Curator Jeannie Kenmotsu on the Untold Stories of Women Printmakers in Postwar Japan

SAM’s Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas presents the 2023–24 season of the Saturday University Lecture Series, exploring various topics on Asian art and culture across time. On Saturday, March 9, Dr. Jeannie Kenmotsu, Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Asian Art at the Portland Art Museum, will share insight on the remarkable influence of women printmakers in postwar Japan. In advance of her talk, SAM spoke with Dr. Kenmotsu about what visitors can expect to learn about in her upcoming talk, the persistence of sexism in art history, and the significance of bringing the stories of these women printmakers to light.


SAM: What can the public expect to learn about in your upcoming Saturday University lecture? What initially drew you to this topic?

Dr. Jeannie Kenmotsu: In 2020, I organized the exhibition Joryū Hanga Kyōkai, 1956–1965: Japan’s Women Printmakers at the Portland Art Museum. This was the first close examination of the activities of this important group, Joryū Hanga Kyōkai, or the Women Printmakers Association. I was fascinated by this collective, which organized collaborative exhibitions together over the course of ten years and seemed to serve as a catalyst for a number of artists, yet had received so little scholarly attention. Of course, I am indebted to many colleagues who have also championed the work of women printmakers in Japan, through their writing, teaching, and exhibitions. But two things remain true: one, that women printmakers were overshadowed by their male counterparts in the twentieth century, a situation that persists today. And two, that there is much more primary documentation and excavation to do in this area, particularly in terms of exploring the depth and richness of individual artists’ stories.

My upcoming Saturday University lecture will provide a broader introduction to the topic of postwar women printmakers, so it is suitable for anyone with an interest in, but limited knowledge, of Asian art, of creative prints (sōsaku hanga), or even of printmaking more generally. I’m interested in the historical conditions that shaped their work, their contemporary reception, and how we do—or don’t—talk about them today. I’m equally interested in bringing to light both the commonalities and the diversity of their career trajectories. Therefore, my focus will be on bringing their stories into greater focus and celebrating their work.

SAM: Academic research often involves travel. Is there a travel experience related to your lecture experience that you could share with us?

JK: In a funny way, my work in this area has been shaped by a lack of an ability to travel. In early 2020 I was making plans to pursue research in both Japan and North America for the Joryū Hanga Kyōkai exhibition. That quickly became impossible, but I was fortunate to have already received a trove of amazing archival materials related to that artist collective, which I could sort through once I was able to get back into the museum building. After that, it became very much “research by mail” — on the one hand, I was able to secure some fantastic loans for the exhibition that were critical to telling the story; on the other hand, secondary research was virtually impossible, as I had very limited library access. The exhibition opened September 2020. While one of my big regrets is that so few people were able to see it, it was one of the intellectual and personal bright spots for me during a difficult time in the world.

Yoshida Chizuko (Japanese, 1924–2017), Ao no fūkei (Landscape in Blue), 1972, color woodblock print with blind embossing on paper, image: 22 in x 16 1/2 in; sheet: 25 in x 18 3/8 in, Museum Purchase: Funds provided by Asian Art Auction proceeds. Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon, 2016.23.1.

SAM: The Seattle Art Museum is home to nearly 25,000 works of art. What’s one artwork from the museum’s collection that resonates with you? Why?

JK: Choose just one? Goodness, that’s hard. The Deer Scroll, with calligraphy by Hon’ami Kōetsu and decorated paper painted by Tawaraya Sōtatsu, makes my heart sing. Another favorite is Tsuji Kakō’s two-panel folding screen, Green Waves, from SAM’s excellent nihonga collection, for the artist’s deft handling of mineral pigments on silk to explore light on water. It’s stunning in person, and captures that mesmerizing sensation of watching the ocean.

SAM: Is there anything we didn’t ask that you want to share with the public in advance of your lecture?

JK: My lecture will introduce some understudied but wonderfully creative artists. But of course my research is also driven by some deeper scholarly questions about discourse and reparative history, in this case through the lens of gender and art. I consider my work in the area of postwar printmaking to be just one contribution to a larger, ongoing conversation, and it is my hope that these projects will spark questions and critical engagement from other scholars, particularly the younger generation.

Iwami Reika (Japanese, 1927–2020), Mizu no fu 78-H (Song of Water 78-H), 1978, color woodblock print with embossing, gold leaf, and metallic pigments on paper, image: 16 1/8 in x 10 15/16 in; sheet: 20 3/16 in x 14 in, Gift of Marge Carter. Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon, 2018.58.2.

SAM: What’s one book you’d recommend to those interested in learning more about your lecture topic?

JK: Alas, to date there is limited English-language literature focused specifically on the women artists I will discuss in my talk, let alone on the collective conditions that shaped and attended their careers despite their highly individual practices. That said, they are widely collected and have been included in many group exhibitions, catalogues, essays, and academic monographs over the last few decades. But the point is that these artists have rarely been the focus, with a few notable exceptions, such as solo retrospectives (usually focused on artists who have lived abroad). Some broader publications on modern Japanese prints more generally that might be enjoyed by those new to the topic include Made in Japan by Alicia Volk or Hanga by Chiaki Ajioka, or the classics Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn by Oliver Statler and The Modern Japanese Print by James Michener. These last two are still widely available, and I’ll touch on them in my talk.

– Simon Tran, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Seattle Asian Art Museum

Photos: Courtesy of Jeannie Kenmotsu.

Hokusai Smartphone Tour: The Mansion of the Plates

Katsushika Hokusai is renowned for his illustrations of popular Japanese ghost stories. In The Mansion of the Plates, the historic Japanese artist depicts the story of the maidservant Okiku, who was accused of breaking a precious porcelain plate that belonged to the master of the mansion in which she worked. She then either committed suicide by throwing herself into a well or was killed by her enraged master and thrown into the well.

It is said that Okiku’s ghost rises from the well night after night to count the mansion’s plates in a haunting moan: “One… two… three,” followed by a horrible shriek when her count comes up short. In Hokusai’s clever yet unusual version of the scene, the plates themselves rise from the well one after another, making up the snake-like neck of the ghostly head.

Learn more about Hokusai’s artistic interpretation of this supernatural tale from the curator of Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Dr. Sarah Thompson and Tufts University Professor Susan Napier by tuning in to the seventh and final stop of the exhibition’s free smartphone tour. Explore all seven stops on the tour by scanning the QR code adjacent to select artworks in SAM’s galleries or on your own time via our SoundCloud. Don’t miss your final chance to see Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence in Seattle before the exhibition closes at SAM this Sunday, January 21—get your tickets now!

The Mansion of the Plates, about 1831–32

SARAH THOMPSON: Professor Susan Napier teaches international literary and cultural studies at Tufts University. She is known for her comprehensive studies of Japanese comics and animated films, manga and anime, and the connections between present-day popular culture and the floating world of Hokusai’s time. She is especially interested in fantastic and supernatural images such as Hokusai’s ghost prints.

SUSAN NAPIER: What we have in front of us is, even by Hokusai’s unique and extraordinary standards, one of his most amazing prints. This is darker, stranger, and weirder than even his other ghost prints, which are also often pretty dark and strange and weird, ’cause we’re really trying to figure out: What are we seeing? What’s going on here? And we see this creature coming out of what looks like a wooden bucket. It’s actually a well. And it’s female. We can tell that by the hair, the long hair, and the fairly delicate features. But what is that on her neck—or is that her neck?

In fact, they are ceramic plates. They’re dishes. It’s a very famous story. It’s about a young girl, a serving girl named Okiku, and she served in the mansion of a very prominent samurai. At least that’s how the story goes, the most popular version. And this samurai, her master, made advances to her, which she steadfastly rejected. And he did it again, and she still rejected him. And he grew angrier and angrier. So, at one point he decides he’s really going to teach her a lesson, and he breaks one of a set of ten ceremonial, very beautiful, very valuable plates that the mansion owns. And this is actually a major crime in that era. And she could have been punished by death for breaking a plate. He accuses her of having broken the plate. She denies it, says she didn’t do it; he says, “Well, I’m sorry. If you don’t give in to me, I’m going to tell everyone that you broke the plate, and you’re going to be put to death.” So there are two versions of what happens next. One is that she is so upset and traumatized by the whole thing that she plunges into a well in the mansion’s garden and dies. The other one is that he actually throws her into the well in a rage and essentially murders her.

Well, it’s really the most eerie and unique part of this. Apparently after the girl had died, people began hearing strange sounds from the well. And they would come out and they’d hear a girl’s voice counting, and she would be counting, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine.” And you are kind of waiting for her to say ten. And instead of saying ten she gives out this terrible hideous scream. And (laughs) I love stories like that because—Japanese literature and folklore is full of stories of ghosts, and particularly ghostly women. Really, Japanese ghosts tend to be female on the whole. But this one is such an interesting story in that she’s not just revenging herself, which she probably is by haunting the well, but also kind of imploring and asking to be noticed and to be—for people to understand what has happened to her.

This ghost story, the whole story of the plates, is still referred to in modern Japanese popular culture. And you see a—there’s an episode of a very popular anime series called Maison Ikkoku, in which one of the characters dresses up as Okiku and hides in a well one night and ends up not being able to get out and has a lot of misadventures. I think it’s sort of like a Halloween festival kind of thing. But it’s generally comic and quite funny. But if you want a really scary vision that was inspired by this Hokusai image of the plate mansion, you have to look at the very, very popular and very scary Japanese horror film Ringu, or The Ring. Because if you’ve seen it, you’ll probably never forget one of the most important and terrifying images of a young girl with long black hair covering her face, and she’s coming very slowly, climbing out of a well towards you. And it is really a riveting and terrifying scene. And it is absolutely kind of an homage to Hokusai’s picture of the plate mansion.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: The Mansion of the Plates (Sara yashiki), from the series One Hundred Ghost Stories (Hyaku monogatari), about 1831–32 (Tenpо̄ 2–3), Katsushika Hokusai, Japanese, 1760–1849, woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Curator Yayoi Shinoda on the Traditional Japanese Art of Mended Ceramics

SAM’s Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas presents the 2023–24 season of the Saturday University Lecture Series, exploring various topics loosely inspired by the exhibition Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence from the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston at the Seattle Art Museum. On Saturday, January 13, Yayoi Shinoda, Assistant Curator of Japanese Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will offer a discussion on the Japanese tradition of mending damaged ceramics to bring them renewed life. In advance of her talk, SAM spoke with Shinoda about what visitors can expect to learn about in her upcoming talk, how her research on mended ceramics began, and the intimacy of this time-honored practice.


SAM: What can the public expect to learn about in your upcoming Saturday University lecture? What initially drew you to this topic?

YAYOI SHINODA: My presentation will focus on the practice of mending ceramics in Japan’s Edo period (1615–1868). The ceramics I highlight were used in tea practice and cherished by their owners, and their restored bodies embody the care they received. Some repairs were made visible intentionally—with some including gold embellishments—that bestowed a new a significance to the original ceramic work. Today, this practice of visible mending is fondly called kintsugi, and has garnered the attention of scholars from a variety of specialties, including psychologists.

My research on this topic began several years ago when I wrote a term paper for a seminar I took at the University of Kansas. The course focused on the transcultural exchanges between Korea and Japan from ancient times to today. One of the areas I love to research is ceramics, so I decided to study a 16th-century Korean bowl that became a tea bowl in Japan. The large bowl is made of a porous, soft porcelain and features a dramatic repair of golden filling along its body. It is such a fascinating work and I knew I had to learn more about it. I had many questions: What is up with this dramatic change? Why and how did that happen? Are there more examples like this? When did this kind of mending begin? After that semester, I continued to study that bowl and others like it. Eventually, Dr. Halle O’Neal invited me to dive into the topic further. My presentation at this January’s Saturday University will be based on my scholarly article on mended ceramics that was published last year.

SAM: Academic research often involves travel. Is there a travel experience related to your lecture experience that you could share with us?

YS: My research journey took place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, so I could not travel anywhere, not even locally. However, the Nelson-Atkins collection has some ceramics with visible mends, so I was able to study them. Also, thanks to the dedicated librarians, museum colleagues, and other professionals throughout the US and Japan, I was able to access resources remotely. I was fortunate to meet lacquer artists such as Naoko Fukumaru in Vancouver, BC and Gen Saratani in New York via Zoom. And I hope to visit them soon now that we are back to traveling more. Their insights were critical for me in thinking through the meanings of different repair methods and philosophies.    

In assessing the Nelson-Atkins’s collection of mended ceramics side-by-side, I found myself considering the intimate connection shared between the tea bowls and their owners, whose names may be known or unknown to us today. The works also display the owners’ taste and sensibility, which likely guided the mending technique and material choice. Another issue that emerged during my research was how little we know about the people who mended these works or when they underwent their bodily change. Although I intend to introduce a few examples of recovery stories in my lecture, many tea ceramics’ physical transformation processes are unrecorded. This is the focus of my ongoing research and may require me to travel in the coming months. Looking to the future, I would also love to learn more about how tea practitioners in the Edo period used the ceramics they had mended.

SAM: The Seattle Art Museum is home to nearly 25,000 works of art. What’s one artwork from the museum’s collection that resonates with you? Why?

YS: There are three objects in SAM’s collection that pique my interest. One is Tea Powder Container from the Edo period. The bags made of exquisite textiles speak to the immense significance the owner placed on the container, which is important in thinking about human-object relationships. The second example I love is this beautiful Tea Bowl (“Fuji”) by Ryōnyū (Raku IX; Japanese, 1756–1834). The area in which the glazed and unglazed segments meet creates a striking landscape that resembles Mount Fuji. The lens to see this kind of “accidental” effect as a landscape also applies to appreciating mended ceramics’ transformed bodies. Lastly, I want to spotlight Tea Cup, named “Red Plum in Winter,” by Dōnyū (Raku III; Japanese, 1599–1656) because of its charming and carefully mended embellishments made with gold powder. The fine golden lines gently transform the cup’s body, while also testifying to the care it received from its owner.

SAM: What’s one book you’d recommend to those interested in learning more about your lecture topic?

YS: This is a tough question to answer because of the many informative resources that already exist. Here are a few recommendations to get you started:

– Simon Tran, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Seattle Asian Art Museum

Photos: Courtesy of Yayoi Shinoda. Tea Bowl, Japan, late 16th to early 17th century. Glaze stoneware (Karatsu ware) with lacquer mending. Overall: 3 x 5 1/2 inches (7.6 x 14.0 cm). Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 32-62/6. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Tea Bowl, Japan, late 17th century. Stoneware with pinkish white crackle glaze (Gohonde ware) with lacquer mending. Overall: 3 1/2 x 5 5/8 inches (8.9 x 14.3 cm). Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust, 32-62/2. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.

Hokusai Smartphone Tour: White Cyclamen I

As a founding member of the 1970s Pattern and Decoration movement, American artist Robert Kushner favors geometric and floral patterns within his work. Like many of the artists in this movement, Kushner resisted conforming to the minimal compositions that dominated American artistic conventions at the time, opting instead to look beyond the nation’s borders for artistic inspiration. 

His 1999 painting, White Cyclamen I, on view as part of Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston at SAM, features aesthetic resonances from Islamic tile work, Iranian carpets, and Japanese ceramics and woodblock prints. As part of the free smartphone tour of the ongoing SAM exhibition, Kendall DeBoer, Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, spoke directly with the artist about how the work of historic Japanese artists, including Katsushika Hokusai, influenced the creation of this work and many others across Kushner’s oeuvre.

Tune in to this recording blick clicking the link above or by scanning the QR code adjacent to this artwork in the exhibition’s galleries. Listen to all seven stops of the audio tour of Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence via our SoundCloud. The exhibition closes later this month on Sunday, January 21. Don’t miss out—reserve your tickets to see it at SAM before it’s too late!

White Cyclamen I, 1999

KENDALL DEBOER: In the mid-1970s and 1980s, the Pattern and Decoration movement in the United States declared independence from the reigning Western aesthetics of masculinist Minimalism and defied Modernism’s rejection of ornamentation. Reveling in beauty and looking to global influences, Robert Kushner is considered one of the founders of this significant movement in American art. His colorful, blossoming, exuberant, sparkling canvases incorporate transhistorical points of aesthetic reference, including but not limited to Japanese woodblock prints. The magnified florals, like White Cyclamen I, pay homage in particular to Hokusai’s large flower prints.

While working on this exhibition, we were in touch with the artist directly. Thinking about Hokusai and his relevance to contemporary artists, Robert shared the following thoughts, which I will read on his behalf:

“When I look at the flower compositions of Hokusai, and indeed other Japanese masters, I am always drawn to the precision of line, the exactness of observation of the plant forms, and the grace with which they inhabit an open indeterminate flat space. Even more inspiring to me is the intentional and skillful flattening of the drawn lines. A single thin line can enclose the form of a flower’s petal or leaves, allowing the flat, unshaded white paper behind to create a three-dimensional volume. In my own paintings, such as White Cyclamen I, I try to paint with my own version of this manner of engaged, enlivened, observed, accurate, delicate, bold lines. Looking one way, the curving whiplash lines of my cyclamen and its leaves are scattered shapes on the colored surface behind them. But then, there is a magical moment when those lines coalesce into the volumetric form of the living flower that is before me. This is a wonderful lesson to be offered by Hokusai, a Japanese painter and printmaker from two hundred years ago.”

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: White Cyclamen I (detail), 1999, Robert Kushner, American born 1949, oil, acrylic, and gold leaf on panel, Courtesy of the artist and D.C. Moore Gallery, New York, NY.

TAG Talks: A Well-Known Wave and My Newfound Appreciation

SAM’s Teen Arts Group (TAG) is an intensive internship program for high school-aged youth who are eager to learn about themselves and the world through art, and are excited to make SAM a fun and engaging space for teens. TAG members meet weekly from October to May to learn about the behind-the-scenes work of an art museum, lead engaging gallery tours, plan Teen Night Out, and so much more. TAG Talks is an ongoing SAM Blog series on SAM Blog that serves as a space for SAM’s teen leaders to express themselves and their love of art. Keep up with all TAG adventures by following @samteens on Instagram and stay tuned for more TAG Talks to come!

The iconography of the woodblock print Under the Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai, commonly referred to as the Great Wave, is omnipresent.

I was initially turned off by the Great Wave’s ubiquity in the public sphere. Growing up surrounded by lovers of niche art, the Great Wave never struck me as anything special. It’s become so commercialized that even my friends far outside of the art scene have tote bags or stickers sporting the iconic image. Thinking its presence in the media was tacky and overused, I failed to truly look closely or consider the print’s value.

Although I was never the Great Wave’s biggest fan, I am an artist and printmaker myself and love to study Japanese printmaking techniques. I was excited to see the Great Wave’s creator and prolific printmaker Katsushika Hokusai’s work in person in Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence from the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston at the SAM. Anticipating the visit, I told my partner about the exhibition, highlighting everything except the Great Wave. Upon hearing I would see the famous print, he had a much more emotional response than I was expecting. I asked him how the art made him feel. He said, “It feels like ripping.”

The print depicts three boats cradled in the belly of a giant cresting wave framing Mount Fuji. The wave is a great magnanimous force, the boats borrow the ocean’s space. For the moment, the boats seem to become the wave. It is from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, each piece featuring a different landscape framing the mountain. The subjects of the 36 prints interact with the landscape harmoniously, human technology and nature are connected in this beautiful cycle and struggle. The Great Wave stands out from the rest because it is separate from the human ego. The wave doesn’t care what might be in its way; it tears. A beautiful reminder that humans are not gods, we cannot stop a wave from crashing down on us.

The Great Wave reminds us of the physicality and brutality of nature. There’s no room for metaphor or projection onto the ocean—it just is. The wave neither combats nor engages in human invention; it simply exists.

With my cohort of peers in SAM’s Teen Arts Group (TAG), we had the pleasure of learning from teaching artist Juliana Kang Robinson about woodblock carving and printing. I love linoleum carving and have spent years making prints, usually to put on my clothing or bags. Learning wood printing was special to me as there is something magical about how one has to work with the grain of the wood when they carve. It was an extra challenge for me, who was used to the careful precision I could execute on plastic, but it added so much life and character to have places where the wood texture was present. I am so grateful for this experience and encourage teens to not be afraid to branch out into exploring new mediums of art.

– Gwyneth Febus, 18, Third-Year Teen Arts Group Leader

Images: L. Fried. Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki nami-ura), also known as the Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei), about 1830–31 (Tenpō 1–2), Katsushika Hokusai, Japanese, 1760–1849, woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Photograph ©️ Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Hokusai Smartphone Tour: Under the Wave off Kanagawa

If there’s one work by Katsushika Hokusai you’ve definitely seen before, it’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa. More commonly referred to as the Great Wave, this iconic woodblock print has been cited everywhere from book covers to Lego sets, anime, and even an emoji (🌊). To offer a closer look at this infamous print, Dr. Sarah Thompson, Curator of Japanese Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, called in an expert: Dr. Christine Guth.

On the fourth stop of the free smartphone tour of Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence from the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston at SAM, Dr. Guth, author of Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon, explains how this work became a global icon. Put plainly, the Great Wave’s strength is in its broad applicability across time and space.

Many first time viewers of the original print find themselves surprised by its small size, she explains, as the work has been reprinted an infinite number of times in various proportions, skewing our perception of its original size. However, with its commanding depiction of a wave, it’s been interpreted a multitude of ways, including as an expression of the powerful force of nature.

Listen to the recording now for Dr. Guth’s full discussion of the Great Wave. All seven stops on the free audio tour of Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence can be accessed via QR code in SAM’s galleries or on our SoundCloud. The exhibition closes in just over a month—get your tickets to see it before it’s too late!

Under the Wave off Kanagawa, about 1830–31

DR. SARAH THOMPSON: Dr. Christine Guth is one of the most distinguished scholars of Japanese art in the English-speaking world. Her book Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon was a huge help to me in planning this show, and I am delighted that she has agreed to tell us more about it in person.

DR. CHRISTINE GUTH: So, maybe this is the first time you’ve looked at this print in the original. And when you see it in reproductions you have the impression that it’s a huge work of art, but it’s very small. And it wasn’t intended as a unique work of art, but was printed many, many times. There were probably about 3,000 impressions made during Hokusai’s lifetime. It had a huge impact on Hokusai’s contemporaries, but they would’ve looked at it very differently than we do today. For instance, as you look at the print today, probably the first thing you notice is the giant cresting wave with its rather menacing claw-like extensions.

And then, you see the tiny Mount Fuji in the background. Now, certainly Hokusai’s Japanese contemporaries would have seen that as well, but they may have paid more attention than we do to the boats cutting through the waves, because Hokusai intended this image to represent a particular moment in time and place. And what it suggests is boats carrying the first catch of bonito of the season from the fish market in Osaka to Edo, because fresh sashimi made from bonito was a real delicacy.

One of the distinguishing qualities of the series of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji is not only that it shows the mountain from many different vantage points, but it captures it at different seasons and different points in the day. And I think that this print evokes that in the sense that the first catch was usually in the fourth month. That would be May today. So, there’s a very strong seasonal quality to the series. Today when people look at this print, some people see it as threatening and some people see it as an expression of the force of nature. And in fact, that was used very often after the terrible tsunami in Japan in 2011. And one of the great strengths of this print is the way it can speak to so many people across time and space. That’s what’s made this a global icon.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki nami-ura), also known as the Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei), about 1830–31 (Tenpō 1–2), Katsushika Hokusai, Japanese, 1760–1849, woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Photograph ©️ Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Professor Julie Nelson Davis on the Life and Career of Katsushika Ōi

SAM’s Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas presents the 2023–24 season of the Saturday University Lecture Series, exploring various topics loosely inspired by the exhibition Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence from the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston at the Seattle Art Museum. This month, Julie Nelson Davis, Professor of Art History and the Department Chair at the University of Pennsylvania, will offer a discussion on the style, career, and legacy of renowned artist Katsushika Ōi on Saturday, December 9. In advance of her talk, SAM spoke with Nelson Davis about Ōi’s relationship to her famous father and her contributions to his studio, her favorite artwork in SAM’s collection, and more.


SAM: What can the public expect to learn about in your upcoming Saturday University lecture? What initially drew you to this topic?

JULIE NELSON DAVIS: I’m looking forward to sharing my research on Katsushika Ōi, the daughter of the famous ukiyo-e master, Katsushika Hokusai. Some people may be familiar with the Japanese animation, Miss Hokusai, that tells a fictionalized version of her life. I’ll talk about Ōi’s life and work, as we can reconstruct if from period evidence, and investigate possible ways that her contributions to Hokusai’s studio might be further revealed. Much of my previous work has been about women in early modern Japan and about collaboration between artistic producers; I’ve been thinking about Ōi as part of this larger investigation.

SAM: Academic research often involves travel. Is there a travel experience related to your lecture experience that you could share with us?

JND: This research developed out of a project I was doing with the British Museum, and our group met a few times in Washington D.C., London, and Tokyo to discuss our work together, looking at paintings in storage, and viewing the British Museum exhibition on Hokusai in 2017. I also previously had the chance to travel with some colleagues to Obuse, a small town east of Nagano, to visit the Hokusai Museum and the Gansho-in Temple. Hokusai and Ōi traveled to Obuse in the 1840s on an invitation from an acquaintance, Takai Kozan. Kozan built a studio room for Hokusai and Ōi, and we were able to visit the house and see the studio. We also had the chance to look closely at a sketch in the museum’s collection that shows Hokusai’s plan for a painting he designed for Gansho-in, as well as to look at the two famous festival carts with paintings attributed to Hokusai. We then went to the temple to look at the ceiling painting of a magnificent phoenix. It was a beautiful, partly sunny, cold December day, and as we walked from the museum to the temple, we passed many traditional houses where people were drying bright orange persimmons; the rather monotone landscape and the coldness of the day helped me imagine what Hokusai and Ōi’s experience of working in Obuse might have been like. 

SAM: The Seattle Art Museum is home to nearly 25,000 works of art. What’s one artwork from the museum’s collection that resonates with you? Why?

JND: Who can choose just one thing! If I must, I’ll say the Poem Scroll with Deer by Tawaraya Sōtatsu and Hon’ami Kōetsu, the beauty and rhythm of the painting and calligraphy is stunning. I still remember seeing it in storage when I was a grad student, seeing it unroll and glisten under the light. It was gorgeous.

SAM: What is one fact or story related to your lecture topic that the public would be surprised to learn?

JND: Perhaps that it was rare for women to work as professional artists in early modern Japan. Ōi was one of the exceptional cases. Many women worked in the period, but most worked for their family businesses, in shops, or in other roles. Few women had the opportunity to pursue careers as painters, and those that did were typically able to do so only because their husbands or fathers were also painters. (This was also often the case for women in other parts of the world at the same time.) Ōi had the opportunity to learn to sketch and paint in her father’s studio when she was young, becoming quite proficient. She left Hokusai’s studio for a few years to marry another painter, but after their marriage ended, she returned to work alongside her father for the last twenty-two years of his life. 

SAM: What’s one book you’d recommend to those interested in learning more about your lecture topic?

JND: There isn’t one yet! But to learn more about Hokusai, I’d recommend reading Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave (British Museum, 2017) or, of course, seeing the exhibition at the Bowers Museum through January 7, 2024! I wrote a small book as an introduction, Picturing the Floating World: Ukiyo-e in Context (University of Hawai’i Press, 2021) for people curious about the Japanese prints, paintings, and illustrated books in the ukiyo-e genre that might also be of interest.

SAM: Is there anything we didn’t ask that you want to share with the public in advance of your lecture?

JND: I hope that they have a wonderful experience seeing Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence at SAM.

– Simon Tran, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Seattle Asian Art Museum

Photos: Courtesy of Julie Nelson Davis. Night Scene in the Yoshiwara, 1850, Katsushika Ōi, ink and paper drawing, Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo. Poem Scroll with Deer, 1610, Tawaraya Sōtatsu and Hon’ami Kōetsu, ink, gold and silver on paper, 13 7/16 × 366 3/16 in. (34.1 × 930.1 cm) Overall: 13 1/2 x 410 3/16 in. (34.3 x 1041.9 cm), Gift of Mrs. Donald E. Frederick, 51.127, photo: Seiji Shirono, National Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo.

Hokusai Smartphone Tour: Album of Miscellaneous Sketches Including Designs for Artisans

On the third stop on the free smartphone tour of Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence from the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, exhibition curator and Curator of Japanese Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Dr. Sarah Thompson is joined by Michiko Adachi, Bettina Burr Associate Conservator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for a conversation on Katsushika Hokusai’s unintentionally collaborative Album of Miscellaneous Sketches Including Designs for Artisans.

This collection of sketches, although believed to be mostly drawn by Hokusai, was passed between many of the artist’s students and peers, with each contributing new drawings. Learn more about this album and its contents by tuning in to the audio recording above. Then, explore all seven stops on the exhibition’s free smartphone tour on our SoundCloud or by visiting the exhibition in-person at the Seattle Art Museum. Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence closes Sunday, January 21, 2024. Reserve your tickets to see it now in the heart of downtown Seattle!

Album of Miscellaneous Sketches Including Designs for Artisans, about 1830s–40s

DR. SARAH THOMPSON: The Asian Conservation Studio at the MFA are the people who clean and repair the art objects so that they appear at their very best in exhibitions, and who make sure that they are always stored and exhibited in the safest possible conditions. Michiko Adachi, who handles works on paper, will tell you more about an especially interesting object that she has treated.

MICHIKO ADACHI: This book with sketches and preparatory drawings is part of the Hokusai school drawing collection. The collection was believed to have been purchased by William S. Bigelow when he was living in Japan in the 1880s, from Hokusen, who had been a pupil of Hokusai.

These books are immensely fun to look through as each page holds something entirely different, from a more finished drawing, to design work, to even just a small sketch of a mouse. They were probably drawn or added throughout the years by multiple students and artists as drawings were often passed along. For this book, it is thought that a large percentage of the drawings were drawn by Hokusai himself.

These drawings are usually drawn on a thin, translucent paper in black ink, cut and pasted onto a thicker paper bound in a book format. Often you can see the artist making an outline in lighter gray ink before the final sketch, or red ink to place a grid or to make corrections. Artists also made corrections in their drawings by pasting another sheet of paper onto the desired area. The original drawing is usually still visible because the paper is translucent and often not completely pasted down, giving you a glimpse into the artistic process. You can see one of these corrections in the rectangular design work in the bottom right of this book. On the right-hand side, there are three animals surrounding two figures. The artist had initially drawn a circular pattern on the body of the animals, but later decided to change this by pasting a piece of paper on top and then drawing the animals again without the pattern on its body. If you look closely the circular pattern is still visible through the pasted paper.

A grant from the Toshiba International Foundation allowed for the conservation and imaging of a select group of Hokusai school drawings, such as this book, enabling us to share this small but special collection. You can flip through this book on the screen located next to the book.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Image: Album of Miscellaneous Sketches Including Designs for Artisans, about 1830s–40s, Artist unknown, Japanese, ink on paper, mounted in paperbound album, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Reigniting My Passion for Museums: Emerging Arts Leader Thaddeus Gonzalez-Serna Reflects

I grew up going to the Seattle Art Museum. Its annual Día de los Muertos celebrations were a tradition for my family. Alongside my mom and sisters, we’d excitedly hop on the light rail and make the trip to the museum. I was always so excited to see the traditional masks displayed in the galleries—first the ones like my parents made for Día de los Muertos in Mexico, and then other examples from around the world. Taking the escalators to the fourth floor to admire the collection of African masks on view was, and still is, my favorite thing to do at the museum. 

Earlier this year, I traveled to Mexico to visit my grandparents and found myself exploring art museums in my free time. In walking through these spaces and admiring the artworks on view, my passion for museum work—that first sparked during my childhood visits to SAM—was reignited.

With my interest in cultural masks, I was excited to be presented with the opportunity to work on a project related to SAM’s Katherine White collection—composed of over 2,000 masks, baskets, textiles, and other objects from Africa. As I dove into drawers of catalog cards, I discovered how a mask’s story was told through its creators, donor, and eventually museum curators. As an Emerging Arts Intern, I helped to update SAM’s online collections record, eMuseum with useful information about many of the objects in this collection.

As part of my internship, I also contributed to labels for objects on view in Pacific Species. With assistance from the curatorial team, I researched the history of Netsuke (small sculptures which developed as a Japanese art form across more than three hundred years) and its relationship to Japanese myths.

My final contribution as a SAM intern was leading a public tour through the museum’s galleries. It tied together my personal interests and work at the museum with a focus on the objects that have always inspired me: masks. I think the tour nicely encapsulated my internship, as I discussed masks from the Katherine White collection, information I learned from my research alongside the curatorial team, and my personal experience with mask-making at SAM’s Día de los Muertos community celebration.

Being at SAM opened my eyes to the volume of work and coordination goes into operating a museum. I learned so much about how departments interact with one another and the many ways scholars, curators, and the public interpret art, museums, and life itself. Whether it was helping SAM Manager of Teen & Family Programs Nicole Henao develop the itinerary of this year’s Día de los Muertos community celebration, assessing records with former SAM Collection Records Associate Elizabeth Smith in the registrar’s office, or talking about object labels with SAM Photographer Scott Leen and Curator of Oceanic and African Art Pam McClusky, I always felt like a valuable part of the SAM team.

This experience also taught me value of approaching new people and asking more questions. I have grown more comfortable with being put into new situations and reaching out to individuals I wanted to learn from. One of my favorite parts of being at SAM was listening to various staff members discuss their day-to-day work because it was these seemingly mundane conversations that allowed me to develop important networking skills. Looking back on my time at the museum, it’s clear how committed every member of SAM’s staff is to providing the best experience for all museum visitors.

– Thaddeus Gonzalez-Serna, SAM Emerging Arts Leader in Museum Services

Photos: Alborz Kamalizad & Chloe Collyer.

The Great Wave and Beyond: A Look at Katsushika Hokusai’s Life and Legacy

Opening Thursday, October 19 at the Seattle Art Museum, Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence from the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston takes a new approach to the works of esteemed artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), pairing more than 100 of his woodblock prints, paintings, and illustrated books from their renowned collection with more than 200 works by artists around the world that he inspired. 

During the Edo period (1603–1867) in Japan and to the present day, Hokusai’s artwork has dazzled audiences across the globe. Hokusai’s accomplished artistic skills, unique subject matter, and vast production inspired the practices of his students, peers, rivals, and his most talented pupil, his daughter Katsushika Ōi. This exhibition thoroughly explores Hokusai’s legacy, with thematic sections that connect Japanese artforms to Western visual art and design. 

The circulation of ukiyo-e prints across Europe in the 19th century led to increased availability of Japanese prints and books, and by the 1860s, artists and designers such as Félix Bracquemond began incorporating Japanese motifs into the decorative arts in a style known in French as Japonisme. Outstanding examples in the exhibition include earthenware, decorative silver, stained glass, and porcelain—fans of our own Porcelain Room will especially enjoy these works.

A central artwork in the show, Under the Wave off Kanagawa—today celebrated as The Great Wave—is from Hokusai’s bestselling series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (c. 1830 to 1832). No other image evokes nature’s beauty and terrifying power as much as this instantly recognizable print. The three vessels endangered by the rogue wave, with men bent over their oars as they row for their lives, are fish boats delivering their cargo to the markets of Edo. The glimpse of Mount Fuji beyond the curve of the wave—the only visible land in the picture—is a perfect finishing touch and a symbol of hope that the boats will return safely. 

Today, an internet search brings up hundreds of The Great Wave images rendered in different colors, styles, and interpretations. Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence will feature artworks that directly cite the iconic image from prolific artists including Andy Warhol, Lynda Benglis, Yoshitoma Nara, and even a large-scale Lego recreation by Lego-certified professional Jumpei Mitsui. 

From traditional techniques to bold styles, Hokusai challenged the status quo, offered new ways of seeing the world, and expanded society’s collective artistic imagination. This blockbuster exhibition, curated by Dr. Sarah Thompson, Curator of Japanese Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, demonstrates the expansive influence of historical Japanese art on contemporary art.

This article first appeared in the June through September 2023 edition of SAM Magazine and has been edited for our online readers. Become a SAM member today to receive our quarterly magazine delivered directly to your mailbox and other exclusive member perks!

Image: Carp and Iris, about 1808–13 (Bunka 5–10), Katsushika Hokusai, Japanese, 1760–1849, woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Renegade Edo and Paris: A Tale of Two Cities

What do late 18th- to 19th-century Edo (present-day Tokyo) and late 19th-century Paris have in common? This was the question Xiaojin Wu, SAM’s former Curator of Japanese and Korean Art, wanted to explore when she began developing Renegade Edo and Paris: Japanese Prints and Toulouse-Lautrec, her final show for SAM that can only be seen at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. She found intriguing parallels between Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings and the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901). The result is this vibrant exhibition about a shared renegade spirit that flourished in both cities’ urban and artistic cultures.

Both Edo and Paris were facing a multitude of challenges to the status quo from the rising middle classes. In Edo, townspeople pursued hedonistic lifestyles as a way of defying the state-sanctioned social hierarchy that positioned them at the bottom. That mentality contributed to a booming urban culture, which facilitated the massive production and distribution of ukiyo-e (often translated as “pictures of the floating world”). Many of these pictures arrived in France in the 1860s, a time when the French art world and its society at large were undergoing substantial changes. Fin-de-siècle Paris, like Edo before it, saw the rise of anti-establishment attitudes and a Bohemian subculture. Entertainment venues such as the iconic Moulin Rouge emerged in the Montmartre district. Meanwhile, Toulouse-Lautrec and his contemporaries searched for fresh and more expressive art forms, and they found much needed novelty in Japanese prints. 

Toulouse-Lautrec was indebted to Japanese prints, in particular to those by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806); he was often referred to as “Montmartre’s Utamaro.” While many are familiar with the story of Lautrec and his peers drawing inspiration from Japanese prints, this exhibition uncovers the shared subversive hedonism that underlies both Japanese and French prints. Through around ninety choice works drawn from the Seattle Art Museum’s Japanese prints collection as well as loans of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work, this exhibition offers a critical look at the renegade spirit inhabiting the graphic arts in both Edo and Paris, highlighting the social impulses—pleasure-seeking and a rising celebrity culture—behind a burgeoning art production. It is the first time the Seattle Asian Art Museum offers a double take on Japanese and French art in one exhibition—be ready to take it all in!

This article first appeared in the June through September 2023 edition of SAM Magazine and has been edited for our online readers. Become a SAM member today to receive our quarterly magazine delivered directly to your mailbox and other exclusive member perks!

Photo: Alborz Kamalizad.

Mira Nakashima on the Life and Legacy of George Nakashima

“Our approach is based on direct experience—a way of development outward from an inner core; something of the same process that nature uses in the creation of a tree.”

– George Nakashima

This Saturday, March 11, the Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas at the Seattle Asian Art Museum will welcome architect and woodworker Mira Nakashima as part of the 2022–2023 Saturday University Lecture Series. Mira, daughter of celebrated American architect, master woodworkers, and thinker George Nakashima, will discuss her father’s influence and legacy as the founding figure of the 20th century American studio art movement.

As the creative director of George Nakashima Woodworkers, Mira continues her father’s legacy by integrating his deep appreciation and reverence of nature with her own warmth, unmatchable prowess, and ingenuity in incorporating contemporary sensibility into his philosophy. In her upcoming talk, Mira will explore the development of her father’s lesser known spiritual spaces and articulate the ways in which they emphasize his philosophical and personal formation as an architect.

In anticipation of this fascinating lecture, Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, caught up with Mira to discuss what visitors can expect to see, learn, and experience this coming Saturday.


The Nakashima Arts Building in New Hope, PA.

HALEY HA: You are the current creative director of Nakashima Woodworkers. Can you tell us a little bit about your days as the creative director?

MIRA NAKASHIMA: First of all, ‘creative director’ is a term I borrowed from a friend of mine who heads a chamber music group, as I didn’t know what else to call myself.  When I first started in 1970, I was the general ‘gopher,’ doing everything from typing up orders to driving the truck to raking leaves, etc. As time progressed, I learned how to make the shop drawings, got to work in the shop making small objects, and accompanied my father to the sawmill. Following my father’s stroke, I began supervising the work in the shop, and after he died, I had to be responsible for conceptual as well as working drawings. There was always something to be done maintaining the buildings, grounds, and machinery, so that became a part of my job too. And after my mother died, someone had to keep an eye on the accounting. As it was a bit overwhelming for one person to do it all effectively, we hired both a manager and an assistant designer which made life more complicated, but better. As ‘creative director,’ I oversee the creation of all the furniture made here, but I am just one of the many people devoted to preserving our history and craft tradition. I usually have a hand in selecting and pricing wood for every project, create the conceptual and sometimes shop drawings, oversee the final cut lines, base and butterfly placement, and sign each piece before it leaves the shop.

Mira Nakashima at work.

HH: Your father is considered one of the most celebrated woodworkers and architects of the 20th century in the US, Japan, and across the world. As a woodworker and architect in your own right, what do you consider to be the challenges and blessings of carrying out Nakashima’s legacy today?

MN: My father studied architecture at Fontainebleau, France, worked in the office of Antonin Raymond in Tokyo from 1934-38, and was sent to Pondicherry, India in 1936 to build a reinforced concrete building, so he had deep roots in many cultures and countries of the world.

His furniture practice grew in the aftermath of World War II, embracing and manifesting Japanese aesthetic ideals during a time when they were not socially accepted and slowly making his mark along both US coasts. In 1963, my parents sent me to Tokyo to attend Waseda University where I earned a Masters in Architecture. My father went on to join the Minguren group and earned the Third Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Emperor of Japan in recognition of his cross-cultural activities in 1983. After his passing in 1990, his work became ‘vintage’—a part of the renewed interest in 20th-century design worldwide. Auction houses began selling his work both locally and internationally, leading his fame to spread.

It has been a challenge to live up to my father’s legacy and to continue the work as he hoped we would. With his book The Soul of a Tree, originally published in 1981, generations of woodworkers have been inspired to take up the practice, and indeed, to copy his designs. We strive to preserve his original methodology and mindset by working from the pile of wood he collected during his lifetime and hiring younger craftsmen and designers to learn the Nakashima way. Fortunately, we have been able to keep Nakashima alive and well, and we will do our best to keep it going beyond my lifetime.

The Nakashima family.

HH: Your family was forcefully moved alongside over 12,000 incarcerated Japanese Americans to the Minidoka Camp in Idaho when the war broke out. Could you tell us about how this period impacted your father, his work, and your family?

MN: I was a baby when we were incarcerated. My mother was traumatized by the relocation while my father made friends with a highly skilled Japanese carpenter named Gentaro Hikogawa. Gentaro taught my father many that he would not have otherwise learned in developing his craft. Fortunately, in 1943, my father’s employer in Tokyo, Antonin Raymond, had moved to Bucks County and offered to sponsor my father to work on his farm so we did not stay in the camp as long as our other relatives. While in Idaho, my father’s friend, artist Morris Graves, carefully kept our meager belongings in Seattle and returned them all to us when we moved to Pennsylvania to start our new life. My father prophetically called the move a “New Hope” and found many artists in the area to call his friends. He called the incarceration “stupid” but said that eventually, “the wounds healed over and left no scars.”

Golconde, Pondicherry, India, Nakashima Foundation for Peace.

HH: As we know, your father’s sense of spirituality deeply influenced his practice. You’ve previously been quoted as saying that for him, work “was a spiritual calling, a form of prayer.” Can you tell us about a bit more about the relationship between his beliefs and practices and explain a bit more of what you’ll be focusing on in your talk this Saturday?

MN: When my father was working on the reinforced concrete building for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in India, he learned that physical labor was “karma yoga,” no less a yoga than meditating, praying or chanting all day. There, he and the other workers devoted their time to creating a hitherto unimagined place of beauty and peace. When he visited France’s Chartres Cathedral in the 1930s, not only was it an astounding space because of its incredible engineering, beautiful sculpture, and stained-glass windows, but also because it was built over several centuries by people from all walks of life whose only intent was to create a sacred space for the glory of God. In Seattle, my father converted to Catholicism and developed a deep kinship with the Benedictine monks and their monasteries. He volunteered to assist them in not only designing, but helping construct their remote chapels by gathering materials, building technology, and hiring local craftsmen.

George Nakashima with his daughter Mira.

HH: While he considered his work as a spiritual calling, his reverence for materials was remarkable yet practical. For example, could you tell us how kodama—the Japanese belief of offering a second life to a tree—became a central belief to his practice and how it bore the iconic aesthetic of Nakashima Woodwork?’

MN: I do not think the concept of ‘offering a second life to a tree’ is particularly Japanese, but in Shinto, Druid, Native American, and other so-called ‘primitive’ belief systems, inanimate objects like trees, stones, and water are respected not merely as ‘dead’ objects, but as living examples of the Creator. Perhaps my father’s connection to trees was fostered by his early days as a boy scout where he spent long weekends hiking throughout the Pacific Northwest and sleeping amongst the trees. In Japan, the forces and forms of nature are respected, honored, and integrated into everyday life. So, it is perhaps this practice which found voice in the Nakashima aesthetic.

HH: The Nakashima estate in Pennsylvania became a National Historic Landmark in 2014. I’m envious of your beautiful home and curious to know what it is like to live in a space with such powerful intention, art, and legacy?

MN: To me, this is simply the home where I grew up and have worked all of my life. I didn’t realize it was anything special until I returned from my first trip to Japan in 1966, and not until I wrote my book in 2003 that it became clear how groundbreakingly bold the architecture was for its time. It is indeed a responsibility to maintain the property, and to allow limited access so that it does not suffer from too much traffic, while encouraging and educating people about its history. I do not live on the original property, but in a house across the road that my father built for me in 1970, so it is an easy commute but also provides some distance to the place I now call home.

HH: In our ongoing Saturday University Lecture Series, we’ve been exploring the different notions of sacredness within built environments amid our ongoing climate crisis. There seems to be a sense of reverence, deeper recognition, and ecological thinking that is rooted in your father’s practice. Would you agree?

MN: My father built each of his buildings with a sense of economy and ecology that was way ahead of his time. From working in Japan, he instinctively knew the principles of kimon—in Chinese, feng shui—including the auspicious positioning of buildings and usage of the rooms according to its geography, path of the sun, seasons, and source of water on the site. He selected each site because of its south-facing slope and built most of the buildings along the brow of a hill, intentionally leaving an open slope and field in the center. All of his buildings have large expanses of glass to the south, and their carefully proportioned roofs overhang to keep the rooms cool with cross-ventilation in the summer and warm in the winter with solar gain.

George Nakashima’s final project: the Reception House.

On the Pool House, built in 1960, he installed a series of water pipes along the rooftop as a way to heat the shower water by passive solar energy when no one else was even thinking of that. His last building, the Reception House, built in 1975 during the first oil crisis, has a plenum and fan system behind its Franklin stove-like fireplace to heat the entire house. There is also a cook-top on the fireplace hood and an oven compartment in the wall of the fireplace like the old Bucks County farmhouses. There is even a large sunken Japanese bath with water heated by a wood-burning boiler imported from Japan. We are currently working with the University of Pennsylvania to create an overall campus plan which will minimize our dependence on fossil fuels in the future by installing both passive solar and geothermal energy sources, and of course, increasing insulation and minimizing air infiltration without destroying the original design concepts. It’s bound to be an exciting challenge!

HH: Lastly, what kind of legacy would you like to leave behind to the next generations of woodworkers?

MN: Harvest materials sustainably and replant as many trees as possible. Know and respect the woods local to your area and use them whenever possible. Learn to do honest joinery yourself.  Do not imitate forms, but create your own. Remember that less is more; don’t complicate things just to be different.

– Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Asian Art Museum

Photos: Courtesy of George Nakashima Woodworkers.

Noticed: Down The Rabbit Hole

Welcome to Noticed, in which we spot connections among, within, and without the walls of the museum.

The last few years in Seattle, it’s been the talk of gardeners, naturalists, parkgoers, and urban dog walkers alike: What’s up with all these rabbits everywhere?

That question was also the headline of a recent feature in the Seattle Times’ Pacific NW Magazine, in which reporter Brendan Kiley investigated the seeming population boom across Western Washington of the Sylvilagus floridanus, or Eastern cottontail rabbit. His journey brought him to the domain of one very special rabbit: King Bunny.

That’s the name given by SAM staff to a particularly large, healthy, and seemingly prolific rabbit who resides in the Olympic Sculpture Park with his many friends and offspring. Kiley spoke with SAM’s Facilities and Landscapes Manager, Bobby McCullough, about King Bunny and Co.’s frolics around the nine-acre sculpture park, where they chomp on grass and clover, attempt to avoid predators and excited leashed dogs, and, we hope, enjoy the monumental sculptures that fill their home. King Bunny can be tough to spot, so don’t miss SAM’s latest installment of “Botany with Bobby,” our TikTok series exploring the sculpture park, in which Bobby tracks his friend down for all of us to see. McCullough also shared his perspective on what to do—if anything—about their increased presence.

“The park’s S. floridanus population has spiked in the past three or so years, McCullough says, and bunny-noticers have divergent attitudes. Some feel protective, calling for a gardener to ‘Do something!’ if they find a rabbit half-chewed by a raptor. Others regard the critters as a problem, suggesting McCullough set out traps and poison bait. ‘As long as I’m working here, that won’t happen,’ he says. ‘I get more joy from seeing them sunning themselves on the grass than frustration at chewed-down fern fronds.’”

McCullough’s live-and-let-live approach to the rabbits must have had an effect, because once we started seeing bunnies around the sculpture park, we noticed that they were simply…everywhere. Back indoors at the Seattle Art Museum, local artist Anthony White celebrates his Betty Bowen Award win with his solo exhibition, Limited Liability. The artist is known for his densely packed compositions that he painstakingly “paints” with PLA (a melted biodegradable plastic, primarily used for 3D printing). Crammed with recognizable products, name-brand logos, and digital logos, they pull you down the rabbit hole of our increasingly intertwined analog and digital lives. They’re also a few literal rabbits dotting these Y2K-nostalgia landscapes: a self-portrait of the artist in the all-too-familiar pose of gazing at a smartphone screen in bed includes a number of bunnies hopping around his aura like phantoms; up above is a ransom-note scrawl saying, “SILLY RABBIT, YOUR IPHONE STORAGE IS FULL.” And the smallest painting in the exhibition hangs above them all at the entrance like an idol: An Energizer Bunny seen behind a cracked cell phone screen, questioning the relentless pursuits of capitalism.

Of course, bunnies aren’t always harbingers of doom. Kiley’s story also notes the diverse cultural meanings of rabbits: “Old stories characterize the rabbit as arrogant (Greece), cowardly (Tibet), a great warrior (China), tricky (lots of places) and prototypical prey (lots of other places).” He notes their association with fertility in early Christian Europe and their appearance as a resilient “catch-me-if-you-can” figure in Puget Sound stories of Snoqualmie, Puyallup, Muckleshoot and other traditions. SAM’s global collection is a veritable rabbit hunt; one work on view right now at the Seattle Asian Art Museum is a beloved late 19th-century Japanese netsuke of an ivory hare (we know, it’s technically a different species, just go with it) with real amber eyes. Barely an inch all around, it’s a noticeably smaller presence than King Bunny, and it’s not as difficult to spot as it’s protected in a glass case, but in its tiny form and glittering eyes it makes a charming and surprisingly powerful impact. We think it’s wise to keep a close eye… just in case.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Images: Installation view of HYPNOSIS (detail) as part of Anthony White: Limited Liability at the Seattle Art Museum, 2022, Photo: Alborz Kamalizad. Netsuke modeled as a hare with amber eyes, Japanese, late 19th century, ivory, amber, 1 1/16 x 7/8 x 1 1/8 in., Duncan MacTavish Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.438, Photo: Elizabeth Mann.

Object of the Week: Goryeo Celadon

Kintsugi (golden seams or joinery) is the centuries-old Japanese art of repairing ceramics. Through mixing lacquer with powdered gold, silver or platinum, broken pottery is pieced back together—a second life made visible through glistening veins of metal. Like a palimpsest, objects bearing traces of kintsugi reveal a material history and process. Rather than devalue, kintsugi‘s mended fractures imbue a given object with new meaning. Imperfections are embraced and celebrated.

This 11–12th century celadon gourd-shaped bottle, currently on view in Boundless: Stories of Asian Art, illustrates such signs of kintsugi mending. Celadon ware of the Goryeo dynasty is considered a trademark of the period and the main type of ceramics produced. Its variably grey-green and green-blue coloring comes as a result of specific materiality and conditions: “the presence of iron in the clay and of iron oxide, manganese oxide, and quartz particles in the glaze—as well as to the firing conditions inside the kiln.”1

With its unique green hue, delicately incised floral pattern, and pleasantly attenuated proportions, this bottle finds many visual connections within the Color in Clay installation at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. However, unlike the other celadon works in its vicinity, additional streaks of gold set it apart from the rest.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


1 Soyoung Lee, “Goryeo Celadon,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cela/hd_cela.htm.

Images: Celadon ceramics on view in the Color in Clay installation in the exhibition Boundless: Stories of Asian Art, Seattle Asian Art Museum. Photo: Nathaniel Willson.

Seattle Asian Art Museum: Japanese Collection Tour

The recent restoration and expansion of the Seattle Asian Art Museum presented a special opportunity to completely redesign and reinstall the museum’s galleries. For the inaugural installation, Boundless: Stories of Asian Art, SAM’s Asian art curators collaborated to select outstanding artworks which showcase some of SAM’s most significant holdings of Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and South Asian art.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Atsuhiko & Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation, we were able to record a dedicated tour of the Japanese masterworks featured in the museum. Xiaojin Wu, Atsuhiko & Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation Curator of Japanese & Korean Art, leads this tour, which provides a close look at more than a dozen artworks ranging from a new site-specific contemporary installation to ancient works, including several on view in the Atsuhiko & Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Galleries.

Xiaojin welcomes us to the museum under Kenzan Tsutakawa-Chinn’s Gather, the site-specific light sculpture hanging in the Garden Court, and which metaphorically gathers energy from Isamu Noguchi’s The Black Sun, a sculpture sitting outside the museum.

As she makes her way through the galleries, Xiaojin points out a 10th-century sculpture of Tobatsu Bishamonten, a Buddhist guardian figure. Bishamonten stands on the shoulders of Jiten, the earth goddess, in a representation that takes its form from Shinto sculptures. In a gallery focused on sites of worship, Xiaojin discusses the 18th-century screen, View of Mt. Fuji. Mt. Fuji serves as one of the most significant sites for Buddhist and Shinto pilgrimage in Japan, and this beautiful work paints Mt. Fuji from a famous viewpoint in Miho’s pine forest.

Photo: Elizabeth Mann

An integral element of the reinstallation was the decision to organize galleries by theme rather than by country of origin. One telling example can be found in one of our unique vaulted ceiling galleries: a 12th-century Japanese scroll of the Lotus Sutra is placed beside a page of a blue Quran from Tunisia. These works refer to two very different religions, but both use similar materials: gold and silver on indigo dyed paper or parchment. Placed beside one another, their shared visual quality creates an intriguing juxtaposition.

Near the end of the tour, Xiaojin directs our attention to a work acquired by Seattle Art Museum’s founder Richard Fuller. Inspired by a haniwa warrior on view in Treasures of Japan, an exhibition SAM hosted in 1960, and a designated national treasure in the Tokyo National Museum’s collection, Dr. Fuller acquired a similar haniwa for the museum the following year. He proudly called the Seattle haniwa “the brother of the Tokyo haniwa,” as they were excavated at the same time in the 1930s and from the same place in Ōta city, Gunma Prefecture.

Dr. Fuller and Crown Princess Michiko pose in front of the Seattle Art Museum © Seattle Art Museum.

SAM’s collection of Japanese art is one of the finest outside of Japan and one of the top ten in the United States. The 3,400 objects within the collection include significant examples of painting, sculpture, lacquerware, and folk textiles. Thank you to the Atsuhiko & Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation for making it possible for us to create this video tour which allows SAM to better share this incredible collection of Japanese art with not only museum members and local audiences, but with the larger community and art-enthusiasts from across the globe as well. Visit the Seattle Asian Art Museum now to see all the amazing artworks featured in this video.

– Sarah Michael, SAM Director of Institutional Giving

Object of the Week: Form 19-3

“The act of kneading clay and creating shapes connects me to the thoughts and memories deep in my heart.”1

– Fujino Sachiko

Form 19-3, a new acquisition, is now on view in Folding Into Shape: Japanese Design and Crafts. It is a recent work by the Japanese artist Fujino Sachiko (born 1950), who began her art practice in textiles and fashion design, and later studied ceramics under the pioneering artist Tsuboi Asuka (born 1932). Inspired by the abstract ceramic works of avant-garde artists such as Yagi Kazuo (1918–1979), Suzuki Osamu (1926–2001), and Yamada Hikaru (1924–2001), Fujino ventured into ceramics, finding that the medium allowed her to express her artistic ideas most freely.2  

Drawing on her background in fashion design, Fujino manipulates clay as if folding and shaping fabric. This sculpture’s intricate form is built up from geometric shapes, and balanced with irregular folds in gradations of grey. The folds create beautiful silhouettes like those of a dress, such as the one by Issey Miyake also on view in Folding Into Shape. The elegant texture of the surface was created by the application of matte slip through an airbrush.

Image: Xiaojin Wu.

Fujino creates her clay sculptures through the laborious process of coil-building and hand-sculpting without the use of maquettes. With an aim to create works that have a dynamic appearance from different angles, she shapes the clay intuitively and does not know the final form of the work until it is complete. Many of her recent ceramic artworks began with geometric forms but turned into more organic forms in the process. While the biomorphic sculpture takes on a floral form, it also invites the viewer to think beyond petals and blossoms. The artist has remarked: “My interest in the mystery of plants has been deeply rooted since my childhood, even though my work is not a direct image of flowers.” Indeed, seen from above, the sculpture evokes a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe.

– Xiaojin Wu, Atsuhiko & Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation Curator of Japanese and Korean Art


1 Online exhibition catalogue, Forming a Voice, www.mirviss.com/exhibitions/forming-a-voice, p. 3.

2 Interview with the artist produced by Joan B Mirviss LTD in April 2021: https://vimeo.com/551679336.

Image: Form 19-3, 2019, Fujino Sachiko, Stoneware with matte glaze in white and gradations of grey, 19 1/2 x 18 1/8 x 17 3/4 in., Purchased with funds from Gordon Brodfuehrer in honor of the Monsen Family, 2021.19 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Object of the Week: Wintry Sky

Snow in Seattle on the winter solstice provides a fitting backdrop for this work by Japanese artist Higashibara Hosen. Titled Wintry Sky, it encapsulates the subtle contradictions of the season and serves as a timely reminder that winter is officially here.

In the seemingly desolate scene, an angular, near leafless tree trunk and its rhizomatic branches energetically frame an overcast sky (one all too familiar for us in the Pacific Northwest). Bathed in a diffuse gray-yellow light, the moment has all the qualities of early morning. And while much is indeed dormant at this time of year, the tree is enlivened by seven chickadees—so enlivened you can almost hear their song. In this way, the painting brings to mind a wonderful line from Rumi: “And don’t think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter. It’s quiet but the roots are down there riotous.”

Wintry Sky (detail)

Painted in the 1930s, Hosen used a “boneless” wash technique (mokkotsu), meaning that it was painted without the use of ink outlines. A detail offers a better look at his masterful use of ink, capturing both the delicate softness of feathers and gnarled age of bark. This painting technique was characteristic of his mentor, nihonga master Takeuchi Seiho, whose paintings of the natural world informed Hosen’s own approach to painting nature.

Though it may appear somber and subdued, Hosen’s painting also embodies much of what is important about the winter season. Though a fallow period, winter is a time for hibernation and repair, rest and rejuvenation. It is a time for turning inward and looking to the natural world for hope and techniques for survival.

As in the words of William Carlos Williams:

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

Image: Wintry Sky, 1930s, Higashibara Hosen, ink and light colors on silk, 70 7/8 x 40 5/16 in., Gift of Griffith and Patricia Way, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2010.41.72 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Mask for Tengu

These days, people are wearing masks everywhere you look. Bandanas, medical paper masks, fashionable masks with elaborate designs, face shields—there are many ways to wear our masks while expressing ourselves. Me, I love my mask with sharp teeth on the front, for an extra bit of Halloween in December. SAM, too, has its fair share of masks, and one of my favorites in the collection is the Mask for tengu, a Japanese festival mask depicting the maliciously grinning face of a tengu.

Tengu are one of the more famous youkai, or mythical creatures, in Japanese lore. Depicted as bird-men either with beaks or long noses, they are figures of dangerous cleverness that will either teach you magical secrets or abduct and torment you. They have an array of abilities including fire and wind manipulation, flight, and otherworldly swordsmanship. They are said to live deep within the mountains and forests of Japan, and many shrines that worship tengu are similarly placed. Interestingly, these are one of the few youkai to have come about with Buddhism, as they often tempted Buddhist priests and posed as mountain ascetics in old tales.

The tengu mask in SAM’s collection is one that would have been worn during festival processions. Festivals in Japan are often lively and bright affairs with elaborate costumes and parades, with dancers balanced on floats. It’s likely that someone in the past wore this mask as they pretended to be a fearsome tengu, playfully frightening the children watching. It’s equally likely that in Japan today, someone is wearing another tengu mask and doing the same. There are tengu festivals held all over Japan, from Tengu Matsuri on Mt. Tengu in Hokkaido, to the Shimokitazawa Tengu Festival in Tokyo. While the tengu Matsuri is a more traditional affair, the Shimokitazawa festival is a modern take on setsubun, where beans are thrown to ward away evil. People dressed as tengu take to the streets, visiting shops and homes to throw their beans of evil’s bane to bring good luck and fortune.

Although SAM and the Asian Art Museum are temporarily closed, when they reopen, head on over to see the Mask for tengu on view. It, and many other masks and youkai-depicting items will be on display! In the meantime, everybody continue to mask up, and stay safe.

– Kennedy Simpson, Former SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art

Image: Mask for tengu, 18th-19th century, Japanese, wood and brass, 10 1/8 x 7 1/2 x 13 1/2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 45.104

Object of the Week: Untitled

In honor of Women’s History Month, Object of the Week will highlight works by celebrated women artists in SAM’s permanent collection throughout the month of March.

Broad black strokes cut across paper, precise sweeps of motion that hold bold strength. Ink trails downward in sharp ribbons dissolving into mist, which run down into watery pools. The shape is abstract, yet gives a sense of dynamism and flow that fully utilizes the monochromatic black that it’s painted in. This piece, left untitled by abstract artist and calligrapher Toko Shinoda, is not intended to have specific form. Instead it seeks to capture a feeling, although what that feeling may be, we’ll never know for certain. Each piece of art she makes is a piece of herself, and each is made meticulously to reflect the “her” that painted it.

At around 107 years old, Shinoda has had a lot of “her” to paint. The daughter of a calligrapher herself, Shinoda has been using a brush and sumi ink since she was six, and has not stopped using them since. For the first 40 years of her life, she focused on calligraphy; an art form traditional to Japanese women, as well as one of few career paths initially open to them. She was extremely successful and exhibited her works all over Japan. The more Shinoda created, the more abstract her pieces became. This resulted in a shift toward Abstract Expressionist art after an exhibition in New York in 1953. Having spent so much of her career trying to strictly copy the work of master calligraphers, she was impressed by the formal freedom of American artists. Abstract Expressionism, she felt, was what she really wanted to achieve with her ink.

Since then, Shinoda has gained international acclaim for her prolific melding of traditional and modern approaches. However, despite her fame, she denies all awards and recognition. Time magazine might write about her, museums may acquire her work and display them in a place of high regard, but she will not take any titles or cash gifts for her accomplishments. The only honor she has accepted is a set of stamps: hers are the first artworks by a living artist to be featured on official Japanese stamps.

Even now, Shinoda paints every day to keep her art, and herself, alive. It is said that all artists go through a process called 守破離 (shu-ha-ri) in their lifetimes. The “shu” being adherence to art form and tradition, the “ha” being a departure from it. Shinoda embodies the final step, “ri”: transcendence through focus and mastery that allows for creative freedom. Still, even though Shinoda is free in her creation, she refuses to be satisfied by the style she developed, and strives to master delicacy in her work. Discontented with safety in art, she will always paint things that require precise balance, capturing that fleeting moment of experience and self.

– Kennedy Simpson, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art

Image: Untitled, 1965, Toko Shinoda, lithograph, 25 3/4 x 19 7/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 66.11 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Rat water dropper

Made from ceramic, bronze, copper, or even jade, water droppers are small vessels used in calligraphy and brush painting. Designed with two small holes, one for adding water and one for dispensing water, only a few drops fall out at a time—a crucial feature when preparing liquid ink, which involves grinding a stick of ink against an inkstone with water.

Though an unassuming instrument, water droppers have a long history. The earliest known examples of Chinese water droppers can be dated to the 5th and 6th centuries, while Japanese water droppers date to the 8th century. Centuries later, during the Edo period (1603-1868) and into the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japan saw the emergence of more complicated water droppers in various shapes and sizes, ranging from plants and deities to animals and fruits.

Such decorative droppers became popular accessories for the nobility and literati, and were often inscribed or made in auspicious forms. The zodiac animals are a set of calendar symbols that came to Japan from ancient China, and their representation served to invoke good luck and prosperity. This 19th-century dropper in SAM’s collection, modeled in the shape of an undeniably expressive and charming rat (the first animal in the zodiac), was likely intended to symbolize success, creativity, and intelligence.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Water dropper modeled as a rat, 19th century, Japanese, bronze, 1 5/8 x 3 1/2 x 1 7/8 in., Gift of Frank D. Stout, 92.47.119

Exceptional & Ordinary / Tsutakawa & Mingei

The Japanese art gallery at SAM’s downtown location was recently reinstalled with a focus on the Mingei movement in Exceptionally Ordinary: Mingei 1920–2020, on view through Novemeber 8, 2020. Initiated in the 1920s by the Japanese collector and connoisseur Yanagi Soetsu (1889–1961), Mingei elevated functional, everyday crafts to art objects. Since its foundation, Mingei’s broad applications range from mid-century decorative arts to contemporary designs, ceramics, textiles, sculptures, and prints, examples of which are hanging in our gallery. Prominently featured, are works by the late Seattle-based artist George Tsutakawa on loan from the George Tsutakwa Art Legacy. The Tsutakawa family share below about George’s inspiration and how his furniture fits in the installation at SAM!

George Tsutakawa began to build bronze fountain sculptures in 1961 with the installation of his first fountain at the Seattle Public Library. He eventually created 75 fountain sculptures in the United States, Canada, and Japan. The fountains reflect his intense interest in the cyclical flow of water from the heavens to earth, creating rivers and oceans that nourish life. His basis of humanity in the Shinto religion indicated reverence for life in all forms made by nature, such as trees and rocks. 

Tsutakawa’s professional art career spanned 60 years. He was a professor of art at the University of Washington for 37 years. In his personal statement from The Pacific Northwest Artists and Japan in 1982, he expressed that sometime in the 1960s his travels and studies of traditional Japanese arts allowed him to reaffirm his “conviction in the Oriental view of nature school which sees Man as one part of nature, a part that must live in harmony with the rest of nature.” 

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Thus Tsutakawa’s furniture from the 1940s and 1950s reveals this conviction to nature within his art and serves as the starting point for his later artistic forms. Although he was a modernist, even in his furniture forms, his work relates to the Japanese Mingei movement, which is largely based on traditional and folk art.

Tsutakawa’s early furniture is functional and evokes a connection to nature through fluid organic shapes and materials. 

The Tsutakawa family is currently reorganizing the artist’s collection with the hope of preserving his work and making it more open to the public as well. You can visit SAM to see Tsutakawa’s artwork in Exceptionally Ordinary: Mingei 1920–2020, on view through November 8, 2020.

– Mayumi Tsutakawa & Chyenne Andrews

Images: Installation view Exceptionally Ordinary: Mingei 1920–2020, Seattle Art Museum 2019, photos: Nina Dubinsky. Kizamu Tsutakawa 

Object of the Week: Time-(B)

Two identical, white clocks sit on a scale. One—reading 12:15—appears the heavier of the two, sitting ever so slightly below its counterpart at 12:04. Of course, the minute discrepancy (pun intended) between the weights of the two clocks—correlating with their respective times—is impossible, but the power of the photographic image lies in its ability to convince us otherwise.

Ever a master of the conceptual punchline, photographer Kenji Nakahashi plays with our interpretation of time and its assumed objectivity. His longstanding interest in the documentary value and, again, assumed objectivity of photography—a time-based medium—is also at play, and clearly inextricable. In his characteristically understated way, Nakahashi tackles the subjectivity of both time and photography in one fell swoop.

Born in present-day Ibigawa, Japan, Nakahashi moved to New York City in 1973, where he lived until his death in 2017. His time in Japan was formative, but living and working in the United States is where Nakahashi developed a robust studio practice centered on everyday objects and materials. This is when he began turning the mundane—such as two clocks and a scale—into a source of poetic beauty, conceptual rigor, and humor. For Nakahashi, such small observations and actions became an important activity that allowed him to render the world anew.

Elisabeth Smith, Collection and Provenance Associate

Time-(B), 1980, Kenji Nakahashi, ektacolor print, sheet: 11 x 14 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Kazuo Kondo, 95.35 ©Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Tsuba

A tsuba is a hand guard of a Japanese sword, mounted between the handgrip and the blade, to protect the user’s hand. Either carved or molded, they also help balance the sword, which is comprised of a number of complicated—but equally important—components.

While highly practical in its purpose, there is, as with all things, room for ornamentation and embellishment. This 19th-century example in SAM’s collection, made of copper alloy with gold and silver inlay, depicts an elegant nighttime landscape. Under the arc of the crescent moon, the spray of gold plants and flowers appear to be basking in the moonlight, also gold.

Prior to the 17th century, the functionality of a tsuba was more important than its decoration. From the 17th century onward, tsuba became more elaborate, with carving and molding techniques more sophisticated. Designs on tsuba—such as this one—often draw their subject matter from Japanese folklore and nature, and importantly signal the status of the sword’s owner.

Currently, on view in SAM’s third-floor galleries, this tsuba is part of the exhibition Gentleman Warrior: Art of the Samurai, which explores lesser-known aspects of samurai culture, including patronage of the arts. From the tea ceremony to Noh theater, the samurai class helped advance various artistic practices in the service of showcasing both their military might and cultural prowess.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Image: Tsuba: Plants in Landscape and Moon in Inlay, 19th century, Japanese, copper alloy with gold and silver inlay, 2 5/8 x 2 1/2 x 3/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 34.95. Photo: Elizabeth Mann

Object of the Week: Crow

In 2016, the Seattle Asian Art Museum invited acclaimed Japanese artist Tabaimo to study the museum’s collection and curate an exhibition. The resulting presentation, Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi, was based on the concept of utsushi, which literally means “copying or paying homage to a master’s work.” Tabaimo selected several historical objects from SAM’s Asian art collection to present alongside her own work, some of which she produced specifically for the show. The last gallery of the exhibition featured the museum’s beloved pair of 17th-century Crows screens and Tabaimo’s response, a video installation that imagines new possibilities for the screens’ depicted action.

The subject of the Crows screens is a murder[1] of black-feathered birds set against squares of gold leaf. Descending en masse from the top left-hand corner of each screen, the crows wind their way down to a rocky crag along the bottom edge. In photographs of the screens, the birds appear as silhouettes, though an in-person viewing reveals the unique texture of each creature’s feathers, eyes, beak, and claws. The dynamism of the scene is created through the movements of the individual crows. In some places, they fly towards each other, suggesting an impending clash; in the upper right-hand corner, two birds take part in a midair tussle; and even those grounded crows spread their wings, look about, and caw. 

In Tabaimo’s video utsushi of Crows, the birds are flattened into black silhouettes floating against a background of gold squares. Here, the squares take part in the action too. One by one, they sink into the pictorial space revealing rectangular hollows into which the feathered-beasts fly. An exhibition text explains:

In Japanese culture, it is a custom to tidy things up at the end of an event. Crows are often associated with untidiness because they look for food among garbage and create litter. Tabaimo does not intend for us to leave the gallery with a clear understanding of the exhibition, but rather, she would like to invite lively discussions by ending it in an ambiguous way, just as the crow brings untidy debris.[2]

– Murphy Crain, Asian Art and Gardner Center Coordinator

[1] Not a killing! A group of crows is called a murder.
[2] Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi exhibition brochure
Images: Crow, 2016, Tabaimo, single-channel video installation, 4 min. 10 sec., Asian Art Acquisition Fund, 2017.5 ©Artist or Artist’s Estate. Crows, early 17th century, Japanese, pair of six panel screens; ink and gold on paper, 61 9/16 x 139 5/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 36.21.1.

Conserving SAM’s Asian Art Collection

Thanks to funding from Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project, a pair of important 17th-century Japanese screens, Scenes in and around the Capital, are currently being restored by specialists at Studio Sogendo, a private studio in California. The screens, likely created by a machi-eshi, or “town painter,” present a panoramic view of Kyoto during the Edo period. They show both Kyoto’s center and its periphery, and give insight into the daily lives of different social classes, in addition to representing seasonal festivals.

When the screens first arrived at SAM in 1975, they were already in fragile condition and by the time this conservation work began in 2017, extensive repairs were desperately needed. Painted using ink, color, and gold, and mounted on wooden frames, the screens are being restored using traditional Japanese methods and materials. I was able to visit Studio Sogendo while one of the panels had been stripped of its backings and laid on a light table, allowing a rare perspective of the materials and quality of the painting. The conservation treatment has been invaluable, not just in terms of preserving the paintings, but also in offering opportunities for examination and study. The internal frames must be replaced and expert craftsmen in Japan made new custom frames for the work. The incredibly precise joinery of the new frames can be seen in these images. The conservation phase of the project is nearing completion and the reassembly of the structure, replacement of the mount fabrics, and retouching of the areas of loss is underway.

 

This crucial project would not be possible without Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project, one of few programs dedicated to preserving historically or culturally significant artworks. We look forward to the return of Scenes in and around the Capital, which will be on view among SAM’s extensive Asian art collection when the Seattle Asian Art Museum reopens in late 2019!

– Nicholas Dorman, SAM Chief Conservator

Talent among Beauty at SAM

Downtown, we have two galleries dedicated to Chinese and Japanese art. So, while the Seattle Asian Art Museum is temporarily closed, get your fill of Asian art with the latest installation, Talents and Beauties: Art of Women in Japan, on view through July 15, 2018. “We know women as subjects; we see that all the time in artwork,” says Xiaojin Wu, SAM’s Curator of Japanese and Korean Art. “But to look at women as artists in addition to as a subject of art—that’s what you’ll see evidenced here from the 11th to the 21st century.”

The heart of the installation features artworks inspired by The Tale of Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu in the 11th century and debated as the first novel ever written, the illustrations of this literary masterpiece may not be by women, but as Wu states, “How many women writers do we know from 1,000 years ago? How many artworks have been made from every scene in The Tale of Genji, including the contemporary manga? It’s just countless. In a way we are attributing all of these wonderful works back to the original writer, the woman who wrote the tale.” The two pages below excerpt the scene depicted in the right-hand panels of the screen above.

This excerpt and the page below refer to the right-hand panels of the image above.

Murasaki Shikibu wrote The Tale of Genji to entertain the members of her court. Because of this, it was written in an archaic court language that was little used and quickly lost to Japanese speakers. This accounts for one of the reasons why there are so many illustrations of the tale—as a classic piece of literature, the tale continued to be told in images and annotations across the centuries until in the 20th century when it was first fully translated into modern Japanese.

 

The Tale of Genji follows the life of  Hikaru Genji, the son of an ancient Japanese emperor, and his many romantic endeavors. Featuring over 400 characters that age throughout the book and whose family lineages are often intertwined, Genji is considered a feat of characterization consistency for having been written in installments of chapters over a long period time. Although the book does not have what we might consider a plot nowadays (events simply take place and the characters age), it is one of the first pieces of literature to feature a protagonist, supporting characters, strong characterization, and a sequence of events following the lifetime of the main character.

Xiaojin Wu is planning “. . . a sequence of installations that look at various patronage and audience groups. Following Talents and Beauties we’ll focus on aristocrats, and then samurai.” Make the time to visit this gallery for new perspectives on Asian art and culture.

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Content Strategist and Social Media Manager

Images: Installation view Talents and Beauties: Art of Women in Japan, 2017, Seattle Art Museum, photo: Natali Wiseman.
Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji,  trans. Royal Tyler (New York: Viking Press, 2001)

Object of the Week: Woman Selling Flowers

There’s something intimate about this hanging silk scroll by Japanese artist Ito Shōha. In the rural scene we see a young working woman, in layers of white and indigo-dyed clothing, carrying freshly cut flowers. These details help her appear specific, individual. Set against a hazy ochre background and soft green leaves, her unassuming beauty is echoed throughout the bucolic image. Modest in both style and composition, this unpretentious scene might appear banal to today’s viewers, but it is exactly this ordinariness that makes the work radical.

Woman Selling Flowers

Shōha—one of the leading artists of her day—painted Woman Selling Flowers in the mid-1920s. This work reflects many of the artistic changes that took place during the Taishō (1912–1926) and early Shōwa (1926–1989) periods in Japan. On the heels of the Meiji Restoration, the Taishō era in particular saw years of unprecedented cultural transformation. Many artists during this time were exposed to Western art, and their exposure resulted in a shift away from the conservative artistic traditions that defined previous generations.

This painting by Shōha is best categorized as bijinga, a traditional Japanese genre that takes up beautiful women as its subject. Bijinga most often depicts geishas and courtesans, and helped establish an ideal standard of female beauty in Japan. In Woman Selling Flowers, however, Shōha offers up a more modern take on the genre, naturalistically representing a middle-class woman from Shirakawa (a northeast suburb of Kyoto) conducting her daily business.1 Absent are the highly stylized elements that typify bijinga, such as hair, dress, and makeup. Rather than representing an idealized female form, the woman here appears beautifully ordinary.

Shōha’s brand of bijinga was met with critical acclaim for depicting the contemporary life of women without idealization.2 No doubt her own experiences as a woman informed the treatment of her subject in Woman Selling Flowers, and earned her a leading role as a bijinga artist. Shōha’s intimate—and authentic—focus on the daily life of women in Japan connects this scroll to the other works on view in Talents and Beauties: Art of Women in Japan, the newest installation on view in our Japanese galleries. A visit to Talents and Beauties offers an important and wide-ranging glimpse into the diverse ways women are represented in Japanese art, and many works, such as this one, carry larger social and political significance.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

Image: Woman Selling Flowers, late 1920’s, Ito Shōha, ink and colors on silk. 84 1/2 x 22 7/8 in., Gift of Griffith and Patricia Way, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2010.41.56
1 Michiyo Morioka and Paul Berry, Modern Masters of Kyoto: The Transformation of Japanese Painting Traditions (Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1999), 268.
2 For more on the life and work of Ito Shōha, please see Morioka and Berry, 266-267.

Object of the Week: Basket in the shape of a boat

Most days at SAM, this bamboo Basket in the shape of a boat draws attention only for its remarkable artistry and creativity. The maker shows an ability to see the life inside the bamboo, and then to channel it toward the creation of a symbol—the boat—and a form—the basket. The medium seems to effortlessly transform: In places it’s gnarled like wood, or frayed like raffia, or braided like rope, always contributing to the total picture of boat-ness. The piece was produced in Japan during a 20th century revival of interest in traditional Japanese craft, when bamboo baskets gained an elevated importance in the country’s artistic production. As fine an artistic example as it is, this week, it takes on another meaning as a reminder of a dark period in U.S. and world history.

Basket in the shape of a boat (detail)

The day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a now famous Declaration of War address (you can listen to it here):

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.

Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday, the Japanese government also launched an attack against Malaya.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked Guam.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.

Last night, the Japanese attacked Wake Island.

And this morning, the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.

World War II brought about all kinds of terrible things, including racial conflict. Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt on February 14, 1942, authorized military authorities to exclude “any and all persons” from designated areas of the country as necessary for national defense. In practice, the government targeted only Japanese resident aliens and Japanese Americans. The U.S. government uprooted more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry from homes and placed them under armed guard for up to four years. Sixty-five percent of these people were American citizens (these statistics according to the Smithsonian Institute).

A local connection to that dark time exists, too: Exclusion Order Number 1, issued on March 24, 1942, dictated that all Japanese resident aliens and Americans of Japanese ancestry on Bainbridge Island be removed under military guard. Herded into one of 10 camps in geographic isolation, these and other Japanese Americans endured the war in terrible conditions until the mass imprisonment came to an end in December of 1944. The formal ceremony that communicated Japan’s surrender took place on September 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

There was a lot of healing to be done, to say the very least, and in the years following the war, SAM played its role in bringing about a rapprochement between the Japanese American community and the many other people groups that make up our nation.

Already by the fall of 1949, SAM assistant director Sherman Lee was in communication with the Osaka-based Fujikawa Gallery about acquiring historical Japanese art. The gallery certainly had in mind that brokering art deals would contribute to a development of mutual understanding between Japan and the U.S.:

“As you know, we Japanese are now making great efforts with renewed stamina to rehabilitate our post-war country as a genuinely cultural one, having it always in view to contribute towards the establishment of world peace. It is our sincere wish, above all, to have you fully understand and appreciate our Japanese fine arts, thereby to promote our international relationship of goodwill and the interchange of cultures on both sides.”

Letter from Sherman Lee to Fujikawa

Fujikawa’s response is below.

Response from Fujikawa to Sherman Lee

Response from Fujikawa to Sherman Lee

For Lee’s and SAM’s part, engaging with Fujikawa at least demonstrates a lack of the xenophobic fear that inspired war-time decisions like the internment camps.

In the summer of 1951, SAM hosted its first post-war exhibition of Japanese art. From May 9 through June 3 of that year, visitors to the Volunteer Park museum could enjoy Paintings by Japanese Children, a show organized by the Japan-American Society of the Younger Generation in Japan. Two years later, an exhibition that was quite a bit more ambitious came to Seattle.

Dr. Fuller with Consul Saito of Japan at the opening of the 1953 exhibition

The Official Japanese Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture, on view July 9 through August 9, 1953, marked a very important moment for the museum, as it became the site of a highly publicized international exhibition. In its 20 years, SAM had previously hosted one such international show—on the art of India, in 1944—but the 1953 Japanese exhibition became its most important display yet. The museum was open seven days a week for the running of the show, bringing in paid attendance of over 57,000 and a total attendance of more than 73,000. In order “to help defray the heavy expense of this exceptional exhibition,” director Dr. Richard Fuller imposed a stiff charge of an additional 50 cents for entry. Below, you can see Dr. Fuller with his wife Betti (they were married in 1951) and visiting dignitaries, accompanying a truck full of the Japanese artworks and, in a darn questionable move, drawing all kinds of attention to their cumulative value.

Japanese exhibition mobile ad

More important than its effect of raising the museum’s visibility on the local and international stages, the 1953 exhibition communicated a sense of solidarity. At a time when racist thinking toward Japanese Americans definitely lingered, the show offered a peace branch, encouraging people from diverse backgrounds to engage and enjoy Japan’s fascinating art culture.

From my perspective, that remains the hope for SAM today: to be a meeting place for people where, through thoughtfully and artfully made objects, we can learn to appreciate each other better.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Basket in the shape of a boat, 20th century, Japanese, bamboo, 13 3/4 x 23 1/2 x 12 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Esther Rose Fallick. Basket in the shape of a boat (detail). Letter from Sherman Lee to Fujikawa. Response from Fujikawa to Sherman Lee. Dr. Fuller with Consul Saito of Japan at the opening of the 1953 exhibition. Japanese exhibition mobile ad.

Grant brings new books to the McCaw Foundation Library

The McCaw Foundation Library at the Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park is open to all museum staff, docents, volunteers, members, and the general public. As one of SAM’s three libraries, the McCaw Foundation Library specializes in research materials supporting the museum’s Asian collection and exhibitions that occur at the Asian Art Museum. Anyone with an interest in the visual arts of Asia will appreciate the outstanding collection.

New Book at McCaw Library

The SAM Libraries’ holdings number nearly 60,000 items, with more than a third of those being available at the McCaw Foundation Library. These materials include: books, exhibition catalogues, auction catalogues, serials, videos, and electronic publications, many of which are in Asian languages. These materials support research on objects in the permanent collection, research for special exhibitions, assist in docent-led tour preparation, and provide general information about the history of art in Asia.

The Museum’s general operating funds are the primary source of financial support for the McCaw Foundation Library. When the need for additional funding arises, the museum staff collaborates in sourcing the necessary funds.

Histories of Modern and Contemporary Japan through Art: Institutions, Discourse, Practice

Associate Librarian for Asian Art, Yueh-Lin Chen, recognized the need for additional resources in the library’s reference collection, specifically in the areas of Japanese and Korean art. With guidance from Xiaojin Wu, Curator of Japanese and Korean Art, and assistance from Librarian Traci Timmons, Ms. Chen applied for a grant from The Metropolitan Center for Eastern Art Studies. Founded under the auspices of the Harry G. C. Packard Collection Charitable Trust, and based at Hosomi Museum in Kyoto, Japan, the Center provides grants for advanced scholarship in the arts of East Asia.

The museum staff’s collaborative effort was successful and the library received a generous grant from the Center, allowing purchase of important resources on Japanese and Korean art. These books will significantly enhance the collection and are available for use in the McCaw Foundation Library. Examples of materials purchased with this grant money are shown below. Visit us to see others and discover the many other exceptional resources the McCaw Foundation Library has to offer.

Kate Nack, Library Volunteer, McCaw Foundation Library for Asian Art

Object of the Week: The Poem of Ariwara no Narihira (Ariwara no Narihira Ason)

Unheard of
even in the legendary age
of the awesome gods:
Tatsuta River in scarlet
and the water flowing under it.

(Poem by 9th-century poet Ariwara no Narihira; translation by Joshua Mostow, from Pictures of the Heart: The Hyakuni Isshu, in Word and Image).

We’re welcoming the first week of fall here in Seattle. The Autumnal Equinox—when night and day are nearly the same in length, and summer officially gives way to fall—took place Wednesday, September 23. Most people won’t be checking their calendars for that date, but instead will know the change by the fresh chill in the air and the striking color contrasts we start to see in nature. It’s my favorite season for the beauty and the change visible all around us.

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate fall. Long before the term “fall” was coined, and also before the French-derived “autumn” entered the vernacular, the same season was known simply as “harvest.” It meant a time of reaping, gathering, enjoying abundance, and cozying up for winter.

The collection at Seattle Art Museum includes a memorable homage to fall: a print work by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). One of the most important producers of ukiyo-e, a grouping of woodblock prints from Japan’s Edo period (1615-1868), Hokusai is represented by 27 works at SAM, including prints and ink drawings on paper and silk. Through the aesthetic in his work, Hokusai became an important influence on the European Impressionists. Seattleites and our visitors will have the opportunity to see many of the best of the Impressionists in the upcoming exhibition, Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art, opening October 1.

Hokusai’s tribute to fall, The Poem of Ariwara no Narihira (Ariwara no Narihira Ason), gives visual form to the poem at the top of this post. There’s a lot happening in the print. Blue-green hills set a backdrop in the distance while auburn leaves rise above them. The color contrasts that we identify with fall are beautifully visualized here. Closer to us, several pairs of figures are bustling about—active, but also joyful in their work. Beaming smiles match the visual warmth of the scene. A flowing river cuts across the landscape with an infectious life and energy, carrying a bunch of colorful maple leaves with it. Both the print and the poem that inspired it capture the sense of mystery and magic surrounding the cycle of the seasons. It’s a phenomenon beyond our control that informs everything—how we work, play, dress, and live.

Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

To learn more about this artwork and other treasures in SAM’s collection, visit our website.

IMAGE: The Poem of Ariwara no Narihira (Ariwara no Narihira Ason), ca. 1838, Katsushika Hokusai, Japanese, 1760-1849, woodblock print: ink and color on paper, 10 1/4 x 14 3/4 in., Gift of Mary and Allan Kollar, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2010.47.5.
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