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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San Francisco Suiseki Kai – 26th Annual exhibit

August 3, 2007

This weekend (8/4-8/5) is the 26th exhibit for San Francisco Suiseki Kai. It is held in the hospitality room kindly provided by Union Bank in Japan Center. This year Mas and I will show three stones. Also, we are part of the “toban” group for the show this year, which means being responsible for tea and snacks for the members. Mas has been packing up all the stones, and making sure we have the right ji-ita for each one, while I’ve been getting these photos ready for posting. Then off to do our shopping and then to the city.

Meanwhile, we just got back from Lassen National Park. The stone there is volcanic, and pretty fresh at that – as such it is not suitable for suiseki (and anyway, it’s a National Park, which means look but don’t touch !). But anyone who loves stone and loves the mountains should visit Lassen. It is truly a national treasure.

After the weekend, I can catch up with regular life, and maybe even post the next article. It is a continuation of the creative daiza series, and explores some thoughts about how nature can inspire you in making daiza and presenting suiseki.

Click the picture to see the stones we are showing.

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Suiseki – Creative Daiza 1 (Peace)

July 18, 2007
-Janet Roth

Jasper from Eel River; W 16" x D 7" x H 4" Mas found this stone in the early 1990’s on the Eel River. It was getting dark at the end of a long day of tanseki (stone collecting). He was getting ready to go home when he saw the little red peak sticking up above the sand. He tried to move it with his crowbar, with no particular expectation of anything.

Usually when you try to move a buried stone you find you can’t – the hidden part is too big or it’s stuck under other large rocks. Then, if you can dig it up, it turns out to have no shape or some other big problem. But this stone came out very easily, and when he picked up the stone to look at it he just said "ワオー" (Wow!). It was such an incredibly beautiful stone, he says he couldn’t believe it. The deep red jasper mountain range rising up behind the lake in the long valley gave him such a peaceful feeling. If you’ve been on tanseki, perhaps you know that feeling of joy and excitement; Mas likens it to finding some precious jewel.

Peace with first daizaHe made a daiza for this stone following the traditional style taught by California (and also Japanese) suiseki artists. A seat is carved into the wood to hold the base of the stone (this stone has not been cut, so the base is not flat), small uniform legs are made under the major visual masses, and the rim is flat all the way around. In this style, the daiza acts as a simple platform for the stone. The legs show just enough to visually support the weight of the stone, but otherwise are intended to almost disappear from the normal viewing angle (which is looking down slightly on the stone). The idea is to show the stone, the daiza itself is not considered important.

Daiza for Peace; W 16″ x D 7″ x H 3″At about this same time Mas was starting to develop his fine art sculpture (what he calls his "suiseki art"). As his eye and sensitivity to the stone developed, he became dissatisfied with this suiseki. He was also paying attention to the contemporary daiza being shown in the Japanese suiseki magazines. The flat daiza does not complement the movement and feeling of the stone, and the stone and base don’t integrate – simply put, it’s not beautiful. So, he carved a new daiza paying careful attention to the movement of the stone. The aim is to take two beautiful objects – a stone from nature and a daiza carved by the artist – and marry them to create the finished piece. The stone itself is just a stone. The daiza by itself is just wood carving. Together they make art, a suiseki.

The fine art sculpture and the traditional suiseki are never in conflict for him, but are aspects of the same thing. His art is grounded in the practice of suiseki, and he constantly comes back to making suiseki to refresh himself.

To me, this stone comes to life when cradled in the daiza – the curves in the rim bring out the movement and feeling of the stone. But note also the legs – they are larger than the traditional legs, and are not uniform. Each leg is made so as to echo and balance lines in the stone and thereby complement it. Instead of disappearing due to small size, the legs visually merge with, and help complete, the composition. Mas says that this suiseki was the first step towards achieving his dream of suiseki becoming fine art.

"Peace"; W 16" x D 7" x H 6"; Jasper and Genuine Mahogany

Back View

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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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Ritual Art or Fine Art?

April 9, 2007

Suiseki artists and collectors commonly refer to suiseki as “art”. What do we mean by this? Mas and I have spent quite a bit of time discussing this issue, and some new thoughts started crystallizing for me recently.

There is no single monolithic thing called “art”, but rather different kinds of art that are distinguished mainly by the reason the art exists, and also by what is done with the art once it’s been created.

I think there is a kind of art that I have taken to calling “ritual art”. Many of the antiquities on display in museums fall into this category for me, and I think that most suiseki also fall here. These are objects whose primary purpose is as objects for meditation, religious worship, or for spiritual contemplation. Art objects created or chosen for display in a tokonoma are meant to invoke the seasons and bring nature inside. They serve as objects of zen meditation – especially for tea ceremony.

I think one thing that distinguishes any “ritual art” is that a body of rules tends to govern its form, use, and display. (Clearly this applies to the traditional Japanese arts of bonsai, suiseki, and ikebana, but I could also call out Russian icons and Tibetan mandalas as examples). For example, the “rules” of suiseki say that a stone should be small and dark colored. Looked at from the perspective of fine art – of course it is perfectly possible to have an artistic stone, with good composition, that is neither dark colored nor small, but such a stone would not fit with the intended ritual use.

So I leave this with a question – what would happen to how we see our stones if we displayed them differently? Suppose we displayed each on a pedestal, without “accent plants” or scrolls or any such accoutrements, with no reference to traditional tokonoma display, but instead displaying each stone simply as an object to be appreciated as art. How would this change our perception of the stones as art?

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