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Things To Do For Earth Day & Every Day

In the spirit of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day tomorrow––and our current stay-at-home situation––we’ve compiled a few resources and recommendations from members of SAM’s Green Team for April 22 as well as a fun art activity for all ages!

Earth Day is the first holy day which transcends all national borders, yet preserves all geographical integrities, spans mountains and oceans and time belts, and yet brings people all over the world into one resonating accord, is devoted to the preservation of the harmony in nature and yet draws upon the triumphs of technology, the measurement of time, and instantaneous communication through space.

– Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist, 1978


Check out Earth Day Northwest 2020 

#Next5 actions features tips to effectively reduce your home energy bill and work toward zero-waste! A few ideas below, since we’re all at home more these days.

100% Clean Energy

  1. Turn off lights, use turn-off power strips and unplug all appliances that you are not using. 
  2. Set the thermostat to 68°F or lower when you’re at home and awake, and lower 7°F to 10°F when you’re asleep or away.
  3. Turn down your water heater to 120°F or the “low” setting. 
  4. Run your washing machine and dishwasher only when full.
  5. Using a ceiling fan to circulate air can lower both your cooling and heating costs (counterclockwise recirculates warm air).

Zero-Waste

  1. Recycle right: Empty. Clean. Dry. 
  2. Reduce, reuse and up-cycle: donate or give new life to old clothes and home goods instead of throwing them out.
  3. Target food waste – reduce, donate, and compost. 
  4. Reduce or eliminate single-use plastic.
  5. Avoid last-minute purchases and reduce excess by making a shopping list- and sticking to it.

Articles 

Books/Poetry

Podcasts

Movies

  • Ice on Fire, 2019  (Hulu and HBO)
  • Chasing Coral, 2017  (Netflix)
  • Before the Flood, 2016  (Disney and Amazon Prime)
  • How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, 2016  (iTunes)
Takpekpe (Conference), 2006, El Anatsui

In SAM’s galleries, you will find artist El Anatsui’s sculpture, Takpekpe (Conference) draped on the wall. From a distance, the artwork appears to be a gold, purple, and red tapestry, or wall hanging. But up close, you will notice interesting materials the artist has chosen for his artwork – metal tops from recycled bottles and cans. El Anatsui, who lives and works in Nigeria, creates his sculptures from metal, wood, and reused materials from bottles and packaging. The artist works collaboratively with a team to create sections of theses materials, arrange the sections in different positions on the floor, and then take pictures of the arrangements to document the process. Through a practice of experimentation and play, El Anatsui creates sculptures of different patterns and colors that represent abstraction in African Art.

In honor of Earth Day, we want to consider ways to minimize our waste and reuse items in our home recycling bins. What types of packaging or plastic do we often have in our homes? Where might these items go when they leave our homes? How can we creatively reuse items like packaging, bottle caps, and plastics?

Art Activity

El Anatsui gathers packaging, bottle tops, and other items to create artwork. Through a process of play and experimentation, the artist creates patterns and documents these with photographs. These images help guide El Anatsui to create new sculptures.

Play, experiment, and create your own recycled material artwork!

  • Gather recycled materials in your home over a week. Ask yourself if an item could become an interesting art material before you place it in the garbage or recycling bin. Rinse off the material and set aside until you are ready to begin creating.

Some items you could collect include: cardboard boxes, paper tubes, bottle caps, aluminum can tabs, foil yogurt lids, egg cartons, twist ties, and cereal boxes.

  • Once you have some recycling gathered, imagine how these items can be transformed. Can they be cut, twisted, folded or combined to create a new material?

For example, you could cut paper tubes into rings, cut shapes out of cardboard boxes, or trim egg cartons into smaller objects.

  • Lay your materials out on a surface and move them around to see what patterns you can create. Take pictures along the way to document your experiments! Try arranging the materials into groups by size, color, shape, texture, transparency. Or into patterns!
  • Once you find a pattern you like, glue or tape your materials to a piece of cardboard to finish your artwork. Share your abstract recycled artwork on social media using #StayHomewithSAM.

– Maggie O’Rourke, Program Associate for Arts and Environment

Images: Installation view of Takpekpe (Conference) by El Anatsui, photo: Natalie Wiseman. Art making images: Maggie O’Rourke.

Object of the Week: Landscape

On Earth Day, we tend to take stock of the impact humans have had on our planet: how our polluting, mining, deforestation, and other acts have affected this round wonder that we call home. Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, however, the Earth is seeing a brief respite from this negative human activity—we’ve all seen the reports of air pollution temporarily plummeting. As many of us are limiting our contact with others, staying at home, or even sheltering in place, the Earth’s beauty—blooming flowers, the sounds of animals, lapping waves, or the sound of wind through the trees—has become a source of comfort. I’d like to focus on those gifts the Earth provides for this Earth Day post.

For my family, this time of human isolation has brought an enhanced appreciation of nature and all of the beauty that can be found right in our own yard and neighborhood. We’ve been taking two walks a day (practicing social distancing, of course) and spending whatever time we can in our backyard. We’ve noticed many more flowering trees and plants, and the new gardens that people are eagerly starting. Friends who live in apartments have mentioned pulling chairs up close to a window so that they can be closer to nature while they work from home—even if they lack a view, the sounds of birds help.

Margaret Gove Camfferman’s Landscape elicits this sense of the appreciation of nature for me. This work, sometimes called Orchard on Sound, was painted for the Public Works Art Project of Washington in 1933.[1] The view is from Camfferman’s property on Whidbey Island looking across to Camano Island. It demonstrates a deep awareness of her surroundings. How much I appreciate these flowering fruit trees, the shrubs and other trees, the view of the Sound and the cliffs across the water. Camfferman moved to Langley in 1915, soon after she married the Dutch painter Peter Camfferman, whom she had met in New York. They built their home, called Brachenwood, there and established the Camfferman Art Colony on the property, which included cabins for visiting artists and instructors.[2]

Camfferman, who often painted flowers and landscapes, studied with artist Robert Henri in New York (we even have a painting of her by him in SAM’s collection) and André L’Hôte in Paris. Landscape, which was painted shortly after returning from France, illustrates her development toward modernism. One scholar notes that her work “relied on the theme of nature for her point of departure and attempted to create an analogy between music and painting.”[3] (We recently shared an art activity inspired by Georgia O’Keefe’s work, Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1 which helps us better understand that connection between music and art. Check it out!)

Obviously, nature was important to Camfferman, and, perhaps, it’s more important now to many of us—especially during the current COVID-19 crisis. Has your perception and appreciation of nature changed during this time?

– Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

[1] Rebecca Bruckner and Cindy Beagle, Pioneering Women Artists: Seattle, 1880s to 1940s (Seattle: Kinsey Gallery, Seattle University, 1993), p. [9].
[2] David Martin, An Enduring Legacy: Women Painters of Washington, 1930-2005 (Bellingham, WA: Whatcom Museum of History & Art, 2005), p. 57.
[3] Bruckner and Beagle, Ibid.
Image: Landscape, ca. 1933, Margaret Gove Camfferman, oil on board, 25 x 29 3/8 in., Public Works of Art Project, Washington State, 33.213 © Margaret Gove Camfferman

Community Questions: How Are You Staying Connected?

While SAM locations are closed, we are still working hard to center diverse voices in all that SAM does. The SAM Equity Team is sharing some of the ways that this is manifesting in the museum, in Seattle, and in our lives by asking team members to reflect on how equity and community building continue to be the center of our work, despite our inability to physically gather at this time. The first question was: How are you continuing to build and stay connected to community during this time?

Here’s how Rayna Mathis, SAM’s Assistant Educator for Teen Programs and equity team member, responded:

My quarantine has been a pretty silent one because I live alone, which means I bounce around my apartment all day with only my thoughts to keep me company. I knew too many days of this would go south real fast. I needed to focus on something to help me build and stay connected to my community in a way that felt authentic and meaningful for me. This led me to building a Little Free Library (LFL). I did my research, went to Home Depot, built the structure, went to Home Depot again, realized I bought the wrong thing at Home Depot, cried, painted, and somehow finished in a week’s time (I call those fine moments the spark notes of the project).

During that week, friends and strangers alike reached out to offer support. It’s been nearly a month since I’ve been working from home and, to date, I’ve received carpentry lessons, supportive texts and messages to keep me going, transportation to put the library in place, snacks from friends who made sure I wasn’t forgetting to eat, monetary donations to support the cost of building materials, Clorox wipes, and wrapping paper to sanitize donations and keep them preserved, and over 300 book donations!

With permission from local business owner, Luis Rodriguez, the library was placed outside of The Station, an activist coffee shop in South Seattle. Though the library is filled with content appropriate for all ages, the purpose for this location was to ensure an accessible way for South Seattle students who are not in school due to the stay home order and/or with limited internet access, to be able to continue to find ways to learn or be entertained at this time. And with generous donations from all over Seattle, The Station has also transformed part of its store into a open pantry for anyone in the community to get groceries for themselves and their families.

When you ask me what community means to me, it’s this. From every corner of Seattle, this work is being done without hesitation and people are showing up before even being asked. There’s less to worry about and more to be grateful for when I know I am a part of a community that holds each other up, and will weather every storm together.

Building a LFL is a project I’ve been interested in for a long time. LFL’s have been there for me in tough or unusual times. Once when I was out of the country and homesick, I stumbled on a LFL in a large mall and the first book I picked up had a dedication from a bookstore in Washington. What were the odds of finding a book from home so far from home? The day a mentor of mine passed away, I passed an LFL in a walk to Green Lake and found a poem by Maya Angelou about death and loss. When I’ve gotten lost in the hectic world, time and time again I was found behind library doors, beneath book covers, inside every page. There is comfort and familiarity in feeling connected across shared love of a book. I hope my LFL brings a feeling of connection to anyone who finds the book they didn’t know they needed in it.

Inside SAM’s Asian Painting Conservation Center

“Without the periodic conservation of these works, they simply wouldn’t exist anymore. So this work is really critical and we are conserving our collections so that they are lasting in perpetuity for generations to come.”

– Nick Dorman, SAM Chief Conservator

When the Asian Art Museum reopens, you’ll be able to stop by to learn about the conservation of Asian paintings by peeking through the public viewing window into the conservation space to see the progress! Through a $3.5M challenge grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a new Asian Paintings Conservation Center at the Asian Art Museum is devoted to the conservation, mounting, and study of Asian paintings. The new conservation center serves the museum’s collection as well as institutional and private collections in the region. This is the first museum center of its kind in the western United States. We hope to have it completed by 2021.

If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today! Your financial support powers Stay Home with SAM and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again.

Object of the Week: Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels

Photographer Imogen Cunningham was not naturally inclined to stay home. Throughout her long and prolific career she travelled and exhibited widely, was celebrated for her portraits ranging from the rich-and-famous to the anonymous citizens of San Francisco, and even became a minor celebrity late in her life, appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and easily identified walking her hometown’s streets with her iconic black cape and peace sign pin.

For a brief period in between all of this activity, Cunningham was more-or-less bound to her home. In 1917, she moved with her 18-month-old son from Seattle to San Francisco to join her husband; less than one month later, she gave birth to twins. As the mother of three young children, her life was suddenly largely circumscribed by the boundaries of the family’s Oakland home. But Cunningham did not allow these circumstances to impede her work—her ambition and drive would, simply, not allow for it. Instead, she turned inward to subjects within her home—or more accurately, created subjects within her home—by cultivating a garden in her backyard.

In a 1959 interview, Cunningham recalled: “The reason I really turned to plants was because I couldn’t get out of my own backyard when my children were small.”[1] And later, with her characteristic sharp wit: “I photographed the plants in my garden and steered my children around at the same time.”[2] True enough about the circumstances, but these direct statements belie the care and attention with which Cunningham shot her celebrated botanical works, such as Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels (1925).

Tightly framing her composition, Cunningham makes the subject of this work not the plant as a whole, but rather the innermost folds and stamen of the blooming magnolia flower. The luscious gradients of white in the petals, the play of shadows on the stamen, and the sharpness with which these details are captured serves to abstract the blossom, allowing us as viewers to see this familiar subject in a new way. This technique was at the heart of a new form of modernist photography, and Cunningham’s experimentations in her own garden were at the forefront of this aesthetic shift. It would not be until 1932 when a group of artists—including Cunningham, along with Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and others—would formalize this style of photography under a collective they dubbed Group f/64, named for the smallest aperture setting that captures the kind of sharpness we see in Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels.

Years later in 1957, after her children had grown and she’d long-since left the garden to experiment with other techniques and subjects, Cunningham returned to her earlier themes by capturing another artist and mother, at home and at work, in her portrait of Ruth Asawa with four of her children. The scene must have been familiar to Cunningham, and it was no mistake that she framed Asawa’s biomorphic, hanging sculpture at the center of the composition: at the heart of it all, she seems to suggest, is the work that drives us.

When SAM reopens its doors, you will be able to find Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture in the exhibition Exceptionally Ordinary: Mingei 1920-2020. And November 2021 will bring together nearly 200 of Cunningham’s photographs, along with sculpture by Asawa, in the exhibition Imogen Cunningham: A Retrospective. Until then, as we all stay home, may their work inspire you to continue the work that drives you, whatever that may be.

Carrie Dedon, SAM Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art

If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today! Your financial support powers Stay Home with SAM and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again.

[1] Imogen Cunningham and Edna Tartaul Daniel, Imogen Cunningham: Portraits, Ideas, and Design (Berkeley: University of California Regional Cultural History Project, 1961), 26.
[2] Imogen Cunningham, in Brooks Johnson, ed., Photography Speaks: 150 Photographer On Their Art (New York: Aperture, 2005), 120.
Images: Magnolia Blossom, Tower of Jewels, 1925, Imogen Cunningham, gelatin silver print, 11 1/4 x 8 1/4 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.67 © (1925), 2009 Imogen Cunningham Trust. Ruth Asawa Family and Sculpture, 1957, Imogen Cunningham, Gelatin silver print, 10 3/8 x 10 3/8 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 89.43
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The Case of the Weeping Buddha

The recent renovation and expansion of the Seattle Asian Art Museum allowed SAM to evaluate and conserve artworks we have previously been unable to display. One such work is the seated Buddha Shakyamuni which is on view for the first time in over a decade. Cast in the late 8th to early 9th century in Kashmir, Buddha Shakyamuni is seated in the dharmachakra mudra, a gesture that signifies the sharing of spiritual teachings. The sculpture is one of only a few examples known in Western collections. It is featured in the inaugural exhibition Boundless: Stories of Asian Art—a thematic, rather than geographic or chronological exploration of art from the Asian continent—celebrating the historic renovation of the museum’s 1933 Art Deco building located in Seattle’s Olmsted-designed Volunteer Park.

In 2009, during a condition assessment for a multi-venue international traveling exhibition, it was discovered that large white drips of zinc hydroxychloride corrosion product were seeping down the sculpture’s back. Independent conservation scientist John Twilley had identified the corrosion product in 1988 and the object was then treated for chlorides, however corrosion had reactivated in the intervening years.

Due to the severity of the problem and the importance of the sculpture, Twilley was engaged in 2009 to perform a technical study that included, among other techniques, x-radiography and metallographic study, including electron microscopy. Twilley determined that the metal contains 34-39% zinc, which is an extraordinarily high percentage of zinc to copper even for Kashmiri production. Twilley states that “a critical technological value of 28% zinc… is believed to be the highest value normally achievable by cementation methods” (Twilley 2003: 144), in which vaporized zinc is directly absorbed by copper metal to form the alloy. This finding has great technological implications: it identified the Shakyamuni as a rare, surviving example of brass produced from the earliest actual smelting of zinc, achieved by Kashmiris approximately 1,000 years before Western Europe.

Reverse view before removal of white corrosive product. Photo: Elizabeth Brown

However, the sculpture’s stability is inherently compromised as a result: the presence of two phases (or different crystal microstructures of copper and zinc) in the alloy creates the potential for galvanic corrosion in the presence of chloride contamination and moisture. Above 5% relative humidity, moisture penetrates the alloy’s higher zinc component causing dissolved corrosion products to migrate through the sculpture’s porous casting network.

Detail during treatment: corrosion product removed from lower third of drip. Photo: Elizabeth Brown

Conservation treatment options are limited. Chemical treatments can control chloride corrosion in copper alloys, and were tested for this sculpture and previously performed locally, but the high zinc level of Buddha Shakyamuni renders the figure particularly susceptible. Immersion of the sculpture is impractical due to the surface ornamentation and extant casting core. Therefore, controlling the environment in which the sculpture is stored and displayed remains the preferred preservation approach. 

The SmallCorp case being tested prior to installation of the sculpture. Photo: Geneva Griswold

For the last decade, the sculpture has been successfully stabilized by storage at <5% relative humidity; a micro environment was fashioned from a glass bell jar packed with oxygen scavenger and silica gel, sealed to a plywood board (covered with aluminized polyethylene and nylon barrier film) on which the sculpture is mounted.

Construction of a low-oxygen, low-humidity case was required to enable display and to ensure its survival in long-term storage, as even a controlled museum environment provides ample moisture for the corrosion process to occur. A glass vitrine, rather than acrylic, was necessary to minimize the rate of air exchange. The sealed display enclosure is composed of inert materials including the 5-sided 8.8mm UltraVue laminated glass vitrine, powder-coated aluminum deck, and ample conditioning chamber located below. The case is intended to passively maintain a relative humidity below 5%, however two ports in the sub-deck are designed for dry nitrogen flushing if necessary. A glass and gasket access door in the sub-deck enables live-view of the temperature and humidity loggers inside the display area, and enables periodic replacement of the silica gel, oxygen scavenger, and temperature/relative humidity sensors.

The Seattle Asian Art Museum is thrilled for the opportunity to display the Buddha Shakyamuni, and to share both its innovative creation story and present-day preservation plan with the public. If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today!

This project would not have been possible without the leadership of Nicholas Dorman, Head of Conservation at the Seattle Art Museum; Mike Dunphy, Sales and Marketing Manager at SmallCorp; John Twilley, Independent Conservation Scientist; and Yadin Larochette, Museum and Conservation Liaison- Americas, Tru Vue, Inc. 

– Geneva Griswold, SAM’s Associate Objects Conservator & Elizabeth Brown, SAM’s Senior Objects Conservator

Images: Buddha Shakyamuni, Kashmir, late 8th to early 9th century, copper alloy with silver and copper, Floyd A. Naramore Memorial Purchase Fund, 74.70, photo: Susan A. Cole

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Virtual Art Talks: Abstract O’Keeffe

SAM’s locations may be temporarily closed, but our curators are still here to connect you to art! Here’s Dr. Theresa Papanikolas, SAM’s Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, to give you an overview of Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstract Variations. This installation featuring 17 works by this American master opened just one week before we had to make the difficult decision to close for the safety of our community. Tune in for a lecture developed just for you and learn more about the works on view at SAM. We can still appreciate these artworks and the artist who made them, even if can’t visit them at the moment.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstract Variations features 17 works from the 1910s to the 1930s. At the heart of the installation is Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1, a recent addition to SAM’s collection and a gift of late Trustee Barney A. Ebsworth. The first complete expression of O’Keeffe’s personal brand of modernism, Abstract Variations brings Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1 together with Music, Pink and Blue, No. 2, from the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, for the first time in Seattle, along with loans from museums across the country.

If you value the ways SAM connects art to your life, consider making a donation or becoming a member today!

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New Views of Some/One

Now that the Asian Art Museum has expanded, we can fit this monumental sculpture by Do Ho Suh inside the galleries! Some/One is part of Be/longing: Contemporary Asian Art and while the Asian Art Museum is temporarily closed we are taking you behind the scenes of installing this impressive and important artwork.

Some/One, 2001, represents artist Do Ho Suh’s interest in individual and collective identity. A minimalist sculpture, Do Ho Suh explores how art transforms public and private spaces through a painstaking amount of intricate detail that is not always apparent at first sight but is an integral part of the artwork. Some/One, as the title of the work indicates, juxtaposes the collective—represented by a larger-than-life armor sculpture—and the individual, consisting of life-size shiny-metal dog tags, each unique and representing a single soldier. This allegory is carried forward by contrasting the hard, insensitive character of armor with the delicate aspect of the dog tags, which are made up of thin sheets of metal and embody the poetic symbolism of fallen warriors.

While the Asian Art Museum was closed for renovation and expansion we reimagined the presentation of art to include community perspectives on art works. Below is a reflection on Some/One from artist HollyAnna CougarTracks DeCoteau Littlebull. You might remember her large-scale artwork on view at Arts at King Street Station as part of yəhaw̓. Check out some photos of Bigfoot, the artwork referenced in her statement.

The one thing that people of all races have in common is we have our protectors. My Crow family recognizes me as a warrior, because I used to be a police officer and got shot in the line of duty, and survived. We use either elk hide or buffalo to dress our warriors, which takes on a similar shape, and sometimes paint the rawhide side with the story of that veteran. It’s a way of them owning their story and being able to wear it with pride, but it also has the sad side to it too: the death, the destruction, the pain. With my contemporary artwork, Bigfoot, there are plastic toy natives next to the head, there’s one with the war bonnet on, and he’s representing the warriors in my family. It’s about dealing with the past, with assimilation, with boarding schools, with genocide. Bigfoot talks about the foundation and accepting your past even if it’s ugly. That’s what this artwork does here too. War is not pretty. 

– HollyAnna CougarTracks DeCoteau Littlebull, artist

We also include community voices on the free smartphone tour featuring artworks from SAM’s Asian art collection. Listen to musician Deems Tsutakawa discuss this artwork and how he relates to it in his own life.

We worked to represent a variety of voices in presenting Do Ho Suh’s Some/One because the sculpture is about both the individual and collective identities. One of these voices belongs to the artist. In an interview with Art21, artist Do Ho Suh talks about the dream that inspired Some/One.

“I saw this light in the stadium, and so I thought there’s some kind of activity going on. And as I approached the stadium… I walked slowly and went into the stadium on the ground level, and then I see this reflecting surface in the dream. And I realized I was stepping on these metal pieces that were the military dog tags. And it was slightly vibrating; the dog tags were touching each other, and the sound was from that. And from afar, I saw the central figure in the center of the stadium. I slowly proceeded to the center, and then I realized it was all one piece that gradually rose up and formed this one figure…. So, that was the dream and the image that I got. After that, I made a small drawing. The small drawing was about this vast field of military dog tags on the ground and then a small figure in the center…. That was the impact that I wanted to somehow convey through that piece.”

– Do Ho Suh, artist

We are humbled by the generosity of our donors during this unique time. Your financial support powers SAM Blog and also sustains us until we can come together as a community and enjoy art in the galleries again. Thanks to a generous group of SAM trustees, all membership and gifts to SAM Fund will be matched up to $500,000 through June 30!

Photo: Jueqian Fang
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Object of the Week: Fireman’s Coat

April showers may bring May flowers, but the passing of the clouds bring clear nights to see the bright face of the moon. Moon gazing isn’t an easy task here in the Pacific Northwest, especially with all the rainstorms and grey days; however, in East Asian countries, Moon Viewing is a popular mid-autumn festival for celebrating the harvest and contemplating the beauty of the night sky. In Japan, this is called Tsukimi, and is held on the 15th day to the 18th day of the eighth lunar month––so, sometime in September or October, depending on year. In the past it was time to write waka, a form of Japanese poetry, which originated within the aristocracy. Today, Tsukimi is celebrated all over Japan with displays of pampas grass and white balls of mochi (sweet rice cakes).

At the Asian Art Museum, we have our own example of Tsukimi revelry in the form of a 19th century hikeshi banten, or a commoner’s fireman coat. Made of tough cotton to impede burning debris, this coat has a surprisingly playful depiction of rabbits on their hind-legs, pounding at a vessel of mochi. Made of glutinous rice, mochi needs to be pounded to make the smooth, stretchy texture for which it is known.

The video above shows families making mochi at the Mochi Tsuki Festival on Bainbridge Island, WA. People enjoy mochi today all over Japan. It can be found in Seattle’s Japanese grocery stores too! Have you ever tried it before? One of the most popular ways to eat it is wrapping the soft, squishy mochi over a sweet filling, like red bean paste or chocolate cream.

So why rabbits? At first glance it would seem odd to connect these bunnies to mochi creation, or Tsukimi at all. However, in terms of mythology, rabbits have a lot to do with both. In the West, we have a fairy tale about the man in the moon, so created by how the moon’s dark craters seem to mimic the features of a face. In many Eastern folktales, however, it is not a human face, but a rabbit. Specifically, it is a rabbit with a mortar and pestle. In China, this is because the rabbit is a companion to the moon goddess, and pounds her medicine of immortality. In Japan and Korea, this rabbit pounds mochi, and has an entirely different reason for being engraved on the moon. In the Konjaku Monogatarishu, a collection of tales from the Heian Period, the story is told like this:

A long time ago, the Man of the Moon came down to Earth in secret in the guise of an old man. There, he came across three friends: monkey, fox, and rabbit, who had all taken a vow of charity. To them, he begged for food.

The monkey, being nimble, brought him fruit. The fox, being clever, brought him fish. The rabbit, only able to gather grass, had nothing to offer. So he asked the old man to light a fire and jumped into it, offering his own body as a meal.

The old man changed quickly back to the Man of the Moon and pulled the rabbit from the fire. He was deeply touched by such sacrifice and said “Rabbit, you are a kind creature, but do not give yourself up for me. As you were kindest of all, you may come and live with me upon the moon.” The rabbit agreed, and was carried to his new home. He is still there to this day. If you look up at the moon, you can see his figure upon it.

Between the flame that the rabbit tossed himself into, and his associations to the moon and food, it seems a little clearer why there would be the image of a mochi-pounding rabbit on a fireman’s coat. The rabbit was miraculously pulled from the flame and provided honor for his sacrifice––the perfect emblem of protection for a fireman.

Listen to actor Hudson Yang discuss this artwork.

Even with social distancing, we can still look up and see the rabbit, pounding away at mochi on the surface of the moon. It makes you wonder if he is an essential worker, too, and whether they have such worries in the night sky. When the Asian Art Museum reopens, you can see this rabbit hikeshi-banten on view in the galleries as a fine example of what would have once defined a fireman.

Kennedy Simpson, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art

Images: Fireman’s coat, 19th century, Japanese, cotton, 49 1/4 x 49 1/4 in., Gift of the Christensen Fund, 2001.417