To Cut or Not to Cut

The central feature of a suiseki art piece is a found object – a stone – that has been shaped entirely by Nature. So it’s understandable that, whenever suiseki lovers get together, the conversation almost always gets around to the issue of whether or not it is okay to cut a stone when making a suiseki.

There are different teachings and practices both here in the U.S. and in Japan (and much argument in both places). In my view it’s really an artistic decision rather than a matter of “okay” or “not okay”.

Some people come at the cutting issue from a conceptual point of view – they often express the feeling that cutting a stone damages the spirit of the stone. (Many people use the Japanese term kami, but the ancient Greek concept of a nymph probably serves just as well.) This is certainly in keeping with the historical roots of suiseki as objects which brought Nature indoors for Zen meditation and the Tea Ceremony. Suiban display is commonly used to express this feeling.

Other people are more concerned with the suiseki as a visual object. In this view, the artistic composition – the line, form, and visual balance – is the primary concern. For this group, it is acceptable to cut a stone if it improves the artistic composition – provided that it results in a good suiseki. Suiseki is treated more as Art in our modern sense, rather than seeing it through the lens of traditional spiritual belief. (See my earlier post on that topic.)

Neither point of view is “right” or “wrong”, and they aren’t even mutually exclusive. Some people emphasize the conceptual – and may be more forgiving of compositional “flaws” in uncut stones. The other group emphasizes the composition and is more forgiving of the human intrusion of cutting.

Here in Northern California, most people seem to follow the same practice as the Nippon Suiseki Association (see their FAQ here). We consider stone cutting to be acceptable – though good un-cut stones are more valued. There is however one significant difference between our practice and the Japanese practice.

For aesthetic reasons, the Japanese artists use various techniques (such as sandblasting) to modify the bottom face and edges of a cut stone so as to conceal the smooth face. In some cases additional work may even be done on the visible parts of the stone to modify the shape. This work is usually done very skillfully and is difficult to detect. (In the commercial world of course the seller should disclose this to you. I have a couple of Japanese suiseki, and I only found out later that they had been modified. However, they are beautiful stones and I enjoy them both.)

By contrast, our Northern California practice is to grind the sharp edges in order to make a good transition into the daiza, and no attempt is made to conceal the cut face itself. I am not aware of any Northern California artists (or commercial dealers) that make a practice of modifying the visible shape and people consider it to be improper and not part of the suiseki aesthetic.

Mas feels that the decision depends on the individual stone and what it needs. He will cut a stone, but only when the resulting suiseki will be very good.

Late Fall (shown in the photo below) is an fine example of a cut-stone suiseki. It is a classic mountain-shaped stone (山形 yamagata) that meets all the requirements of the rule of three-sides (三面の法 sanmen-no-hou). It has good asymmetrical balance, a well-defined straight peak, and the peak and both ends all come slightly forward towards the viewer (what is called good kamae 構). The stone material is good well-weathered serpentine, with a subdued deep brown color and interesting textures that enhance the lines of the stone, and is starting to show age and patina. This suiseki is currently in our entry way, and I enjoy seeing it every time I walk through.

“Late Fall”; W 16″ x D 7″ x H 6″; Clear Creek serpentine

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13 Responses to To Cut or Not to Cut

  1. […] Some years ago we wrote about whether or not it is “permissible” to cut stones for suiseki (see To Cut or Not to Cut). […]

  2. I HAVE BEEN COLLECTING stone’s for 5 year’s now and see no difference’s, other then there found in different branches of the world, if i were to show a stone to you? do you believe you could tell us where it originated? but if a name were to come with it, then your guestion becomes much easier, as for cutting a stone to enhance it’s quality and comformedness think of it as cutting a little bit of your body, you know it’s look’s better but there is something missing, the stone is 1 in itself. i myself only tamper with a stone to enhance the beauty of it’s colour, meaning a transparent stain, but who is anyone to say what is right or wrong in the eyes of the keepsake of the stone. but with that said, i call image or picture stone’s by the title (Mimetolith) having discovered this name while searching for a name, as i was finding stone’s that resembled people’animal’s and nature, i was so relieved as it was 3 yr’s and still no name for what i was discovering, but now i have the top speciman collection in Canada and quite possibly the World? and as of this moment,some of my stone’s are featured on the biggest site of it’s kind on the WWW, but this stone i am about to bring to your attention is not there sadly BUT know this, that i have possession of this most cherished of, chinese stone culture, this animal on (stone) is none other then the noble White LION, it’s image implies, telling you to back off, or it’s getting ready to attack something or some1. if you would like to view this stone simply mail me back. thank U, the MimiKKing

  3. […] Finding a very good cut stone is difficult, almost as hard as finding a good natural stone. A cut stone suiseki must consist of a mineral of medium-hardness, with good color and patina; most important, it needs to follow the rule of three-sides (三面の法 sanmen-no-hou) and have a good seat (kamae 構).    (You can find a previous discussion of this topic in our article To Cut or Not to Cut.) […]

  4. Janet Roth says:

    Dear Jesus and Jose Manuel, I’ve been trying to follow the debate you are having in Spain a little using Google Translate. Unfortunately, I don’t read much Spanish, since I studied French throughout my school years. (Living in California, I constantly wish that I could at least speak more than tourist Spanish !)

    The main thing is that I hope people come to realize that there is no pope or queen anywhere telling people what is okay. What stones you like and how you choose to present them are personal decisions. In Mas’ case these are fundamentally artistic decisions.

    Regarding competitions though – I don’t know about that. A competition does imply some set of formal “rules” that everyone agrees to.

    If your competition is for recognition of someone’s craft skills as a wood carver then yes, it would make sense to separate cut-stone and uncut-stones into separate categories. They are different levels of difficulty and require different skill sets.

    But if the competition is between stones (as opposed to between wordcarvers), then what are the criteria on which they are being judged? Presumably you are applying some set of formal criteria? For example – so many points for color (black gets most points, white gets fewest), so many for adherence to the rules for various shape categories (how well they follow the three-sides rule, how good the kamae is, the location of the peak, etc etc), so many points for material (deducting points for too hard or too soft, recent sharp edges, and so on. Etc. Etc.

    In that case, I would think that you’d handle that by simply assigning more points to a “natural” stone than to a cut-stone. And depending on the other qualities of the overall suiseki, the cut stone may very well “win”. After all, a mediocre uncut suiseki is, well, just a mediocre suiseki.

    I do think that studying those formal rules is important in learning suiseki (or any art), whether as an artist or as a critic or collector. Formal judging can be an very good learning tool. We do this all the time in our Bay Island Bonsai club as part of our study of bonsai – though we tend to do it as a club exercise, even in making the awards in our yearly show, rather than as a “competition” between people.

    Cheers! and thanks from both Mas and me for your thoughtful comments, Janet

  5. Jose Manuel says:

    Sorry, I wanted to refers Mr. Mas Nakajima instead of Mr. Mars. It was my mistake.

    José Manuel,
    A suiseki, a friend from Spain.

  6. Jose Manuel says:

    Dear Masr,

    Reading this article, it has made me reflect on a very interesting idea, and that is cut or not cut is more a matter of aesthetics than a question of whether or not to be cut, based on whether the Suiseki is conceived as a modern art or more whether it is conceived from a traditional Zen perspective , tea ceremony, and so on.

    I believe that at the end, like everything else in life, depends on the choice of each person, the approach that you want to give, but none is better than another, and that, as the Nakajima says, both tendencies coexist, and although a stone has less value to be cut, they are cut and retouching, in Japan and USA.

    I personally have cut all the stones that come from U.S., and aesthetically, they are among the best of my collection.

    I believe that we still have much to learn and experience in Spain and that it may even go by seasons and fashions. Today, in my country, it seems that there is a tendency to consider that the stones should not be cut and if they are cut, they will not be exposed.

    I think that to allow to cut in a competition is to allow that someone could use some techniques and tools that others can not use because it is not at your fingertips. I think it would be great to make an exhibition of uncut stones and other for stone cut, but all under the same conditions; so that some were not better than others by the mere fact that I can not cut my stone and if the other person can cut .

    Can you imagine a race in which cyclists were some bicycles in iron and other bicycles were in aluminum, high-tech?, Certainly they could not compete on equal terms, because this is what I think happens when a Exibition of Suiseki are competing for first prize and some stones are more likely than others simply because not everyone can use the same tools to beautify their stones.

    Regards,
    Jose Manuel,
    A Suiseki, a friend from Spain.

    http://groups.msn.com/Suisekis

  7. jesus says:

    Janet,

    Your post and further comments come just in time, when there’s now a hot debate in Spain about “to cut or not to cut: that is the question”, but without regards to yin-yang. Of course, I will refer you in trying to balance.
    However, I’ve got enriched by the underlying feeling of “-do” flowing from your comments, as I often wonder whether Westerners prefer to talk about rules, criteria, proportions and so no, but forget that most Oriental “arts” are to be developed (lived) within a sense of personal way. Thus, a person may start from cut-stones, and further walking and twisting forward and back uncut stones, and even so, this will be only one within miriads of possible ways to learn from contemplation of stones.
    Contemplation of stones: this is the fullness and the emptyness and you are required to no-distraction to fully achieve. When you are in contemplation, you should not be disturbed about whether it is cut or uncut; whether you are pushed to think about it, the stone is not good enough for contemplation.
    Thanks, Janet for your inspiration.
    Jesus

  8. Amedeo says:

    Janet, sei molto fortunata ad avere un maestro come Mas,che io ammiro molto…ciao, Amedeo

  9. drb says:

    Thanks for this post — I’d wondered about this and found your write-up informative.

  10. Janet Roth says:

    Hi Mark – yeah, there is a feeling from an un-cut stone – well it’s not something one can put into words. It’s not an intellectual thing. It is undoubtedly spiritual even for those us for whom it is not, strictly speaking, religious. Finding an stone that can be made into an excellent suiseki without any alteration is an amazing thing. I have in my life been fortunate enough to find two stones that I feel are in that category – I may never find another.

    When we are on tanseki, for every possible stone I find, Mas finds 5 others at least. Part of it is of course his experience. He knows the stones so well, and what the good quality material looks like uncleaned on the river bank. He knows how a well-shaped stone appears when just lying there. So he looks at lots of likely stones, and doesn’t look at ones that are unlikely. I sometimes do kind of the opposite (I have a tendency to let my eye get attracted by flashy color – which is often poor, crumbly material and the color itself will end up bothering). My eye and experience is improving though with every stone (good or bad) that I pick up and look at.

    Like you – I often look for something – sometimes smaller stones with flattish bottoms. Sometimes stones for cutting (more prevalent). When I was just beginning years ago I was always looking for doha (easy to find mediocre ones) . But – I’ve been learning not to. I have been learning to do like Mas and just open my mind and eyes and try to just look at each stone for what it is and what is there.

    I don’t know if that makes sense? It’s hard to put into words. If you look *for* something, it makes it harder to find what is actually there. At least, that’s my experience.

    Also I think for the artist, cut stone suiseki (good ones I mean) are a very good way to develop their artistic eye as well as developing their daiza-making craft and technique. One of our fellow SF Suiseki Kai members is a guy who has an amazing eye at the river. So far he has only made daiza for, and shown, his cut stones. He does very good work (he commonly gets one of the awards at the August exhibit), but has only been doing it for maybe 10 years and does not feel ready to tackle his natural stones. That time will come.

    Cheers – Janet

  11. Mark says:

    Janet,
    I appreciated your approach on this subject.
    Even with those who cut stones or own cut stones, I sense at least a small dissapointment when learning a stone was cut. Although not founded in religous beliefs, I admit to feeling differently about uncut stones. The stone you used as an example is just amazing and a great a argument for cutting. It is so good it quickly makes you forget it was cut. As with all Mas’s work the daiza is in perfect harmony with the stone. One thing that disturbs me is when a daiza is too thin with cut stones. Two reasons, first because it screams that the stone was cut and the proportions bother my eye. Secondly, and perhaps the main reason, the daiza seem to warp exposing the cut edge of the stone.
    I also wonder if how you feel about cut stones influences your collecting. I look for stones which have relatively flat bottoms as opposed to stones I could slice a Suiseki from. If your eye is trained to look for stones within stones I think this could impact what you find.
    Janet, thank you for your wonderful work with this site. I really enjoy it and look forward to every new post!

    Best Regards,
    Mark

  12. Janet Roth says:

    Hi Scott. From what Mas tells me, there are a bunch. In the old days, before machinery, they would work the stone with stone carving tools and then put it in a stream (I guess in a bag or box) to allow the natural sand-blasting to occur over a few years.

    As far as modern machinery he’s described a couple of methods to me. Sand blasting equipment of course comes in both air and water versions. Then there are the stone carving tools used by people like gravestone makers.
    He also described a gizmo where you have the stone over a box with sand and water and in some way (which I didn’t quite follow) the water and sand is poured over the stone like it was in a stream. I’d have to see a picture of this one…

    As for stone carving – he thinks that probably the Chinese had many techniques which Japanese craftsmen used. One old method for jade carving for example used a string – with (harder?) jade bits embedded – like a saw. Since suiseki material is generally softer than jade something like this would work also I would think.

    So I don’t have a total answer to your question…

    I should note that apparently they have figured out that many of the famous old meiseki were in fact altered. (They’ve used xray crystallography I believe to figure this out). I gather that even stones from Rai Sanyō and the famous Floating Bridge of Dreams were apparently altered (though I guess that last in China since that’s where it came from).

    To me there’s nothing inherently immoral about carving stone. My grandmother was a sculptor after all who did some of her work in stone! Most of us think that Michelangelo did some pretty good stuff . When it comes to suiseki there is a line somewhere, and when you cross it you’ve left suiseki and gone into a different aesthetic. But clearly there’s no universal rule handed down from on high as to exactly where that line is. For me personally, I want Nature to make the shape, texture, color, etc , but will allow a stone saw to cut it free from the larger rock (provided that is not then hidden). The fact that alterations are disguised though tells you something :-)

    (Oh yeah – when I use the term “suiseki” I am speaking about the Japanese art. I don’t know much about the aesthetics of the Chinese or other Asian natural stone traditions – but I have the general idea that they are more relaxed about the carving issue. Having just started some reading on the subject I could easily be mistaken…)

    Cheers!

  13. Scott says:

    Janet,
    Very informative article, as I was unaware of the Japanese practice of sandblasting to modify the stones appearance/edges. What are some of the other techniques that are used? Perhaps water or laser cutting? Very interesting, thanks for sharing.

    Scott

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