Inspiration Becomes Creation
Japan | Imagine, for a moment, Bamboo Forests -- like the one pictured here. Yes, it is quite true that there are many exceptional bamboo forests in Japan -- even in Tokyo!
But when it comes to the bamboo story in Japan, a forest is only part of it -- the other part is about an amazing craft material.
Japanese Bamboo - Where is it?
If you get the opportunity to visit Japan, and I hope you do, or perhaps you already have (lucky you!), you might not notice this at first. But in a day or two, you’ll start to be aware there is something leafy green always in your vision. You look here, there, and it's everywhere!
And that something is bamboo!
In fact, Japan is crazy with it. With over 600 varieties it’s no wonder! This kuro-chiku black bamboo in one of them. Though many folks might consider bamboo a tree - it certainly looks like one – in fact, bamboo is a [woody] primitive grass known to be tough, resilient and … proliferous. In Japan, its grace and beauty fill up and spread over millions of acres of wildland, and its bright leafy green accents numerous Japanese gardens and yards, landscaping on streets, corners, and so many neighborhoods. Bamboo is not a slow starter. Instead, it sprints fully maturing in no more than one year with some varieties adding a full meter to its height in one day! Yes, you can see it growing! Some varieties, such as the madake and mosochiku, become about 20 meters tall with pretty feathery tufts of lacy green swaying gently against a blue sky. So in Japan, bamboo isn’t here or there…. it’s everywhere!
The Practical Side of Japanese Bamboo
Apparently, all this bamboo abundance outside was not enough for some folks. So, bamboo craft artists, with some human ingenuity and creativity, found a way to welcome it inside, too! And it came inside to serve a practical purpose. It came in to carry flowers or food. To wash and strain vegetables. To hold a sweet treat to offer guests. To shield a room from the summer heat and the sun. To divide and embellish a privacy space. To make tea.
Bamboo tickles and teases almost every aspect of everyday life in Japan with an astonishing number of items: window blinds, trays, baskets, flutes, spoons, wine buckets, umbrellas, fans, fishing poles, lampshades and lanterns, and the list goes on and on! Many bamboo items that are inside are purely functional. This is what I mean:
What is Bamboo CraftArt in Japan?
Bamboo might have come in for pratical purposes, yet quickly bloomed into something so much more as craft artists, even today, continue to explore and experiment, fueled by inspiration and possibilities. So when it comes to Bamboo CraftArt, design and purpose often fuse.
One of the reasons bamboo is so perfect for craft art is that it possesses strength, lightness, and flexibility. This makes it an excellent, dependable material for practical objects of everyday life, but more interestingly for craft art and design. The culm (bark) of the bamboo is often a bright green color. After harvest, it is prepared for use, washed, heated over a flame to remove the oil, dried in the sun, and put in resting storage where it may linger up a year or more. And through this long process, it ages into a lovely golden tan now ready to be crafted into objects for everyday use and those for purely aesthetic enjoyment.
An often-used term to describe this golden elegance is wabi-sabi. In Japanese wabi-sabi, aesthetic carries nuance that, in part, speaks to a richness of beauty brought on through the natural aging process. For bamboo craft, the wabi-sabi gift that comes with the passing of time is a soft, dreamy, golden-tan patina. This type of beauty seems to tell us that bamboo has more than one purpose – as many a craft artist will attest! And, if you have a choice, wouldn’t you rather own an object that gives you both practical use and aesthetic pleasure? Well, that is pretty much what bamboo craft is all about!
One bamboo craft that is a tribute to both purpose and aesthetic pleasure is Japanese bamboo basketry. And, one traditional handicraft area in Japan well-known for their basketry craftsmanship, is Beppu City, Oita, Kyushu. In Beppu City, bamboo basketry
has long roots dating back to the Muromachi era (1392-1573). But it was probably the growing popularity of the area’s hot springs starting around the Edo times (1600-1868) that led to the boom in handicraft basketry. Tourists flocked, as they do now, to the area to leisurely soak in hot springs and then carry home the beautiful Beppu baskets as souvenirs. In turn, spurred on by this new industry, crafts artists were inspired. In an amazing display of bamboo versatility and craft artists’ creativity, now more than 400 weaving patterns are a part of traditional and contemporary Beppu Basketry.
A Samurai’s Bamboo CraftArt Endures
Some of this inside-bamboo story starts with a generally unknown bit of history: the unemployed samurai. It must have been hard to be an out-of-work warrior. But this is precisely what happened to the samurai during the Edo Period, a time some call "the age of craftsmen" (1603-1867), generally a time of peace and stability under the Shogun Tokugawa. And without all that fighting, the once “gainfully” employed samurai needed something to supplement their incomes. So, in Shizuoka, where Tokugawa decided to take up residence in his retirement, Suruga Bamboo Basketry was born. Under the protection of the Shogun, the Suruga bamboo style thrived, and craftspeople produced an abundance of interesting, graceful objects made for life: containers for confectionery, cages for birds and beetle bugs (photo), sold to tourists passing through.
Timeless and contemporary, like this breezy vase of red carnations above, the style, like other basket weaves in Japan, requires special skills to prepare the bamboo.
Once harvested and dried, the craftArtist cuts the bamboo into workable sizzles with knife and hatchet, and then shaves even thinner hundreds of these smaller bamboo strips, one by one by hand and by a special drawplate of successively smaller holes - these strips can measure as little as 0.8mm (0.3 inches)! The craftArtist then curves, gently bends and manipulates tens of hundreds of these delicate-looking strips into straight or angles rows onto a base like this light-filled Suruga vase here. These incredibly thin strips, the gentle rounded curves, are some of the distinctive signature characteristics of Suruga style bamboo basketry. Needless to say, this takes process a little time! Suruga bamboo craftArt is full of rhythm and flow and use both light-colored tines and black, kurochiku bamboo as well. Known for its open weave, natural light and bamboo now enter into a partnership, quietly joining to create the final, breezy form.
Most Suruga crafted objects have a function - a birdcage, a flower vase, a basket, a purse. Yet these same handcrafted forms, soon cloaked in their wabi-sabi beauty, can also stand as decorative art objects on their own. The soft gold color, the curves, the light flowing through add elegance to a little corner. A rare, and exceptional skill, in all of Japan, there are less than 20 bamboo Suruga craft-artists still currently producing this elegant style.
The Smallest Bamboo Sculptures
The versatility of bamboo never fails to impress and even the smallest object can become a mini work of art. And given bamboo’s desire for both purpose and beauty, it’s not surprising that this little tool became an essential part of the Japanese tea ceremony.
In Japan, the tea ceremony is highly ritualized. And during this ceremony, the hot water and powdered green tea are quickly whisked into a bubbly, green froth using this lovely chasen. There are more than 60 types of handcrafted whisks. Sometimes described as a "miniature bamboo sculpture" (N. B. Moore), this one pictured here is a complex airy-form made entirely by hand. A two-layered shape, often less than an inch in diameter and six inches in length, this whisk is composed of pretty, golden hairlike, bamboo tines. Using a small blade, the crafsperson will scrape, curl, divide and thin until the tiny, whispery hairs take the desired shape.
Museums and High-end Galleries - About Bamboo Fine Art
There is a great much more to be written about Bamboo and Japanese CraftArt, but we can end with the most artistic expressions of this amazing material. Given bamboo’s versatility as a material, it’s hardly surprising that artists are taking the handicraft in new and innovative directions.
Contemporary forms, like this one to the left here by Ryuun Yamaguchi sometimes build on traditional basket-like, rounded forms but take them in new directions.
Artists like Tanabe Kochikusai with this abstract woven bamboo work here explore, expand, innovate a signature style to create that which was not yet been created: airy, unique expressions from the creative mind of an artist.
And this amazing bamboo sculptures like this one to the right by Masao Ueno called "Shell". These are exceptional works of bamboo decorative art that typically appear in exhibits in museums and In galleries where they sell for hundreds to thousands of USA dollars.
These types of very high end work are certainly amazing, but many Japanese bamboo craft art, fortunately, can also be brought in the home more reasonably. Suruga Bamboo and Beppu are two great examples.
So if you would like to see some amazing artisic in person (one is a virtul tour) here are a few museums and art galleries that might be near you:
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Called the Abby Collection. This exhibition includes about 80 Japanese bamboo baskets and sculptures created by accomplished artists, including all six masters who have received the designation "Living National Treasure." This exhibtion sometime travels the world, so check with your local museum.
- The Mingei Gallery, Paris, France: Here you can take an amazing vitrual tour of the recent Mingei Bamboo Prize exhibition. This gallery is devoted to ancient and contemporary decorative arts of Japan.
- Asia Society/Houston, Texas: The site says: "Bamboo is characterized by strength, flexibility, and lightness—bending, not breaking, with strong winds, while enduring harsh winters. This exhibition explores the innovative shape bamboo art has taken in Japan since the mid-twentieth century... the exhibition both engages and educates audiences about a vibrant cultural art form."
- Tai Modern Gallery: Santa Fe, NM, USA: This is a fine arts gallery dedicated to exhibiting and supporting contemporary art in a variety of media, with a particular focus on Japanese Bamboo Art and Contgemporary American Art.
What do you think? Thoughts on Bamboo?
Hi! Karen here. Would love to hear from you with a comment or picture and tell me your experiences and thoughts on bamboo and bamboo craftart. Perhaps if you are in another part of the world, you probably have similar CraftArts, or know of a museum or gallery with exceptional bamboo art? Please let me know! I will really love to hear from you! Click Here to Leave Your Message. Cheers!
From the Blog Author
Hi Everyone! I have to write a personal note about bamboo craft art. Bamboo is probably one of my favorites. I love the softness of this natural object in the home, how it takes on a golden-tan patina as it "lives" and ages. I love the lightness of it, and how it endures as an object of art generation after generation. Somehow bamboo is just -- calming - like nature! ; ) Well, that's all for me. Please take a look at some of our other craftart objects on our site and enjoy reading some more blogs and artists' stories and Welcome!
1. The Japan Craft Forum, (2001). Japanese Crafts (First Edition). Kodansha International Ltd.
2. Moore, M.B. (2001). Bamboo In Japan (First Edition). Kodansha International Ltd.