their own indigo.
While Rowland and Chinami cultivate a small, private indigo garden at their home in Indiana, Rowland shares with the community the process behind their art. He does so through IndiGrowing Blue, a unique public art project of his design and management.
IndiGrowing Blue is a community indigo garden in Bloomington, Indiana which is fully supported by Indiana University’s New Frontiers in the Arts & Humanities Program. Participation in the garden is open to all, and special public events are organized around the annual indigo farming cycle of planting, harvesting, winnowing, and processing.
The idea for this project was conceived when Rowland and Chinami’s own indigo garden attracted interest among their friends, neighbors, and local gardening groups. The Ricketts’ garden became a stage of sorts as those people began to participate and help, bringing their respective backgrounds and experiences to the process.
In the IndiGrowing Blue garden, Rowland shares his expertise and historical knowledge that he acquired through his formal indigo farming and dyeing apprenticeship in Japan. (Chinami also apprenticed in Japan and volunteers in the garden like others do when not working on her own art–or more likely, wrangling three busy boys under the age of six!)
Interestingly, as Rowland works alongside the public to grow the indigo and make the dye, the traditional artist-audience relationship changes; the audience becomes artistic collaborators and the participation of the audience becomes the art.
In this art form, however, the role of the artist changes once again when even more art is created with cloth, yarn, or clothing which volunteers bring, and of course, dip into the dyes.
Indigo dyed table runners created by Rowland and Chinami Ricketts are available from Studio KotoKoto.
(All photos courtesy of Rowland Ricketts III. Special thanks to Amanda Fong for her assistance.)
*If you would like to learn more about how indigo is farmed, harvested, and processed, please see this post.