It has been already a while since we came back from our magical winter session in Japan. Demanding as the present is, the memories still persist and you cannot and, in fact, don’t want to break the spell of this enchanting trip.
Deeply moving and enlightening as the art history part of the course was we were mere visitors at that time – like other outsiders infatuated with the poignancy of Japanese feel of beauty. Like others, we were in awe of the daring naturalness at Ise Jingu, felt mesmerized at Koyasan by morning ceremonies and walks through the Okunoin Cemetery, the Hall of Lanterns, Kongobuji, and the Daito amidst a heavy snowfall, enthralled by the Silver Pavilion and strikingly simple rock gardens at Ryoanji, Daitokuji, Kofukuji.
But it was the papermaking workshop at the Awagami Factory, initiated and organized by Daniel Heyman, a print artist teaching printmaking at RISD, that made our trip really unique. It was there at the factory that we were allowed to be a part of the process practiced by the Japanese (and Japanese alone!) and for centuries: we were making famous Japanese paper – the washi. Frankly, initially I wasn’t going to participate. Being an art historian, I have very little experience doing things with my hands and I thought I would use the time of the workshop to catch up with some of my many overdue obligations. But it turned out to be just impossible to stay uninvolved – so fascinating the project was from the very beginning. Thus I became a part of the team learning how to make washi. We were doing this in a small rural town of Yamakawa set in a valley of Yoshino River, among the rice paddies surrounded by mountain ridges – the place was so genuine, so authentic, and so timeless! It was a thrilling feeling of being a foreigner miraculously afforded this level of immersion into the thick of Japanese real life! Moreover, we were taught papermaking at of the major historical centers of this craft – on Shikoku! The workshop was scheduled for winter – the traditional season for papermaking as cold keeps fibers from fermenting. Furthermore, we were studying this craft under the expert guidance of the two-hundred-year-long custodians of the tradition, the famous Fujimori clan, together with their highly knowledgeable and skilled staff and friends. Mr. Fujimori liberally and with subtle humor let us to the secrets of his mastery, Mrs. Fujimori taught us and fed us, their daughter Shizu provided skillful explanations in English and helped in various ways. Naoko, who works for the factory, was always there to assist with whatever needed, Reiko Nireki, an artist affiliated with the factory, helped with advice and translation; there were also other workers of great expertise, whose names, unfortunately, I don’t know but whose guidance I would like to acknowledge.
The beauty of washi and the immense range of its usage hardly need any introduction. At once flexible and durable, smooth and textured, opaque and translucent, we saw it everywhere in daily life of Japan. It diffuses the natural light in the sliding screens in a Japanese traditional house, it is used for Japanese banknotes, for calligraphy and printmaking, you see it in zigzag streamers of Shinto offerings, in the garments of Shinto priests, in the masks and toys, etc. It was washi that endured the multi-block printing in ukiyo-e, Japanese traditional woodblock prints of the 17th – 19th century, still the most widely admired form of Japanese art loved for the perfection of its drawing, design and color as well as its intriguing content.
On many occasions in my life I have read detailed accounts of the stages of mulberry paper production, I have PowerPoint presentations prepared for teaching on the basis of these readings, but how different this bookish knowledge is from that acquired through the actual apprenticeship! Concise as our workshop was, it allowed sufficient time to get into all the activities involved in handmade paper manufacturing and even to creative experimentation due to the superb planning on the part of our master-hosts.
Words of gratitude are also due to the warm and thoughtful care we were surrounded by on a regular basis. Not only the quickly disappearing supplies of snacks, tea, and coffee were constantly and invisibly replenished, heaters brought, etc. One also cannot forget the sudden appearance of Mrs. Fujimori accompanied by her loyal miniature poodle Momoko with some goodies made specifically for us such as a big pot of hot sweet ginger drink or delicious sponge cakes. It made us feel personal guests!
The last day: wonderful surprises
I think about the last day of the workshop over and over again. Mrs. Fujimori was showing us orizomegami – how to fold and dye paper in a traditional way. The bowls with warmed dyes mixed with neri were waiting on the table while Mrs. Fujimori with the precise and absolutely natural movements of her beautiful hands was making the sheet of paper into a narrow strip and then into just a small triangle. Quickly choosing the colors to be used, with the same easy and assured gestures she dipped the corners of the triangle in several bowls, rinsed it in alum and unfolded the sheet with colorful kaleidoscope patterns to everyone’s admiration. It was then our turn to try, which we did – sometimes with more and sometimes less satisfying results but with unfailing enjoyment. It was the same day that we tie-dyed a handkerchief with Awa indigo, the famous specialty of Tokushima on Shikoku.
We were still finishing up when the greatest surprise came. We were called to gather together in the center of the factory’s main floor and Mr. Fujimori solemnly and cheerfully presented each of us an unspeakably beautiful diploma testifying to our completion of the course of washi making at the Awagami Factory. The text was written in Japanese on a beautiful textured thick paper and put inside a folder made of another type of remarkable Japanese paper – colored paper with most famous traditional designs. Everyone was stunned and utterly happy! You can tell if you look at our group picture!
After that our generous hosts continued to lavish gifts upon us, each receiving a most valuable catalogue of Awagami Fine Art Paper and – additionally – a DVD with all the process filmed and explained! What a memorable completion of the course!
The homage to the Fujimori clan – projects of the RISD students
The assignment was to create anything using paper crafted during the workshop at the Awagami Factory.
Blanca's landscape print triptych - graceful, elegant, with feeling. Picture doesn't do these prints justice.
Andy's three-dimensional composition "Five Elements - Gorinto." Very thoughtful, inventive, lively, interesting, artistic - with a variety of forms and textures revealing many of washi inherent qualities.
Angela Chun's folding screen with Japan's mountainous landscape, ravens and much, much more. Torii next to the screen and a beautifully crafted and painted box for the screen - see image below.
The box for the screen by Angela Chun - here again you see the Torii and hardly visible here cut out raven alighted at the corner of the gates. Simple and strong design! The texture of the paper is expressly visible in the original.
Martin's whimsically graceful mannered beauties - captivating in every detail! The hairdos of the head-and-shoulder ladies in the upper row are all paper sculpture made at the Awagami Factory during the workshop. As to long-necked and long-armed damsels of the low row, their hair was also made at the Awagami Factory with red threads blended in into the pulp. The vision of the work was already there!
And here come Lily's masks of Inari foxes - masterfully crafted from her paper, humorous and artistic, enlivened with toy eyes and wrapped for consumption and thus reflecting the omnipresent connection of the sacred tradition and mass-culture! So observant!
Leslie used her paper for an anatomical composition, vividly expressing her bodily concerns.