Weaving new life into old art form
The Portland Japanese Garden's current exhibit of bamboo baskets runs the gamut from one loosely based on a samurai's armor — or perhaps a football player's shoulder pads — to vessels that at first glance wouldn't be out of place in Pottery Barn.
That's half the fun of such a show, figuring out where American artistic values clash with Japanese ones, and where they align.
The works are from Portland resident Peter Shinbach's bamboo art collection. The show, "Hanakago: The Art of Bamboo and Flowers," which shows through April 1, includes both traditional baskets and bamboo art, which are sculptural forms not intended to be working baskets. Hana means "flower," kago means "basket," used to hold a flower arrangement in the alcove of a tea room.
"With all the traditional crafts, such as garden making, origami, ceramics, it's assumed an artist will have mastered his craft before launching into any individual," said Diane Durston, curator of culture, art and education at the Portland Japanese Garden. "It's assumed that a full apprenticeship takes 10 years."
Durston explains that mastery, or "shuhari," is broken into three stages.
She says: "With shuhari: 'Shu' is the intense period of technical training including everything from sweeping floors to stripping bamboo. 'Ha' refers to when the artisan hones his ability to create all the traditional forms his family is known for. And 'ri' is taking the craft in his own personal direction, as an original artist."
Some of the more tightly woven bamboo is based on Chinese models. The thicker, open weave baskets are considered a more Japanese style, ones that valued asymmetry.
In traditional Japanese homes, rooms with open fires often had ceilings that were lined with bamboo mats. After years of smoke, these mats looked almost black. In some cases this bamboo was prized, since it polishes to a dark brown or orange color.
One piece in the exhibition forms an infinity loop, like a Mobius strip. The cross-section of each thin strip of bamboo is triangular, and as the form curves, the colors change between black and orange.
This is the year of Kyoto at the Japanese Garden. The collection has an emphasis on work by artists from the Kansai region, including some from Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. (There are additional works available for purchase provided by TAI Modern Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the leading Japanese bamboo and contemporary art gallery in North America.)
Only some of the baskets have flowers, and because the flowers only last a few days they will not match those shown in the publicity photos.
On the opening weekend, Etsuho Kakihana, master teacher of ikebana of the Saga Goryu School at Daikakuji, one of Kyoto's oldest (900 years) and most revered Buddhist temples, did a demonstration. As Kakihana and her assistants greeted the ticket-only audience of mostly middle-age women, the room chorused back its greeting in perfect Japanese.
There are five ikebana schools in the Portland area. They operate in teachers' homes or attached to temples. Durston jokes that although some Americans have offered quickie courses where the object is to "move on and open a store in Los Angeles," the Portland schools are way more purist.
"Ikebana is a lifetime pursuit and a personal discipline, a way of refining your life," Durston says. One in which one learns to see how one bud or branch can stand for the whole plant. One learns concentration, self-restraint and patience over a course of diligent study. "It's a process, you are looking for a way to make a connection with nature," she adds.
Which is the reason most people show up at the Japanese Garden. So many that the buildings have expanded to the Cultural Crossing, a series of Kengo Kuma-designed classrooms, galleries and offices that enable people like Durston to bring high-quality Japanese culture to the United States.
"Hanakago: The Art of Bamboo and Flowers" shows through April 1 at Portland Japanese Garden, 611 S.W. Kingston Ave. For more: http://www.japanesegarden.org.