Bamboo is a ubiquitous part of Japanese culture, and is an important material both in everyday life and in art. In fact, the Morikami’s collection is full of pieces made of bamboo, one of which is a basket made by master bamboo artist, Shochiku Tanabe (see below). In advance of Shochiku’s sold out basket making workshop on April 7, we spoke with our former Director of Education and bamboo expert, Reiko Nishioka, who gave us some insight on why bamboo is such an important part of Japanese art and culture, as well as her knowledge of Shochiku and how he became the revered artist he is today.
Why is bamboo such an important part of Japanese culture?
Bamboo is the fastest-growing group of perennial, evergreen plants in the grass family, and is an abundant resource that can be found virtually anywhere in Japan. Because it is readily available, strong and fast-growing, Japanese people are continuously learning to use bamboo’s unique characteristics to create all kinds of objects from tools for use in daily life, to great works of art. There is even a Japanese folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, or Kaguyahime, that dates back to the tenth century, and is still popular amongst children.
How is bamboo used in everyday life and in art in Japan?
Japanese people use bamboo in many, versatile ways. From eating takenoko, young bamboo shoots, to using its leaves to wrap food, or even using bamboo as a building material (to make a variety of fences, baskets, toys and more), there are countless uses for bamboo in Japanese culture.
Shochiku was featured in the Morikami’s recent Kogei exhibit, which was sponsored by the Japanese consulate, and he is obviously very skilled – why do you think he is an important artist, and why was he chosen for the exhibit?
Many traditional Japanese art objects stem from utilitarian, functional objects like ceramic bowls, kimono, bamboo baskets, etc. These objects fall into a category called kogei in Japanese. There is no direct translation of the word kogei in English, but it refers to an object made by a skilled artist or craftsman. For this exhibition, the most highly skilled artists in different kogei fields, like Shochiku, were chosen by Masanori Moroyama, curator at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo to exhibit their works in the magnificent exhibition shown at Morikami.
What kind of training does it take to become an artist like Shochiku?
Mr. Shochiku Tanabe is a fourth-generation bamboo artist. His great-grandfather started 120 years ago, and Shochiku grew up surrounded by bamboo. In fact, he started making bamboo baskets at five years old. Shochiku grew up surrounded by Senjin-no-chie (ancestors’ wisdom or knowledge passed down through many generations), absorbing his father’s and grandfather’s knowledge and skills. Similarly, people who are inspired by bamboo, and want to become bamboo artists, often take apprenticeships and learn from masters as Shochiku did.
Why should people come to Shochiku’s upcoming workshop at the Morikami?
Many years ago I took a bamboo basket making workshop, and I still have (and use!) the baskets that I made. I learned how to appreciate and understand handmade bamboo products, and this is a rare opportunity for participants to learn about bamboo from a master bamboo artist.
Are there other resources you would recommend for people to learn more about bamboo in Japanese culture and art?
There are books and, of course, abundant resources on the web and YouTube. In addition to reading good sources to get accurate information, people should visit museums (like Morikami) and galleries (like the Ruth Funk Center for Textile Arts at FIT) often to see high quality Japanese art, and cultivate the ability to judge good work.
Shochiku’s upcoming April workshop in collaboration with the Ruth Funk Center for Textile Arts at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, is now sold out, but check back soon for photos and video of this master artist.