In 2014 there will be an international conference for artists working in Japanese woodblock. It’ll be in Toyko and I hope perhaps to deliver a paper there on the subject of my students and their response to learning the technique with me in the UK.
I have yet to write an application and, far more important, work out if I can afford the cost and time to get there. In the meantime here’s a few thoughts about those of you who have dipped your toes in the traditions of watercolour woodblock and why you play such an important part in saving this beautiful printing method from going the way of the dodo.
Keiko Kadota is an extraordinary woman: she organises and runs residencies, like this one I am currently attending, to teach Western artists the skills and techniques of traditional Japanese woodblock through the organisation Mi-Lab. In addition she has been battling for years to support the craftspeople responsible for producing cutting tools, printing brushes and paper. She faces an uphill task: traditional Japanese woodblock is seen in Japan through a haze of nostalgia as a largely historic process. Tool makers are veering away from traditional tool forms to Westernised handles and shapes, impractical for the cutting of traditional blocks. Brush makers are finding sales dwindling. Paper makers need a whole blog in themselves – so more on that difficult subject later. On the whole the outlook is not great here and if it weren’t for Keiko and her residencies and conference, it would be so much worse…
That’s where you come in: all those of you who want to learn and at all levels. Every single student from the expert printmakers wanting to add a new skill to their repertoire to the out and out amateur who has never printed before helps to promote the process and create demand.
If I do get back to Japan and face the esteemed audience of academics and contemporary artists, I’m going to be pushing for the recognition of the Christmas card makers, the recipients of the unexpected class as a birthday surprise, the beginners and the unsure. You may just save the day for us professionals!
Sometimes it’s good to move on. Four years ago I came to Japan to learn watercolour woodblock from a master carver and a master printer. It was an exhaustive education in the traditional printmaker’s skills, taught with the emphasis on techniques used for centuries to capture the beauty of the floating world of old Japan. In tune with my masters I bowed, I silently presented tea and I worked hard: I knew nothing of the process and was grateful for the exacting formality our lessons.
Now I am back in Japan working with four other artists. We’re all printmakers, we already have a fair grip of the process and we don’t so much have masters as visits from superbly skilled contemporary printmakers generous enough to share their ideas and talent. Now I find myself surrounded by new thoughts and ideas which would never have had a place back in the days when I had everything to learn.
It’s been hard to adjust: Japanese teachers who chat, laugh, hug us and show us pictures of their babies, who dot between waterbased and oil based woodblock, use Western papers as well as Japanese washi and welcome new innovations in technology. Add to that the work of my fellow artists who learned in different ways and with different methods and you can see that I’m having to shape up to a lot of new ideas.
All this is, of course, the whole point of taking a second residency. My first residency taught me all the skills I needed to begin my work in Japanese woodblock. This residency is teaching me how to shake up those skills and inject some new and creative approaches. I still made tea for my teacher this week, but this time it was Earl Grey which Katsutoshi Yuasa misses from his residency in London and we shared it over a chat about our kids.
Incidentally you can follow this residency, my work in progress, and any new printing discoveries by liking my printmaking facebook page
I have made it safely to my residency in Japan. After a few days of panic in Tokyo, I realised that I could always take refuge in the Tokyo Metro (pronounced in a musical sing song as ‘Toe-key-o Met-er-o’). I’ve been travelling the London Underground since I was a small child and Tokyo is really no different. That’s if you ignore the cleanliness, the abundance of public loos, the absence of delays and the polite queuing system. Oh and that there are two systems running consecutively with stations in common.
Tokyo if not conquered at least less terrifying, I have come out to the residency at Lake Kawaguchiko at the foot of Mount Fuji. There was obviously some sort of list in setting up the venue: Mount Fuji check, attendant mountains in shades of indigo check, lake to reflect both check, white egrets to pose by lake check, Buddhist shrine check… I could go on, but you get the picture. The residence itself is a story of two halves. By chance I am at the front of the building which is wood and paper, sliding screen doors, Fuji in full view and many tatami floor mats. The back is a more prosaic metal structure with views of lesser mountains, though still startlingly pretty. There are four other artists working here and together we have a marvellous studio, a library and a big communal kitchen for experimental cooking and the drinking of sake.
The residency is aimed at improving our working practise and to that end I have set myself a nightmare print in the hopes that it will improve my cutting and registration skills. It’s a nod to the art classes of my childhood and is based on the view from my bedroom window (I know, but how can I help being smug?). As you can see, I am in the middle of cutting it so I’ll keep you posted…