22 June 2011

Mokuhanga Conference 4 - Carving the Ineffable

While Sato san was demonstrating Kyoto-style woodblock printing in one part of the large room at Kyoto Kaikan, a carver named Hiroshi Fujisawa was demonstrating traditional carving. Fujisawa san is a professional carver who works in a home-based workshop in Kyoto. He was an apprentice beginning at age 16 to master carver Kikuta Kojiro and has now been carving for over 50 years. He is said to be one of the best carvers in Japan.

Fujisawa san speaks while Claire translates

By the time I made it over to Fujisawa san's demonstration, he had finished carving and was giving a talk about how his study of Buddhism informs his work. In his talk he used the words kokoro (心) meaning heart/mind/spirit and kuuki (空気) which means atmosphere/mood/tone. He spoke about the importance and the difficulty of representing these qualities, the heart of the artist and the tone of a place, in a print.

As he spoke, I thought about the "kokoro" and "kuuki" in my own work. I thought about how I've been using mokuhanga to express my thoughts and feelings (kokoro) about my country, about religion, about the uneasy international relationships of this early global 21st century. I thought about how I often surround myself with music or audio books or podcasts that have to do with the topic or the time period I'm working with, an attempt to create the "kuuki" of a time and place in my studio while I work. I've always felt that somehow those feelings and songs and words and ideas that I'm immersed in, the emotional/mental/spiritual energy I use to create my work, become embedded within it and are readable by the viewer, however subtly.

Fujisawa san's beautiful notes

It seemed to me that Fujisawa san was saying that something inherent in mokuhanga allows these invisible and ineffable qualities to be expressed, that something about the method itself allows this process of embedment to occur. My answer to what it is about mokuhanga that allows these ineffable qualities to appear would be the following list.

- The slowness of the method allows (or forces) one to go deeply into the work.
- The tradition and history attached to the techniques and tools give them an almost ritualistic quality.
- The deconstruction of an image required in separating the colors onto different pieces of wood and then putting them back together into a new form offers many opportunities for the artist to react and respond to the materials in the process, embedding new decisions in the "memory" of the printed image.
- A woodblock artist uses her whole body to make the work. There is a very physical wrestling with the resistance of the wood in order to carve an image, and printing with a baren instead of a press also requires a lot of physical energy. The artist's body is part of the print.

Of course, some of these qualities are not unique to mokuhanga. I'd love to hear from you readers who work in other media -- do you, and if so, how do you express these ineffable qualities in your work? Please leave a comment if you have thoughts about this.

Detail of a print with over 300 impressions

Fujisawa san spoke about another factor of mokuhanga that he believes is integral to expressing the ineffable in a print: the transparency and layering of the pigments. Because of this transparency the colors are complex and deep and each layer, even if seemingly invisible, affects all the other layers. He showed us a series of prints that had each received hundreds of layers of colors to illustrate his point, saying that this kind of tone and feeling would not be possible in a print made by other methods, particularly digitally.

I was very moved by Fujisawa's talk. He articulated many things that I've barely articulated myself, and I felt a deeper understanding of why I've been so attracted to mokuhanga.

19 June 2011

Mokuhanga Conference Part 3

As is always true about a conference like this, there were too many things to do and see all at once! While Sato san was doing his printing demonstration (previous post), there were demonstrations going on in three other rooms at the same time. I decided that it was most important for me to see the Japanese craftsmen, since I had come halfway across the world just for that opportunity, but I was very interested in the other demonstrations too, so I stopped in at each one for a short time.

Catherine Kernan discussing her technique

I was particularly interested to see Catherine Kernan's demonstration of making woodcut monoprints with Akua waterbased intaglio inks. Susan Rostow, the inventor of Akua Inks, was present as well, so it was a rare opportunity to hear input from her about the behavior of the inks as Catherine worked. Catherine uses large blocks, various ink modifiers and resists, and some interesting techniques such as transfering ink from woodblock to plastic to paper to create beautiful painterly monoprints.

Detail from a demo print by Catherine Kernan

Detail of woodcut monoprint by Catherine Kernan

Catherine's process is much more freeform and spontaneous than mine has been to date, and I found myself longing to move in that direction. Luckily, Catherine owns a printshop called Mixit Print Studio just a couple of hours away from me in Massachusetts, so I expect I'll be headed there soon to take some lessons.


In the next room, Richard Steiner of Steiner Print Workshop in Kyoto was speaking about his self-developed mokuhanga methods and the various tools he has invented or modified. Richard has been making woodblock prints for over 40 years and teaches both in Japan and abroad. Recently he's been teaching classes in the Pacific Northwest almost every year. He is also founder of Kyoto International Woodprint Association (KIWA) which puts on an international woodprint exhibition every 4 years in Kyoto, the most recent being this year, 2011. I really enjoyed meeting Richard and talking with him at various points throughout the conference.

In the next post I'll tell you about woodblock carver Hiroshi Fujisawa's talk about Buddhism and woodblock prints, a talk that moved me to tears.

16 June 2011

Mokuhanga Conference Part 2

The conference began on a Tuesday evening with an opening party where I spent the evening peering at name tags. There were over 100 participants from 20+ countries, and I met so many people whose names I already knew -- Richard Steiner of KIWA, artists Ralph Kiggell, Paul Furneaux, Elizabeth Forrest and Tanja Softic, Susan Rostow from Akua Ink Company, my Cullom Gallery mates Eva Pietzcker and Tyler Starr. I was also delighted to meet many artists I already "knew" from the online group The Baren Forum, including Andrew Stone, Jan Telfer, Margot Rocklen, George Jarvis, Mary Brodbeck, Preston Lawing and the previously mentioned Linda Beeman. Everything was running smoothly thanks to the hard work done by conference organizers Tuula Moilanen, Kari Laitinen, Karen Kunc and April Vollmer.

The next morning the heart and soul of the conference began with demonstrations and workshops offered from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. I'll take you through the demos I saw over the next several blog posts.

I walked over this little canal every morning on the way to Kyoto Kaikan where the conference sessions took place

The first demonstration I attended was a printing demo by Keizo Sato. Sato San (san is a way of saying "Mr." or "Ms.") is a 2nd generation master woodblock printer who runs a studio in Kyoto with three apprentices. Sato Studio makes ukiyo-e reproductions, Nihonga reproductions, and original prints based on works by various living artists. Sato San is Deputy Vice President of the Association for the Preservation of Japanese Traditional Woodblock Printmaking Techniques.

Above is Sato san preparing his materials for the demonstration. Seated to the left is Bill Mathie and, right, Andrew Stone and George Jarvis is standing behind them.

Sato San demonstrated printing gofun, a white pigment made of ground shells, on one design from an early 20th century compilation of textile prints called Aya Nishiki depicting twill and damask brocades in 11 volumes. These prints were originally created for Kyoto Nishijin Museum with the dual purpose of supporting woodblock artists and displaying examples of textiles considered too fragile for actual display. Above is the original page that Sato San was reproducing from the volume.

Sato San was using the original blocks to work on his reproduction. Here's a beautiful block that looks like a textile in itself.

And a beautiful kento!

This is the block that Sato San was printing from during the demonstration.

As the demo progressed, it became clear that the white of the print was being built up very slowly with many overprints of gofun. This slow and painterly approach is said to be a hallmark of Kyoto-style mokuhanga. Essentially, Sato San was creating many tiny bokashi blends on the block.

In one instance, Sato San used quite a bit of water and a pouncing device to ink the block.

He said that the screen inside his pouncing tampon was made of human hair.

It was difficult to see the effect of this single pass: the pounced layer on top of the white that had already been laid down.

Sato San printed the pounced layer alone on the edge of one of the prints so we could see what it looked like by itself. It was a very delicate application that added texture and depth.

Someone asked how the gold in the print was made, so Sato San did a quick demonstration for us. He uses a powdered brass to simulate gold. He said that he usually rolls on a transparent oil base and prints it to hold the powder, but since he didn't have any of the oil base with him he brushed on nikawa (animal glue).

After printing the glue just as one would print ink, Sato San used a soft brush to apply the powdered brass.

Woodblock scholar Claire Cuccio did an excellent job translating. Next to Claire is Seiichiro Miida, an artist and professor at Tokyo University of the Arts.

Andrew Stone taking a close look at Sato San's work.

Karen Kunc and Tetsuya Noda watching Sato San's demonstration. Left of Karen is Kari Laitinen, artist and conference organizer. There was a professional film crew there taping Sato San's demo.

Linda Beeman taking careful notes at Sato San's demonstration.

15 June 2011

Mokuhanga Conference Part 1

I love Japan. The 10 days I just spent there was my third time in the country, but before this trip to attend the First International Mokuhanga Conference it had been six years since I last visited. I've also never been to the Kansai area before, so there was a lot of newness for me this trip. I did all my free-time traveling in the four days before the conference, and I began my travels in Urawa, which is north of Tokyo, at my friend Mariko's house. I stayed in Urawa just long enough to have a lovely dinner with Mariko's family and to be awakened by an aftershock during the night. The next morning Mariko and I hopped the shinkansen (bullet train) and made our way south and west to Kyoto.

Mariko getting directions for us

In Kyoto we met up with Baren Forum member and printmaker Linda Beeman for an afternoon tour of temples and shrines in the district of Kyoto called Gion. Meeting Linda was just the first encounter of many that I had with printmaker friends who I have only known online. I'm happy to report that everyone I met, including Linda, was even nicer in 3-D than I had imagined them to be in cyberspace.

Linda Beeman in front of a big concrete Kannon (Kuan-Yin) statue in Gion

I was amazed and impressed when Linda told me that not only was this her first time in Japan, but it was her first time overseas at all! Such courage. She was staying at a really nice traditional ryokan (inn) in Gion.

Here are a few more photographs from my sightseeing before the conference.

Another view of the big concrete statue of Kannon (Kuan-Yin). Someday I want to do a Kannon Pilgrimage

Kyoto is a school trip destination for students from all over Japan, and we saw these groups wherever we went

Mariko and I spent a long quiet time here at the famous Ryoanji Temple rock garden

A little stupa-like structure at Kinkakuji

Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto

Tomorrow I'll start on my reports about the actual Mokuhanga Conference.