Goshiki Numa

June 12, 2008

“Goshiki numa ” (五式沼 Five color pond) – 2007; W 5″ x D 4″ x H 3 1/2″; stone and black walnut

One day on the way home from a Klamath River stone-collecting trip we stopped near Eureka to poke around in a rock shop. Out in the yard they had a bin of these rocks for sale by the pound. They aren’t typical suiseki – being rather colorful and decorative – but they were so interesting and also inexpensive.  We spent quite a bit of time searching through the pile and selected a few to bring home. The bright colors in this one calmed down after a few months outdoors, so Mas made a simple base and we brought it inside to enjoy.

Last October we visited Yamagata, Japan. We had never thought to go there – it’s not a major tourist destination – but when we mentioned  to our friend Hideko Metaxas that we were going to Tōhoku (the northern part of the main island) she insisted that we visit her sister’s family in her home town of Yamagata.  As everyone knows, it is often exciting to get off of the major tourist route, and this trip turned out to be no exception. The visit to Yamagata was one of of the highlights of our Japan trip, and we are so grateful to Hideko-san and the Iwata family for making these arrangements.

The Iwata family’s hospitality is a memory we will cherish. During our two days they took us sightseeing all around the area. Spending the night at their house was like being at a first-class ryokan.  The sight-seeing tour included the Yamagata castle with its 400 year old cherry trees, the ancient Mountain Temple (Yamadera), the 350-year old Maple Garden and Tea House a short walk from their house, and the impressive Mount Zao, which is one of Japan’s most active volcanoes.

Okama, the crater lake near the top of Mt. Zao, is also known as the Five Color Pond (Goshiki numa 五色沼) because of the way it changes color from day to day.  When we returned home Mas noticed how our colorful little rock-shop stone evokes this image.  Whenever we look at this suiseki we remember our wonderful visit to Yamagata and our deep appreciation to the Iwata family.


Autumn in Yamagata
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2008 06 10 006-smart fix edited cropped
Suiseki display – Goshiki Numa
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The Cave

June 5, 2008

“The Cave” – 2008; W 18″ x D 10 ” x H 8 1/2″; Eel River stone and ash wood with stain

Mas collected this is stone from the Eel River.  The finished suiseki gives the image of a beautiful snow-covered distant peak with a deep, mysterious, cave underneath.

Mas spent a lot of time studying this stone to learn how to appreciate it as a suiseki, and in this article I want to share his  artistic process.  The main problem with the stone is the heavy left-hand side, which makes the stone very unbalanced.

Clicking on this picture will take you to a photo gallery that goes with this article.  I’ve put some detailed information in the captions for each photo.

The first set of pictures (1-7) show various possibilities for how to position the stone.  One solution is to cut the stone (picture 6).  This solves the imbalance by removing the left side, and would make a rather nice, simple toyama ishi (遠山石 or distant mountain stone).

As readers know, Mas sometimes will cut a stone when he feels it is artistically necessary, but in this case he did not want to. This meant that he had to find a way to handle the left side imbalance.  Mas said: “I know I am crazy and it doesn’t make sense, but I love this part as much as the beautiful snow mountain. The huge unbalance is so unique! Because of that reason, I would rather take a chance and try to create the art.

One option was to finish this as “suiseki art” similar to Looking Forward.  But the combination of the snow mountain overhanging the wide board didn’t seem to harmonize.

Alternatively, he could just simply make a daiza by filling up the space under the stone.  But this would result in a big wood wall in the front – sort of repeating the problem I discussed in The Struggle.

He wanted to change what seems like a negative into a positive. It is not unlike human life – we all have weaknesses of various kinds that aren’t going to go away.  We have to live with and work with these aspects of ourselves and others.

Once he has decided on his approach, he makes some sketches of the design, and then renders this design into a plaster model (Pictures 8 and 9).  Once he is satisfied with the design, Mas completes and refines the daiza in wood (Pictures 10 and 11).

The finished piece is shown from different angles in pictures 12-15. In this suiseki Mas tried to balance the weight of the stone with the emptiness of the cave.  He said “Dark, empty, space creates a mysterious feeling and allows people to use their own free imagination.

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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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Evocation

April 15, 2008

“Crater Lake”; W 5″ x D 4 1/4″ x H 3″; Eel River Stone with walnut base

Many years ago my mother and I took a road trip around Northern California and Oregon. We started out going north on Highway 101 from San Francisco, in order to visit the redwood forests of California’s North Coast. These are wet, mysterious places where trees soar to incredible heights; their carcasses lie on the forest floor rotting slowly in the moist air. In both life and death the trees offer sustenance to all the life around them.

After joining the Pacific coast, the highway hugs the shoreline through Oregon and beyond to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. The coast of Oregon is a wild and beautiful place, with great rocks battered by the sea. We stopped in Gold’s Beach to enjoy a short raft trip on the Rogue River, which pours down out of the Klamath mountains, and then continued up the coast of Oregon until we decided to turn inland. We wanted to go see Crater Lake.

In the short 100 miles from the coast to Crater lake you pass through many different environments. Leaving the seashore behind, you go over lush coastal mountains full of Douglas Fir and Port Orford Cedar, interspersed with picturesque dairy farms. From there you drive through the rich, fertile farmland of the Willamette Valley and start the climb into the high country of the Cascade mountains.

Crater Lake was formed in the caldera left behind after an ancient volcano, Mt. Mazama, collapsed more than 7500 years ago. The rim is at an elevation of about 7000 ft, and is 1000 feet above the surface of the lake. (At its deepest point, the lake itself is nearly 2000 feet deep.) Since the collapse of Mt. Mazama, small eruptions inside the caldera have formed some cinder cone islands. Crater Lake is an amazing, mystical place and it is no wonder that it continues to be a sacred site for the local Native American Klamath Tribe.

Crater Lake; Photo by Mas Nakajima; July 2, 2005

Not too long after this trip I went with some friends for tanseki to the Eel River. I remember climbing down the long steep rock wall to the river below. Just as we were about to leave I found this tamari (water pool stone) lying face up on the ground, seemingly waiting for me to find it.

It’s a very hard stone, made of a deep beautiful black mineral – perhaps jasper. It looks a bit like an egg that has broken open. The wide snow-dusted rim around the deep lake, with the island near the shore, makes it the image of Crater Lake.

When Mas first visited my house he immediately spotted this stone outside on the bonsai bench. He says that for him the stone shows the beauty of simplicity and purity, which is the essence of suiseki. He made the daiza as one of his first gifts to me. Mas says that for Japanese people a tamari does not just represent a water pool, but also brings good fortune for your life.

Whenever I look at this stone I remember the day on the river with my friends, I think about the trip I shared with my mother, and I feel the richness of my life.

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Time Will Tell

April 5, 2008

“Winter Blue”; 2008; 48″ x 24″; Oil paint on wood board

The next show at the Triangle Gallery, Time Will Tell, will run April 15-May 31 and includes selected artwork from Gallery Artists. Mas will exhibit two paintings and one suiseki art sculpture. (You can click on the photo to see a slideshow of all three pieces).

These past few months have been kind of exciting for me. Mas has been making some real advances in his technique and style with spray paint on wood, and it seems like almost every day there’s a new painting to study and critique. Winter Blue is one of my favorites. I look at it every morning while I drink my tea.

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The Reveal

March 31, 2008

Mas and I found this stone on our first date, a collecting trip to Black Butte Reservoir in Northern California. It was Thanksgiving weekend in 2004 and the weather was ice cold and with a strong north wind blowing. The stone has several significant features, including the amazing autumn colors, the large tamari or waterpool, and the steep cliff recessed under a big overhang. By contrast, the surface features, including the two small peaks to either side of the tamari, are more restrained and gentle.

Soon after bringing it home, Mas made a daiza. Sometimes when so many interesting features are present the viewer’s eye gets lost. Simplicity is one of the most important aesthetic virtues for a suiseki. Mas wanted to simplify the stone by emphasizing the tamari and surface features. This gives the suiseki a modest, settled feeling. We kept the suiseki in the living room and enjoyed our memories of that day.

Recently, Mas took the stone out of the daiza and put it on the table. He didn’t have any intention of redoing it, but while looking at the stone he started appreciating the cliff area. He thought it enhanced the stone rather than detracting so he decided to open up the front of the daiza to reveal this unique feature.

It seems to me that he has revealed the heart of the stone. Its features combine in a dynamic harmony, and the recessed cliff gives a sense of depth and mystery. Removing the wall of wood from the front also allows the eye to appreciate the subtle movements of the stone surface, and perhaps creates more room for the viewer’s imagination.

Untitled; W 10″ x H 4″ x D 7 1/2″; Jasper and Black Walnut

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To Cut or Not to Cut

March 9, 2008

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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Something old, something new

January 23, 2008

We held the Bay Island Bonsai 9th annual exhibit this past weekend, and for the third year in a row Mas was a guest exhibitor. Boon gives him free rein to do whatever he wants, so last year he made an entirely contemporary display with his Suiseki Art piece “Akebono”. This year Mas chose to combine a very traditional suiban display with one of his recent paintings. After creating the display, he titled it “Silence” (静寂 seijaku).

When we were creating this display Mas first tried a more traditional approach, using a calligraphy scroll that his mother had given us. The scroll has the character 然 (zen) which comes from the word shizen, or “nature”. It didn’t look good – the calligraphy was very strong and overpowered the stone, stealing all the attention. On top of that, the meaning of calligraphy is an essential part of it – you aren’t using it just for its visual appearance. Something essential is lost if the great majority of viewers don’t know the meaning.

So we started looking at some of Mas’ recent paintings from last summer. This painting was not made with any intention of displaying it with a suiseki, but when we tried it with this stone and suiban we realized how well they complemented each other.

Mas deliberately avoided giving a descriptive name or label to either the stone or painting . Having a description such as “coastal rock” or “waterpool” limits the viewer’s own imagination. For me, this display is a memory of morning on the Klamath river, surrounded by forest, with the mist rising off the water. For a fellow BIB member (of more practical bent perhaps) the painting seemed like a micrograph of the stone itself.

Having a suiseki display among bonsai gives a moment’s rest while going though the exhibit. In the midst of the trees is a quiet clearing where you can gather your thoughts and go on refreshed.

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Suiseki at the Asian Art Museum

November 18, 2007

The San Francisco Asian Art Museum is hosting a suiseki exhibit, put on by the California Suiseki Socity, as part of its AsiaAlive program (it will run through November 25, 2007). Mas and our friend Hideko Metaxas were asked to participate.

Hideko joined San Francisco Suiseki Kai when it was founded in 1981. She travels around the world lecturing on the display of the Japanese arts or bonsai, suiseki, and ikebana.

To accompany the suiseki exhibit Hideko created a formal display using, Mas’ Fuji-san suiseki, in the tokonoma of the museum’s tea room. The antique scroll and incense burner are from her collection.

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Suiseki – Creative Daiza 2 (Nature)

August 25, 2007

“Nature”; W 10 1/2″ x D 5 3/4″ x H 6″;Serpentine from Clear Creek

A good suiseki combines human art and craft with nature to make a harmonious whole.

At the time Mas found this stone – in the mid-1990s – he didn’t know what to do with it. It has good color and shapeNature; Clear Creek Stone for suiseki, but the corners at the sides are missing and there is a sharp undercut on the back. Also, if you evaluate it based on san-men-no-hou (the rule of three dimensions), the proportions are wrong – it’s too high for it’s width.

In the traditional northern California form, the daiza rim makes a straight line across the stone. The emphasis is on showing the natural stone and the human-created element is minimized. For many stones I think this is a very beautiful way to display them (in particular stones that have a balanced harmony that makes for a quiet, elegant feeling). Nature with cut markHowever, very few stones have the kind of proportions and flat bottom that allow them to be finished without alteration. In most cases, you either have to cut the stone, or carve a daiza that is too deep for the stone’s proportions (unless it’s that rare stone with a fairly flat bottom and near-perfect shape). To finish “Nature” in this manner would require cutting the stone at the line shown – and Mas felt that it would lose its movement and excitement. Cutting a stone is always an option, but should only be done if it will improve the stone’s balance and harmony and result in a much better suiseki.

To solve the problem, Mas tried to carve a base that would complete the imperfect areas instead of hide them. In this way, the human element – the carved daiza – becomes an integral part of the composition. This requires the artist to find a balance between following nature and imposing a human vision. To be successful, it is necessary to observe nature – the stone and the wood – carefully and use artistic judgment to match the movement of the stone with the flow of the wood grain.

Driftwood and Daiza for “Nature”Shortly after completing this suiseki, he found this piece of driftwood at the Eel River. The similarity between the form of the driftwood and that of the daiza is sort of uncanny. Mas feels that by studying natural objects such as this driftwood you can get some valuable lessons for your life. He says he has learned from suiseki that “Nature is not perfect. I am way imperfect, so how can I expect other people to be perfect?”.

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