The Struggle

May 2, 2008

Forest - 2007; W 17 1/2

Forest – 2007; W 17 1/2″ x D 8 1/2″ x H 9″; Klamath river stone and poplar

Mas made this suiseki last autumn. At the time he had such a feeling of accomplishment, finishing such a difficult daiza. He brought it into the dining room and we enjoyed looking at it every day. But after a few days the excitement kind of disappeared. It just couldn’t stand up next to the fine traditional suiseki in the room.

Mas been struggling with this stone for a long time. It’s a beautiful piece of material from the Klamath River, but the feeling from the stone doesn’t transfer to the finished suiseki. The peak is small and indistinct relative to the vertical and horizontal expanse and there are many features spread out over the surface. It feels like a big wall, too busy and with no focal point.

A suiseki friend was visiting a while ago, and he suggested that Mas cut the stone and make a simple base. Of course this he had considered this possibility. It would solve the vertical wall problem, and would also help give the stone better proportions – a distinct peak and good kamae (good seat or posture). But cutting is a last resort, and Mas always wants to explore all the other possibilities. He feels that it is an incredible stone, even though it does not follow the traditional suiseki style. So what to do? He really wants to “take care” of the stone – and show the deep meaning of stone appreciation.

The other night Mas showed me a picture of his first attempt to finish this stone from several years ago.

Wave (after Hokusai) - 2000; W 24

Wave – 2000; W 24″ x D 12″ x H 11″; Stone, Douglas Fir with paint

This was one of his very early experiments with using a board for his “suiseki art”. The stone evokes the image of a great wave, and that reminded him of this print by Hokusai, so he carved and painted Great Wave off Kanagawathe board in a deliberate reference to the print. The result was not satisfying to him. The board is too busy, competing with the stone, and the carving does not harmonize with the form of the stone.

Nevertheless, I was kind of excited by the picture. The stone, presented in this way, seems really powerful to me. It gives me the image of a strong and ancient rock slowly being eroded away by the power of the sea. Mas now feels encouraged to try again, and I look forward to someday being able to finish this story.  He says that if he simply concentrates how to create a “Wave”, without any preconceived concepts, then all the rest will follow.

As Hemingway once put it:

“No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in,” says Hemingway. “That kind of symbol sticks out like raisins in raisin bread. Raisin bread is all right, but plain bread is better.” He opens two bottles of beer and continues: “I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things. The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.”

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Suiseki Art 4 – Emotional Expression (9/11)

July 7, 2007
-by Mas Nakajima

I found this stone on the Klamath River, and left it in the yard for over 10 years in the wind, rain, and sun. I was expecting that this process, known as youseki, would clean up the stains and show the beautiful white snowy mountain. But after 10 long years there was little color change – in particular the gray did not change to white. The years of youseki instead gave it a wabi-sabi and aware feeling. Wabi-sabi in suiseki is an antique and rusty look, and aware is a feeling of pathos, sorrow, misery, and wretchedness all combined. (These are very important ideas in Japanese art and do not translate to English very well).

What could I do with such a sad feeling stone? I had no motivation to finish this stone as a suiseki, but I kept noticing and looking at the stone. Shortly after 9/11/2001 this stone caught my eye again – it reminded me of the collapsed twin towers.

I wanted to use 4×14 Douglas Fir, which is very commonly used as a structural beam in a building. I chose this piece since both the proportions and the grain seemed to complement the stone. I tried to position the stone very carefully, looking at the wood grain as well as the overall balance and composition. After setting the stone, I carved a deep hole and burned the wood with a blow torch. This is the first time in my suiseki art that I went beyond just staining and polishing the wood.

The stone has to me a feeling of total destruction, and I have tried to use it to express the deep sadness of that day.

"9/11"; W 27" x D 13" x H 9 1/2"; stone on carved, burned Douglas Fir

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Suiseki Art 3 – Emotional Expression (Loneliness)

July 6, 2007
by Mas Nakajima

I was raised in a traditional wooden house in the countryside of Gifu, near the Japan Alps. Our house had three tokonoma (formal display alcoves) in various parts of the house. The tokonoma was a little space for sharing art with family and guests. This fit into the Japanese lifestyle of sitting on the tatami floor, perhaps enjoying the garden through the shoji or the paintings on the fusuma screens. My mother enjoyed her job of making the tokonoma displays, including selecting the seasonal flower arrangements, matching scrolls and other accompanying objects. This was part of the hospitality, along with serving the tea and cookies. Our family really enjoyed and appreciated her artistic displays.

I had been thinking to display this stone in a douban (antique copper suiban) as an isogata ishi or shore stone, perhaps accompaniedW 7″ x D 5″ x H 3/12″; stone for “Loneliness” by a scroll of birds flying. However, the house I built here in California did have a tokonoma, but in a western style living room, along with fireplace, couches and tables. There was no tatami floor and we sat on the couches instead. I tried suiban display and scroll in this contemporary tokonoma many times, and was never satisfied. Probably the atmosphere didn’t feel right and I couldn’t get the same joy and excitement that I used to share with my mother. In English there is the saying that “you can never go home again”, the reality never matches your memory.

At this time I had started feeling so lonely, living in the big house. My four children had all left home for college, and the distance was growing between my wife and me. I wanted to express my feelings through my art, but in a way that suited my American style of living.

Lonely guy sits with his memories in the darkness, struggling to move forward. The moon lights his way with a smile.

“Loneliness”, W 24″ x D 12″ x H 4 1/2″, stone and stain on poplar

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Suiseki Art 2 – Gambare (Hang in There)

June 21, 2007
by Mas Nakajima

img_0006_edited-1.jpgAt about the same time that I was working on Looking Forward, I was also studying this beautiful piece of jade (jadeite) that I found in the Eel River. Neither the material nor the shape of the stone is particularly suited to traditional suiseki, but it is such a beautiful stone to just leave in the yard. I really wanted to finish it, and finally decided to try.

I chose the board and positioned the stone based purely on an aesthetic judgment of the composition. I kept it in my room after that and enjoyed watching it every day. Pretty soon I realized that I had started to share the feeling with the stone.

“Gambare”;W 24″ x D 11 1/4″ x H 12″ ;Eel River stone on walnut

In my imagination, this stone is standing on the seashore, battered and worn down by storms and waves. The bottom is so undercut that it is barely standing; it seems just one push will make it fall. But it is so strong, and hangs in there, enduring. That is exactly how I felt. During that time I was supporting my family: I had four teen-age children, and my wife had gone back to school to get her teaching credentials. It was during the recession of the early to mid-90’s and the housing industry was hard hit because of the real-estate slowdown. This meant that I had to work extra hard to compete for contracts and keep my crew working.

Every time I looked at this stone it gave me the energy and strength I needed to keep going and bear my responsibilities. I had no intention to show spirituality when I made this piece, and getting this spiritual energy from the finished work was totally unexpected. Stone appreciation is not only about representing nature and landscapes – at least as important for me is the ability to share with the stone the difficult parts of life and get the energy to live.

Title and attribution updated

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Suiseki Art 1 – The beginning

June 17, 2007
– by Mas Nakajima

I started studying suiseki in the late 1970s under Yukikichi (Keiseiki) Hirotsu, who was a popular suiseki artist and collector. Mr. Hirotsu was one of the people who introduced suiseki to Northern California. In 1963, he founded the first suiseki club in America, Kashu Suiseki Kai in Palo Alto, and in 1982 he and Mr. and Mrs. Iwasaki founded San Francisco Suiseki Kai, and I joined Suiseki Kai shortly after that.

For the first 15 years or so I concentrated on learning the techniques and traditions of Japanese suiseki. At first I was very busy running my general contracting business and raising four young children, but gradually I started going tanseki (stone collecting) more often and making daiza constantly. Eventually I had so many finished suiseki – way more than 100 – that I ran out of room inside the house and started storing the stones everywhere in my yard.

By the early 90’s I was quite a serious and crazy stone guy, and I started asking myself a new question: “what to do with Stones that Don't Fit these beautiful stones that just do not fit into the traditional rules and categories of Japanese suiseki?” Visiting many great national parks in the West such as Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia, Death Valley and especially the magnificent Grand Canyon made me realize that there are many great landscapes and scenes that are not seen in Japan. Grand CanyonThese scenes were way out of my imagination. I was also very much influenced at that time by my good friend Mr. Tei (Yu-Lin Chung), who was an established folk artist and antique collector from Taiwan. I used to visit his house regularly and exchange ideas about suiseki with him.

My mind started to open, and I found the courage to follow my own vision for each particular stone. Every stone is different and I realized that you cannot simply follow a rule. You have to pay attention to, and show respect for, the stones individuality.

Most of the stones that I collect fit well into the traditional suiban or daiza display – and that is always my first choice. I tried to approach some of these unusual stones by making daiza that showed them as abstract or figure stones. However, some of them were not happy to stay as suiseki – or perhaps I was not satisfied, so it seemed that the stone was not happy.

Maguro-ishi The first suiseki art piece I created was with this beautiful makuro-ishi (black stone) with a tamari (water pool). I thought about cutting the stone and making a daiza for it, but that would wreck the deep tamari. So I used large thick lumber to set the stone and tried to carve a daiza for a traditional kaburi-iwa (head cover stone) suiseki. Perhaps I would display it with a small boat to add to the scene. The more I carved however, the more the stone started losing its power and spirit and became just ordinary scenery, and the free imagination was going to disappear.

Carving the Seat So I tried again, this time using a solid piece of birch wood. I carefully selected the location based on study of the wood grain, and I made a seat for the stone by carving deeply into the wood. After the stone was properly seated, I polished the wood to enhance the grain.

I like the simplicity and flexibility of this style, where the wood board gives the feeling of limitless space for the viewer’s free imagination.

Looking Forward
“Looking Forward”; W 30″ x D 14″ x H 9″; Trinity River stone and birch

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