A Little Bling

November 24, 2014

Ever since at least the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century, Japanese aesthetics have been a strong influence on the art and architecture of Northern California. For many of us, our houses and lifestyles all seem to reflect that subdued, not-too-flashy, modest approach.  As one small part of this, the appreciation of Viewing Stones was introduced to our area and taught exclusively by immigrants from Japan or their students, and focuses almost entirely on the Japanese Suiseki tradition.

So most of us are naturally attracted to the dark, subdued, introspective stones favored as suiseki.  But, into every life a bit of flash must come!  Even if you strongly love one particular aesthetic movement, there is nothing that stops you from also enjoying other views of the world.  Just for example, anyone who has spent more than a day in Japan is aware of the contrasts between the wabi-sabi of the countryside and the expensive Western-style bling of Ginza.  Both are very real expressions of modern Japanese taste and aesthetics – and happily exist side-by-side.

Most of the stones in this gallery were found in rockshops, where it is always fun to do a bit of “tanseki” –  most of them would never be considered “suiseki”, but that does not detract from their beauty and the pleasure they give us.  They fit comfortably next to our classic views of Mt. Fuji.

Click on the image to see the entire gallery.

2014 11 23 006 - final resize

Ancient Treasure


When to cut a stone

November 16, 2014
Sunrise - Natural View, Front

Sunrise – Natural View, Front

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

As we talked about in the first article, there is a lot of debate within the suiseki world on this subject.  In Japan there are a large number of suiseki enthusiasts and clubs.  Some of the groups concentrate only on natural stones, while others do accept cut stones.  San Francisco Suiseki Kai teaches that a natural stone is always preferred.  However, the club’s teachers, from the founding of the club in 1982, have allowed stone cutting when, and only when, it improves the presentation.

Mas himself loves the natural stones, but he also appreciates the great cut-stone suiseki.  He brought several stones to the club meeting this November to illustrate the decision making process.

There are several important points he made:

  • Take your time.  Once you’ve cut the stone you can’t change your mind!  And even if you are sure, there is always the chance that the stone will break during the cutting.  Cutting a stone should always be the last option.
  • A natural stone may not meet all the “rules” of suiseki, that is part of their beauty.  Like a human, each stone is an individual, with good points and bad.
  • A cut stone, however, should meet the basic rules of suiseki.  It should follow the so-called Rule of Three Dimensions (三面の方 San Men No Hō) and have good balance and proportions in all three directions.  It should have a good seat or posture (構え Kamae), with the ends and peak leaning slightly towards the viewer.
  • Daiza for natural stones are difficult to make well.  For beginners, start with your cut stones and keep your natural stones until you have developed your skills.

A gallery of photos that walks through the lecture is here: When to Cut – Gallery.

To my long-time readers – my apologies for such a very long absence.  Life intervened, and I haven’t been able to write anything for so long – but I hope now that I can now return to posting articles about Mas’ suiseki, and our life and travels!


Suiseki Program in October

July 21, 2010

As part of the Golden State Bonsai Federation convention this year, Bay Area suiseki enthusiasts are organizing a suiseki program, including a seminar, exhibit, and collecting trip. 

The convention runs from Thursday, October 28 – Sunday, October 31 at the Santa Clara Marriott.  Full information about the many activities and how to register for the convention can be found on their website: http://www.gsbfconvention.com/

The suiseki seminar is a panel discussion on Saturday Oct 30, 8:30 am – noon.  The panel members include some of the best-known suiseki teachers in California; they will discuss their views about how to find and recognize a good suiseki, how to finish or present it, and how to display the suiseki for others.  We expect this to be an interesting, informative, and provocative discussion.  

The stone-collecting trip, on Wednesday Oct. 27 – Thursday Oct. 28, will be a two-day trip to famous Eel River collecting sites where fine quality suiseki can be found. The trip is 1 1/2 days of stone collecting (all day Wednesday, and Thursday morning) with guidance from a team of experienced suiseki collectors.  The trip includes 2 picnic lunches and a dinner program.

Both the panel discussion and the collecting trip are paid convention events.  You can register for them through the convention website.

The bonsai and suiseki exhibit is open to the public free of charge.  It will be open from Friday, Oct 29 at 1:30 pm until Sunday, Oct 31 at 11:00 am.  Detailed open and close times can be found in the convention schedule. 

We are very much looking forward to seeing old friends, and making new ones, so please join us this fall.


Ryokan Keizo

February 10, 2010

Breakfast at Chef Keizo's

Whenever Mas and I visit Japan, our home base is my brother-in-law’s house in Nagoya.  Keizo and his son Ikuhito live in a small, comfortable, “mansion” (what Americans would call a condo).

Every day, Keizo shops for the best fresh fish and vegetables and cooks delicious, nutritious meals.  This breakfast from yesterday is typical: a rich red miso soup with mushrooms and tofu, some sweet, delicious local strawberries, grilled salmon, a small disch with spinach with miso, taro, grilled chicken liver, and Japanese style omelet, some “naga imo” (a kind of yam) with egg, and a bowl of excellent, perfectly cooked rice.  Keizo is also a potter, and made the dish holding the strawberries and the teacup.

Yesterday Mas and Keizo and I drove to Dachi, their home town, to visit their mother and older brother (see The Art of Craft).  Today, rested and refreshed by Keizo’s care, we will go to Tokyo for the night and visit the Kokufu-ten bonsai show in Ueno Park.  Then tomorrow we leave for Fukuoka to explore the island of Kyushu.


Bay Island Bonsai 11th Annual Show

December 29, 2009

The 11th annual Bay Island Bonsai “Exhibit of Fine Bonsai” is coming up on January 16-17 and Boon has again asked Mas to participate as a guest exhibitor.

The BIB show consists of formal 6-foot seki-kazari displays, in which the main display object is paired with one or two other elements, such as a scroll or a small plant.  Mas has often chosen to make a contemporary display, pairing one of his own paintings with a suiseki, rather than using a more traditional Japanese scroll.  It is always a challenge to select a painting that will harmonize with the suiseki and help to create a meditative space.

This year Mas plans to show two stones that I have recently written about: Longevity and Pietà.

Our club is excited about our new location at the Alameda County Fairgrounds and hope that everyone can find us there! Please go to the Bay Island Bonsai Exhibit page for details about the show.

Mas’ display at the 2008 BIB Exhibit:

"Silence"; Klamath River stone (W 8 1/2" x D 6 1/2" x H 4 ") in copper suiban; Oil painting on wood - 48" x 24"


Live Long and Prosper

December 4, 2009

When Mas is out collecting, he will pick up a stone if he sees something of interest.  If the stone material is good enough, with beautiful color or texture, he will bring it home for study even if he does not immediately see the potential suiseki.

Mas collected this dramatic piece of jadeite simply because it is so beautiful.  He hoped to perhaps find a good mountain shape in it.  He left it in the yard for several months while studying it .

During that time he noticed that in some views it looked like some sort of animal, maybe a cow or a sheep.  Then one day he happened to put it in the right orientation, and discovered the image of a turtle.  Mas cannot even find the words to describe his feeling – it was such a big surprise.  For a Japanese (and other East Asian people) the turtle is a powerful symbol of good luck.

Minogame - Edo period scroll The minogame (蓑亀), or 1000 year turtle, is a mythical animal that symbolizes longevity and brings good fortune.  It is usually depicted with a long, feathery tail of seaweed, which is thought to grow in the turtle’s shell. 

His first daiza presented the stone very explicitly as a turtle.  It had large legs and tail and he proudly showed it in 2001 at the 20th Anniversary exhibit of San Francisco Suiseki Kai.  But his excitement quickly faded.  By making such an obvious turtle, he hid the beauty and mystery of the stone.  To me, it became “cute” instead of profound. 

Following this Mas tried a couple of non-traditional approaches.  He first used the “Suiseki Art” approach he was developing at that time.  He used a large Cedar board as the base and carved out a seat for Kame-san (Mr. Turtle).  This was okay, but that Mas felt that it was missing something important.  Sitting on the large board did not emphasize the beauty of the ancient turtle.  (Click here for some earlier posts about Mas’ Suiseki Art.)

  A few years later he tried a this rather contemporary sculptural form, with simplified long legs and an open tunnel under the stone. He did it in plaster just to see if it would work, and he says it absolutely did not!  You can judge for yourself in this picture.

So Mas decided to go back to suiseki for this stone.   He first tried the “contemporary style” of daiza that he has been using recently for some natural stones (see, for example, Hideko’s stone).  This is a somewhat minimalist style, and Mas felt that it didn’t have enough “bite”. 

None of the bases he had made so far satisfied him.  They did not harmonize with the aged, dignified, feeling of the stone and Kame-san was not happy.

Finally he has gone all the way back to a traditional daiza.  The simple elegance of the two-level rim, with its slightly decorative touch, supports and harmonizes well with the stone.  While the finished piece does acknowledge the turtle shape (with the legs and fan-shaped tail), it does not over-emphasize it.  The viewer can enjoy the suiseki, using her own free imagination.

Mas says that it is amazing to find a stone such as this. He has been constantly trying to change the daiza and the way of displaying the stone, hoping each time for a bit of improvement.  He says that the more he loves the stone, the more it gives him energy to continue meeting its endless challenge.

As always, click on the photos for larger views, and a gallery of additional pictures.

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Pietà

October 24, 2008

When Mas first collected this stone it was covered in baked mud.  After cleaning it with soap and water he kept it in the garden as a landscape stone.  After many years in the rain and sun the dirt had been cleaned off and the stone started to show the waterfall.  Finally the crystals that form the waterfall had completely whitened.   

Mas says that he has been struggling to finish this stone for fifteen years because of its unbalanced proportions.  It has a strong sculptural form, especially as seen from the sides where it evokes for him the work of Brancusi  (especially Bird in Space).  This stone is so beautiful as art, but is very difficult as suiseki. ( click here to see additional photos).

Recently, Mas has been enjoying working with the traditional daiza form, with its two-level rim, for natural stones such as this.  The classic beauty and elegance of this form has been developed by artists and craftsmen over many centuries.

If you look back at The Struggle, Mas feels that he got lost by trying too hard to make the finished piece “fine art”, and it ended up not being good suiseki.  The piece was caught between the two, neither fine art nor suiseki.   This time he wanted to pay careful attention to the stone and its form.  Pieta is a very fine waterfall and he finished it as a suiseki.

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Suiseki Daiza – Cut stones

September 16, 2008

Making daiza for suiseki is hard; you need to acquire the necessary wood carving skills, you need a sensitive, artistic eye, and you need to develop an understanding of the aesthetics of the art form.

As a beginning daiza maker you will likely start with a standard daiza style and practice it first for cut stones and then with natural stones. In the process you will gain technical skills and develop your artistic eye and understanding of suiseki.  As your skill develops you may start to modify the style of your daiza in order to better capture the unique qualities of individual stones.

As regular readers of this blog know, Mas will cut a stone when he feels it is right artistically for a particular stone.  He does not like to do this however if the result will be just a mediocre suiseki.  Cutting the stone must not only be an improvement over the stone in its natural state, but the resulting composition must meet the aesthetic criteria and “rules” for suiseki.

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.)

Mas always recommends that beginning daiza makers begin with cut stones, and develop both their wood working skills and their artistic understanding of suiseki, prior to tackling the natural stones.

In this article I’m not going to show a “how to” for making a cut stone daiza.  That information is widely available through workshops and books (I’ll give some references below).  Instead, Mas and I want to discuss some of the different styles of daiza he uses.

Each stone is different, and you cannot use a single type of daiza for every suiseki.  The shape and height of the daiza wall and legs need to be adapted in order to harmonize with the particular stone. If you click on the pictures below, you will find photo galleries that illustrate each section.  In these galleries you will see specific comments about particular suiseki and their daiza.

Traditional Daiza

The beginning point for any daiza maker is a “traditional” style.  In Mas’ case, this is a simple daiza form that was brought to Northern  California by the Japanese artists that introduced suiseki to us.  These traditional daiza, which derive from those popular during the Meiji period, have a straight, horizontal rim with two levels – the inner rim is slightly higher than the outer rim.

This style is well suited to the classic “distant mountain” stones such as the one shown above.  While it is strongly asymmetrical, the stone nevertheless has a quiet, reserved feeling.  It does not have strong movement, there is not a lot of surface texture, and the color range is muted and subtle.  The simplicity of the daiza combined with the slightly decorative touch of the raised inner rim gives this suiseki a restrained, elegant feeling.

The apparent simplicity of the daiza, of course, belies the actual difficulty in making it.  While the style dictates the overall form, every detail can vary:  the height and width of the daiza wall, the size and placement of each foot, even the angle at which each foot meets the ground.

Contemporary Daiza

In recent years, suiseki artists in Japan and elsewhere have developed a new style that has a single rim line.  This style is of course less decorative and has a less formal feeling than the traditional style.

Mas no longer uses this style very often, but for the suiseki above the simplicity of the daiza harmonizes well with the stone and helps to keep the eye focused on the stone and not the base.

Creative Daiza

Recently, Mas has started exploring a new style of daiza, trying to better enhance the features of individual stones.  In this “creative” style, Mas does not stick to a horizontal rim, but adjusts it with the movement of the stone.

If you look at this suiseki, Mas chose to cut the stone lower than he normally would and vary the height of the daiza rim.  This lets him reveal the “valley” in the lower part of the front while filling in the undercuts at each end.

Obviously, this style requires the same wood carving skill that is needed for a natural stone suiseki. The point, however, is not to show off the artist’s skill, nor to pretend that it is a natural stone. The intention is improve the cut stone and show the suiseki to its best advantage.

This creative style does not suit all stones.   In the gallery behind the photo you will see some examples where the busyness and movement of the base distracts from the beauty of the stone and a simpler, more traditional daiza would fit better.

The suiseki artist needs to appreciate the particular uniqueness of each stone and make a daiza that enhances it.  As Mas says “I like to find what is best for the stone.  No matter how much time I spend, once I pick it up and bring it home, whether it is a cut stone or natural, I want to do the best I can to enhance the stone.  This is my way of stone appreciation.”

References for Daiza Making

The easiest way to learn how to make daiza is to belong to a local suiseki club if one is available.  There are also seminars and conventions held in the U.S., Europe, and Asia where instruction can be had.  Often, suiseki instructors participate at bonsai conventions and shows.

Coming up in October, 2008 is the International Stone Appreciation Seminar in Pennsylvania.

Books

Suiseki – The Japanese Art of Miniature Landscape Stones by Felix Rivera (published by Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, CA)

The Japanese Art of Stone Appreciation by Vincent T. Covello and Yuji Yoshimura (published by Charles E. Tuttle, Rutland, VT)

Various Japanese language books written by members of the Murata family have illustrated guides (with photos) for making the older traditional style of daiza.  One source for these old books is http://www.japanese-book.com/index.php .

Web Resources

Suiseki force et beauté (in French)
Michael Hach
International Stone Appreciation Society
Bonsaimania (in Spanish)

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Old Friends, New Faces III

August 16, 2008

Mas will be sowing his latest suiseki art sculpture and two paintings in the next show at Triangle Gallery, Old Friends, New Faces III.

Old Friends, New Faces III
August 26, 2008 – September 27, 2008
Reception September 6, 3 p.m. – 5 p.m.

Triangle Gallery
47 Kearny Street, San Francisco, CA 94108
Tel. 415.392.1686

Gallery Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.


Painting: “Winter Blue”;2008;48″ x 24″;Oil paint on wood board
Sculpture: “Great Land” (大地 Daichi), 2008; W 45″ x D 16″ x H 9″; Stone and paint on wood board (deodar cedar)

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Hideko’s Stone

August 8, 2008

Base by Mas Nakajima - 2008; W 7" x D 6" x H 5"; Klamath river stone on walnut base

Hideko Metaxas found this stone many years ago on the Klamath River. As often seems to be the case with really good suiseki, it was lying right-side-up on the surface, seemingly waiting to be discovered.  Hideko says about this stone

When I first found this stone, I knew it was extraordinary.  It gave me the feeling of times long past. The restrained and subtle color, with its deep, rusty, weathered, patina gives it a calm, consoling feeling.   The gentle, quiet, shape is tender and comforting. The wrinkles and furrows that run through the middle of the stone suggest that something happened a long time ago, but that everything is now quiet.

The size is small enough to hold in my palms and hear and feel what the stone is trying to tell me – or maybe what I want to hear from the stone. When I hold it in my hands I feel at one with the universe and the magical healing power of the stone embraces my soul.

Mas right away fell in love with this stone when he saw it at Hideko’s house.  He said:

This is not the type of stone that will stand out in a suiseki contest, but even so it caught my eye immediately.  The beauty of its depth, modesty and simplicity all combine to create a deep wabi-sabi   feeling.  It reminded me of a special gift I received from our suiseki teacher, Mr. Hirotsu.

About 25 years ago, not Keiseki Hirotsu in 1984; 1903-1987; Founder and first instructor of Kashu Suiseki Kai, first instructor of San Francisco Suiseki Kailong before  he passed away, he gave me a little suiseki, which he loved. At that time   I didn’t quite understand what he was trying to show me with this gift. For Mr. Hirotsu suiseki were the way into the world of Zen, but I could not yet follow along with him.

One way to appreciate stones is through the natural landscapes and figures defined in traditional suiseki.  Another way is to go beyond this into the realm of fine art.  However, just as most of the universe is “dark matter”, hidden from our view, behind these visual forms is a very personal, emotional and spiritual world of suiseki.  After many years had passed I realized that Hirotsu-sensei was trying to lead me to this Zen world with his valuable gift.

Hideko says there are many ways to appreciate suiseki.  She tells about the time when Nancy Eaton, the editor of the Golden Statements bonsai magazine, was publishing an article about Mr. Hirotsu and his suiseki.  Nancy asked Hirotsu-sensei if he had any advice for suiseki admirers; he said calmly, with a gentle smile, ”just enjoy it”.

Mas Nakajima collection, Suiseki by Keiseki Hirotsu; W 4 1/2" x D 3 1/2" x H 4"; Eel River stone on painted pine base

Gift from Hirotsu-sensei

Click on any picture to see the photo gallery for this article.

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