Sheets of paper, soft, textured, and pliable, hang from the ceiling in knots and groves. Spare and often abstract, the sheets resemble modern paintings. Isao Nakamura, a papermaker and artist from Haigyu, a small town in Japan's Shikoku Mountains, created everything in this room.
Nakamura favors motifs drawn from nature. He often embeds leaves, grasses, or strips of bark, as inclusions in the paper's fiber matrix. In other sheets, the artist manipulates the paper's texture and thickness to create patterns reminiscent of Abstract Expressionist painters like Franz Kline and Mark Rothko. Even when the works can be read as figurative (as when Nakamura depicts the harvest moon), they shy away from verisimilitude and depict the subject through the barest of outlines.
These sheets of paper, handmade by Nakamura, represent the latest incarnation of kamisuki, the traditional art of Japanese papermaking. Misako Mitsui, the curator of the Museum of Craft and Folk Art's current exhibition, Beyond Craft: Kamisuki, Paper as Process, describes the exhibition as a forest grove.
Mitsui locates Nakamura's appeal in his art's ability to bring the viewer into harmony with nature. According to the curator, Nakamura's art grows out of a deep and rich tradition, but remains modern and attuned to contemporary culture. Nakamura's practice represents a living link between civilization and the land. He continues to produce washi (Japanese handmade paper) in the traditional manner, without chemicals or mechanical equipment.
Nakamura's practice is a deliberate archaism. Nakamura's village, Haigyu, was once a renowned center of paper production. Villagers specialized in a smooth, white, and translucent paper, created from the kozo plant. Due to the village's mountain environment, the paper produced in Haigyu was particularly fine. As Haigyu's signature export, this paper became eponymous with the village. Due to its fineness and translucence, haigyu paper was especially well-suited for shoji screens, and sustained Haigyu's economy through World War II.
Nakamura observes that the craft of haigyu died out in his village after World War II, a casualty of changing consumer fashions. After the papermaking industry ceased to produce profits, the village of Haigyu transitioned to forestry. Describing his decision to become a papermaker at age twenty-seven, Nakamura recalls visiting a number of villages where papermaking remained alive. He describes kamisuki as a vocation that chose him, as if it were in his nature. "I knew my village had better paper than any other village I had visited, and that I could make better paper than any other craftsman." Nakamura returned to Haigyu determined to resuscitate the craft. He built his studio inside the old elementary school, long-closed due to Japan's declining rural population, and began to make haigyu.
Nakamura begins by cultivating the kozo plant, for the kozo's fibers are the foundation of his practice. (The kozo plant is indigenous to Japan. Related to the mulberry tree, cultivated in China for silk and paper production, the plant produces long, thick fibers that are extremely strong.) Nakamura and his helpers perform each step of the process by hand, following protocol developed by local artisans over two hundred years ago. Unlike other papermakers, Nakamura produces or forages all of his materials. Mitsui estimates that there are only four or five papermakers in Japan who continue to work in this manner.
Today, Nakamura makes two types of paper: haigyu, and the "art" paper on display at MoCFA. About ten years ago, Nakamura added "art" paper to his repertoire. These pieces have a peculiar quality of looking and feeling at once elemental and modern. The papers represent, for Nakamura, a response to kamisuki's place in the contemporary world. "I looked at my white paper," he writes, "and thought about the usage of it in this era, and decided to make paper that is my work and that is the essence of the [haigyu] tradition." He describes these papers as akin to advertising billboards, works of great beauty that draw audiences to Haigyu's washi tradition.
For the curators of Beyond Craft, the exhibition carries a particular urgency. Though Nakamura is still hale and strong, and though his son has chosen to take up Haigyu washi, the networks of skilled craftsmen that sustain this craft are slowly crumbling. Papermaking does not exist in isolation. Though Nakamura retains an unusual degree of control over his process, he must purchase certain tools (the horsehair brush, the cypress screen) necessary to his practice. And the artisans who once turned out this equipment are now aged. Mitsui describes Nakamura's art as a fragile flame, one easily extinguished by circumstance. For Mitsui, it is imperative that Nakamura find an audience today, while the flame still burns. "I am not a preservationist," she notes, in the sense that she isn't trying to reverse time. "It is only because Nakamura's art is there that I want audiences to view it and feel it."
Beyond Craft runs through July 22, 2007. Visit the Museum of Craft and Folk Art website for more information.