I recently visited the town of Imadate, a premier papermaking town in western Japan. As I arrived in the local train station, a freshly fallen snow highlighted the thatched rooves of traditional houses. Nestled in between the mountains of western Japan, the town in Fukui prefecture has an ideal combination of cold, pure water and fibers of mulberry plants and totoro-aoi (a type of hibiscus plant used to facilitate mixing the fibers) to create paper of remarkable strength and durability. Known also as temporary home of where Murasaki-shikibu, the world’s first woman novelist (The Tales of Genji), the town itself seems to still glow with a thousand years of Japanese tradition.
Japanese papers are unique among the world’s papers as layers of paper are woven all together. Papers from other traditions make layers individually and pasted together. This technique of weaving fibers together allowed Heisaburo Hirano in the early twentieth century to create the largest handmade paper available anywhere, almost canvas-like in thickness and strength, called Kumohada Mashi, or “Cloud Skin” paper, I have used paper up to 16 feet square.
Japanese government still uses washi (Japanese hand made paper) and sumi (calligraphy ink) to record their proceedings, because of the paper’s durability. Washi paper is far more durable than canvas because the weavings are tighter, and less air pockets exist. Of course, the vulnerability to puncture is a reality when using paper. But, in a sense, her vulnerability is her strength. Therein lies the essence of Japanese culture and beauty. By weaving fibers of mulberry, hemp and others, these weak materials become most durable and permanent. These papers are also meant to breathe with the surrounding air, the air itself acting as the best cleanser to keep the paper healthy.
The Japanese realized a long time ago that nothing is really permanent. Therefore it is better to respect the aging process, to value creativity over apparent permanence of materials. The age-old concept of wabi (poverty) and sabi (rusting away) insists that what is truly beautiful is not the permanence of things, but the impermanence of things. That a culture is not just the product of culture, but the knowledge of a craft that is passed down from generation to generation.
I was encouraged to see, therefore, that there were many young men and women who had begun to apprentice at the paper-making town. Many had gone to art schools, and learned the art of Nihonga (Japanese style painting), only to realize part of their learning art was to understand fully the process of making paper first hand.
The Japanese government, surprisingly, does not have a system of supporting and funding traditional crafts and art forms. Being on the Council on the N.E.A. has opened my eyes to how we are able to fund many art forms that find their protection in our country. Our National Heritage Awards, given out in the fall of every year, honor those masters of crafts from all over the world. Can it be that America has a better understanding of how we need to protect the world’s cultural forms and voices, because our diversity breeds our interest to shelter traditions? Do we see more objectively, perhaps, having been exiled from our cultures, what makes our own traditions unique and valued? I now find myself trying to convince the Japanese how valuable and beautiful their own culture and tradition are.
What the Japanese do so well, is to develop an art-form in collaboration between nature and art. We can indeed all learn from the Japanese how stewardship of culture is directly related to the stewardship of nature. If, for instance, by pollution and over building we lose the resources that make these fibers, and if the pure mountain streams are tainted, we can no longer sustain papermaking. But the Japanese seemed to have found a vision to take care of their resources well, and by doing so nourishing her tradition and expression. And yet, even here, the tradition lives its tenuous life, with many of the papermakers around the country not being able to continue with their craft. By continuing to use these natural materials, I, too, collaborate with nature. My visit to them was specifically to create a dyed paper that could be used with gold, as in my recently exhibited piece, “Splendor Gold.”
I found out recently that the Declaration of Independence is written on the same type of paper as the Kumohada paper I use. Imagine that: our democracy is literally written out on a delicate rag paper. As we pay homage to the signatures that began the great experiment, we might ponder the symbolic significance of the material. The form suits her content: democracy, too, is vulnerable to puncture, like on that beautiful azure day of September 11th. But on the other hand, our democratic ideals are also resilient because it is allowed to breath with the changing air of the times. The strength and durability of democracy are not in the permanence of ideologies, but in the wrestling of ideas in the process of collaboration.
In ecosystem of a democratic culture, like these mountains of western Japan, should allow for diverse cultural expression to thrive in collaboration. This ecosystem is worth sustaining, because it is through these expressions that we will find a common language of longing for beauty and delight in God’s world. As I paced the premise of the paper makers, smelling the sweet aroma of fibers being boiled and stirred, I found myself being stirred in a curious blend of cultural fibers and identities, then woven in layers in situ by master papermakers.