I left Portland August 4th, very excited by the possibility of meeting artists who work with the same material I do, of visiting bamboo groves, and seeing bamboo used in an everyday setting. Although it wasn’t entirely clear in my mind at the time, looking back, what I really craved was a personal connection with other bamboo artists, which I ended up finding. This is the story of that connection.
Throughout the trip I was not told where we were going until we arrived, and the element of surprise made each destination all the more exciting.
I ended up in Beppu, which is known for both its hot springs, called Onsen, and for its bamboo. When we arrived the film crew said,”Welcome to Bamboo Heaven”. It truly is.
This particular morning I found myself in a neighborhood surrounded by lush green mountains, walking beside a long arroyo, which brought back memories of growing up in New Mexico. I knocked on a door and who should open it but Morgami Jin! Morgami-Jin is a world renowned bamboo artist, known not only for his works, but also for how finely he can split bamboo. He is a master. Besides creating a series of traditional bamboo baskets he has two other bodies of work. One body of work is a traditional vessel form, with an elegantly full shape, flowing waves encircling the form. The other body of work is dynamically shaped, feather light, and woven in a hexagonal plait. It reminds me of Henry Moore’s “Reclining figure”. The forms change drastically when the viewer moves around them, and the pattern of the weave adds to the depth of the form. His wife, Ayako-san, works with him in his studio.
We had a short studio visit, with the promise of a return, then Morgami-san took me to Nagai Seichiku factory. It is a bamboo processing factory in Beppu where artists and craftspeople buy processed bamboo canes.
Husband and wife team Nagai Kimiyo and Kudo Masayoshi run the factory. The family has been running the business for over 100 years. Sixty years ago the business expanded to become what it is today. It was quite amazing to see a material I am so familiar with being handled on such a mass quantity. The factory processes over 200 bamboo canes a day. Both Phyllostachys Bambusoides and Moso are processed. Some of the canes I saw that day came from a Bamboo grove growing in Oita over 100 years. The bamboo is in between 10 and 14 meters tall.
The bamboo is transported around the factory grounds by both a fork lift and some great little carts. It is wheeled up to a processing area, and when the bamboo is done being processed, its wheeled away on the same carts.
Bamboo contains a oil in it, it is a starch insects are attracted to. Bamboo can be processed two different ways. One way is to boil it in caustic soda at 70-80 degrees Celsius and then wipe the oil off of it. Black bamboo cannot be processed this way or it looses its beautiful color. The other way is to slowly turn it over a fire or high heat. When the oil comes to the surface it is wiped off. This is considered to be the traditional method. It is a lengthy but necessary process to create a bamboo which is hardened and archival.
The factory has a wonderful system for processing in caustic soda that made me envious of the artist who live in the region. Fires to process the bamboo are stoked with bamboo scraps. This is terrifically ecological, and makes sense business-wise too. Long metal chambers filled with boiling caustic soda are tipped slightly upwards so the bamboo canes can be slid in and out of the chambers. Each bamboo cane is removed, wiped down, and placed on a cart.
The bamboo then is transported to an area where it can be toasted by the sun. Bamboo is then either left whole, cut down to lengths good for basketry, or sent on to elsewhere in the factory, where they are made into bamboo products.
After the tour of the bamboo factory we went into the office where I presented Nagai Kimiyo and Kudo Masayoshi with a catalog of my work I had especially made for the trip to Japan. I met another woman, Kudo Sugako, also works in the office. It was really quite fun to watch the two ladies look at the work in the catalog. They had lots of questions, were very expressive, exclaimed that they really had not seen anything like it, and were quite surprised to find an American making such work. This was the reaction of many people in Japan. It was very heart warming to meet such lovely people who knew how important and beautiful bamboo is. Its really nice to have new bamboo friends!
Next we will visit Morgami-Jin’s studio for a few bamboo lessons.