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.


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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Found Object

June 26, 2008

Found Object, June 2008; W 21″ x D 12″ x H 5″; Stone, Walnut with stain

This is a stone we found by searching through a big bin in the yard of a rock shop near Eureka.   We found several tamari (water pool stones) with good color and shape. Mas originally planned to finish this stone in a very simple suiseki style with a wooden daiza.  One side shows beautiful color, and he chose it as the front.  About a year ago he made a rough model for the base, but had not completed the woodwork.

Original Front

Original Back

Then, a few weeks ago, a friend told us about a mill up in Santa Rosa that sells pieces of hardwood as scrap.  When we went there we discovered a mountain of solid walnut slabs. Searching through the pile was like stone-collecting on the river – from among the thousands of pieces we selected a few.

After we got home Mas was looking at the smallest slab and thought it was so interesting.  While he had it up on the table to study he remembered this stone, and thought that maybe they might fit together.

Mas tried different orientations and locations for the stone, looking for the best combination.  He tried turning the stone around and using the less colorful back as the new front, and found that the rough, subdued, appearance of the stone harmonized with the wabi-sabi feeling of the wood.  In this orientation, the movement and lines of the stone and slab echo each other, creating a unified composition.   I find it quite remarkable – a rock found in a bin and a piece of wood found on a scrap heap seem to fit together as if intended.

Mas did very little work on the wood.  He made a shallow seat for the stone, just deep enough to hold it upright, removed the bark at the front and slightly carved the edge of the slab.  He finished the piece by applying a light stain and flat varnish to bring out and preserve the natural wood color.  In this way, Mas tried to show the simplicity and purity of the wood and stone.

Stone is the beauty of the earth and wood represents life and death.  Combined they create endless possibilities for art.  – Mas Nakajima

Walnut Mountain, May 2008

Click on this photo for pictures of the development of this piece.

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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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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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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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