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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The Oldest Trees on Earth

July 27, 2008

Bristlecone Pine; Inyo National Forest, 11,000 feet, White Mountains, California

The oldest living tree currently known is a Great Basin Bristlecone Pine growing in the White Mountains of eastern California.  This tree, which is over 4800 years old, was born at the dawn of human civilization and is still alive and vigorous today.  Mas and I went to visit the bristlecone pines, which grow between 9,000 and 11,500 feet (2743 m – 3505 m)  in the high mountains of eastern California, Nevada, and Utah.

What allows these amazing trees to live so long?  Of course, there is no single answer,  but a big factor is simply that bristlecone pines can thrive in conditions that would kill any other tree.

The bristlecones grow widely separated from each other, like a display of natural bonsai art, accented by small alpine plants. Because they grow in rocky, alkaline soil in a dry, cold  climate with an extremely short growing season,  they have no competition from other trees and shrubs for the little available water, and are also isolated from insects, fungus, and fire.

They can survive extensive damage to one  part of the tree.  Over time many parts of the tree will die – the soil slowly erodes away killing a root, lightning strikes the top, the climate warms allowing insects to attack a branch.   Each injury shows  itself in arresting visual patterns as the live veins twist around the dead wood.

The trees that grow the most slowly, in the harshest environments, are also the oldest.  The bristlecone’s wood is full of pitch, which protects it from insects and fungus.  The more slowly they grow the denser their wood is and the tougher they are. Even after death the tree will remain standing in the ground for thousands of years.

We returned home with deep admiration for these magnificent trees and their ability to survive thousands of years in such harsh conditions.  The bristlecone pines, in their lonely endurance and dignity, teach us the deep meaning of the art of bonsai and the eternal dance of life and death.


Click this picture for more photographs of the bristlecone pines and landscapes and wildflowers of the White Mountains.

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The Biggest Trees on Earth

July 22, 2008

California is full of incredible sights that attract visitors from around the world, and among them are the tallest, the biggest, and the oldest trees on earth.  The tallest trees in the world are the Redwoods, The General Sherman Tree - the biggest tree on earthwhich grow in the coastal mountains from Big Sur north.  The biggest trees however are the Giant Sequoia that live on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, and the oldest trees are the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines that are found in the high country of eastern California.

Mas and I took a small trip earlier this month to visit the sequoia and the bristlecone pines.  We started with the big trees of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks  in the central Sierra, south of Yosemite.  These parks encompass an incredibly diverse set of environments, ranging from the dry foothills at 1,700 ft (518 m)  to the top of Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet (4421 m).  The sequoia grow between about 5000 and 7500 feet (1524 – 2286 m).

If a sequoia is lucky enough to find itself in a good spot, it can live for a very long time and reach an enormous size. The largest single-trunk tree on earth is the General Sherman tree, in the Giant Forest grove of Sequoia National Park.  It is over 2000 years old, 275 feet tall (84 m),  and has the biggest trunk by volume of any tree in the world. Such a giant sequoia needs solid, undisturbed, land that can support its weight for many centuries.  Its foliage needs plenty of sunlight in order to create energy for the tree’s growth, and its roots need good, mineral-rich soil with sufficient moisture. As is often said about real estate – it’s all about “location, location, location”.

Fire is the key to the sequoia’s ability to live long and prosper.  The forests where the sequoia grow will naturally burn every 10 years or so.  This adds minerals to the soil, and clears out all of the undergrowth and small trees that would otherwise compete with the sequoia for moisture and sunlight. The heat from a forest fire opens the sequoia cones, which then drop the seeds to the freshly prepared soil. The young seedlings will grow quickly in this rich environment, pushing their heads toward the sun and sending out wide, shallow roots to gather moisture from the soil. They will be well-established by the time the rest of the forest grows back.

As the tree matures it develops a beautiful cinnamon-colored bark.   The bark, which is extremely thick, will provide insulation and protection from insects, disease, fire, and cold.  Lightning may strike and burn through the bark and even the heartwood, but as long as a thin “lifeline” of the inner bark and cambium layer remains, transporting water and nutrients between roots and foliage, the tree will continue to live. 

After about 1500 years or so the tree will enter old age and become what is called a “monarch”.   These are the massive trees that dominate the groves and cause visitors to lower their voices as they enter the mysterious, silent world.

Eventually, as with all living things, the tree will die. Soil erosion and accumulated damage from fire, insects and disease will damage the shallow roots, the tree will start to lean, and one day a storm will finally push it to the ground.  The heartwood of the giant sequoia is imbued with tannin, which gives it the characteristic “redwood” color and protects it from insects and fungus.  It will take many centuries for the wood to slowly decompose.

Walking among these ancient trees, we felt an upwelling of wordless joy. The sequoia forests have a quiet, peaceful atmosphere, with the shaded undergrowth, the flowering dogwoods, the pine, hemlock, and fir – and standing over them, protecting, shading, and nurturing, are the old monarchs with their gentle, powerful, dignity. Despite tremendous age and the “ravages of time”, the giant sequoia retain their vigor and life force to the end.

Clicking on any photo will take you to a gallery of more pictures.  Our next article will be about the oldest trees on earth, the Bristlecone Pines.

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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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