- Simple and Easy-to-Use Glass Containers Created at the Long-Established Okuhara Glass Manufacturing (Naha City), Founded in 1952
- Us and Me. World of Wooden Crafts Born from the Struggles of Uniquely Okinawan vs. Uniquely Me. By Tasato Mokki (Itoman City)
Accessories and Lovely Items for Every Day Created from Okinawan Wood at Kobo Nuriton (Yaese Town)
post : 2018.11.15 06:00
“Can you tell what kind of wood base this is made with?” Tetsuya Morita of studio Nuriton asks, as he shows me the pendant in his hand with a psychedelic and bewitching sparkle. I took the pendant into my own hand and saw that it was very light and also very thin, like a feather. The answer to his question turned out to be hemp cloth. It was apparently made with the dried lacquering technique called Kanshitsu, a method brought from China during the Nara period (AD 710 to 794). Lacquer is placed on a piece of hemp cloth, and another piece is added, then lacquered. Because it’s made by layers of hemp cloth and lacquer, it is light and relatively easy to shape. A piece of abalone shell is inlayed after being polished to achieve the shine like pearls. This finish is a technique called Raden, also brought from China during the Nara period. Without knowing the background on how this pendant top was made, one would never imagine that such an ancient technique from the Nara period is used.
The pendant above, with a shape like that of a whale’s tail, is made with wood from the Kanhi Zakura cherry tree, and is shaped like a petal from the same tree. Just like the mode series of vermilion colors, this pendant is also made using the same lacquer techniques from ages past. The taste and design are different, in a good way, from what we know in lacquer techniques but the traditional techniques handed down the generations from one craftsman to the next looked to be blooming in the contemporary world as I observed each piece.
Surprisingly, Tetsuya’s last job was a plant engineer in water quality management. He once visited Wajima, a city known for the production of lacquerware. He went to the Wajima Museum of Urushi Art, and the Makie gold lacquer-work he saw there captivated him. He immediately began going to a Makie class in his community, and eventually decided that he wanted to learn the Kyushitsu technique in-depth, and so he relocated to Okinawa. The Kyushitsu technique consists of using a spatula or brush to paint lacquer on to a surface. He began learning lacquer crafts at Kogei Shidoujo (present Crafts Promotion Center) in Haebaru Town in southern Okinawa. This is where he met his partner, Atsuko.
The simplistic beauty of the natural wood expressed in the bowls, other containers, and cutlery, are creations by Atsuko, who majored in woodwork at an art school in Tokyo. She went on to find employment as a designer with a maker of educational toys after graduating. After working and honing her skills at a woodwork studio in Aichi Prefecture for five and a half years, she developed a passion to create things that are closer to every day lifestyles. She was attracted to lacquer, a coloring that is known to be safe, strong and world renown as being the most durable. This brought her to Okinawa where she knocked on the door of opportunity to learn about lacquer crafts.
“Before, I used to draw a plan and made my pieces according to that, but now, I look at the wood and decide what to make. Okinawa sees many typhoons during the season, and because it’s an island, there are many days when the winds are very strong. The trees really hang on by their roots to remain upright, so the wood here are curved and winded. They have that natural greatness and freedom and have a uniqueness and value different from the precious straight wood from an old growth tree that’s several hundred years old. With wood that has curves and movement acquired over time, I create designs that enhance their lines. I still have some things to learn, but I do my best to bring out the uniqueness from the wooden materials.”
Atsuko’s approach to her creations are reflected in her work like the plates shaped like the leaves of alocasia which are often seen around Okinawa, and in the round and thick containers. By creating things not according to people but to the natural materials, she’s able to create pieces that bring out the uniqueness of the location, and reflect the climate and the stories behind them.
Of course, she doesn’t just create round, thick pieces. With her creative senses and the needs of the users, she also creates various boxes and items using wooden joints. She also uses ash and zelkova wood from out of the prefecture or even overseas when creating items that require them to be straight and not curved, or will not crack during the making process.
Although she might sometimes use other wood, she says her favorite wood to work with are those from Okinawa. “I have reasons why I like each and every type of local wood,” she says. “The Ryukyu pine which is different than the pine from mainland Japan, are lighter in color, more oily, and have a smoother feel. The laurel has that reddish coloring is more calm-looking, and is comfortable to the touch. The Kanhi zakura cherry is not too hard, not too soft, and even when finished thin, it doesn’t crack easily. When I’m working on it, the wood takes the blades of the chisel smoothly and the lovely scent of cherry is nice to work with. Here, it smells like the sakura mochi, doesn’t it?” she says as she brings the plate near my nose. She was right, there was a gentle scent of cherry leaves from the plate.
“This is made with Japanese bead tree. The natural lines of the tree itself is very alive and give it a lovely pattern. I really like how the surface has the dynamic energy of a southern paradise,” she smiles as she shows me the large, oval-shaped plate. “It soothes me when I touch it. The wood sometimes has curves and may crack while I’m working on a piece, and will not go the way I want it. But that’s how it’s supposed to be, because they’re natural, and it’s interesting to work with things that have the difficulties and challenges that are beyond the powers of people. Sometimes, I’ll be so happy to finish a piece, then it’ll curve or crack. Sometimes it’s a bummer,” she tells me when I asked her what the allure of woodworking was for her.
“The surface of the wooden materials are close to that of people, I think, and it has that warmth. I enjoy working with them, shaping them, and above all, I like the grains. It has that sense of life. Although the materials have been cut, they’re beautiful even when they’re simply cut into boards. It’s also amazing that each tree has its own uniqueness. Even if it’s the same type of tree, the environment in which each tree grew is really reflected on the grains,” says Tetsuya, who shared his passion with me and showed me samples of wood of the same size. When I took them from his hands, I saw that the weight varied and although they were polished, they felt different.
After graduating from the Kogei Shidoujo, Tetsuya began working in restoration of the Shurijo Castle. Through the work in repainting lacquer there, he made a new network of friends with senior lacquer experts and curators, as well as experts from other fields. With a broader vision of the fields he hadn’t seen before, he began to be more dedicated in his lacquer work.
He says, “There are no records remaining of the methods people used in the past, during the time when Shurijo was constructed. It’s only through scientific analysis that we learn what was mixed in with the lacquer to achieve the colors used there. Through encounters with the unknown like that, I began to wonder what Ryukyu lacquerware was all about, and focusing more on the uniqueness of the lacquer crafts of Okinawa.”
From that point on, he has tried independently to make ‘the base powders of red-tiles’ by grinding the red-tiles often used for rooftops, and creating original pieces by mixing in Niibi, or Ryukyu sandstone to the base and applying numerous coats of white lacquer. This method was inspired by the Okinawan yachimun pottery, he explains. After applying lacquer on the wood, he applies the Niibi base and he creates a spiral with his pointer finger, then applies the white lacquer. He says that the designs and markings of a person’s fingers are often seen in Okinawan pottery, and it tells us that these pieces were handmade by a person. He wanted to apply that touch to his lacquerware, he says.
In craftwork like lacquerware and Japanese washi paperwork, the more experience the craftsmen gains to hone his/her skills, the finished product is so excellent that it is homogeneous and without a millimeter of imbalance, and a surface very smooth to the touch. The stronger the feeling to pursue expertise in the creation of something, the finished product has less of that human hand-touch. Mr. Morita’s approach is to purposely recreate that mark of a person’s hand. This approach probably comes from his passion in wanting to carve out a new world of lacquer work.
At the end of the interview, Atsuko showed me the process of carving a plate. “The time I take to sharpen the tools is almost the same for when I’m actually carving out the piece. The finish is really different depending on how sharp the tools are,” she explains as she skillfully handled the chisel. She says that it’s not how strong you are that matters when you’re carving wood, but it’s how well-maintained your tools are. Tetsuya adds, “Actually, with lacquer too. It takes longer to polish the piece afterward than the actual application of the lacquer. It’s about a 3:7 ratio.” I thought about how much of that hidden work, effort, and time it takes to create a single piece.
They said, “Now, we each create what we want independently, but in the future we want to create designs and make things from the very first step all the way to the finish, together. We may argue a little along the way, but that’s all a part of creating together.” The Moritas talked about how they want to start making furniture from Ryukyu pine in the future as well. I look forward to seeing the wooden creations they will co-create, and the warmth they will have.
Kobo Nuriton’s accessories and containers are available at the following shops:
-Urasoe Art Museum
-Kudaka Mingei Shop
-Washita Shop Aeon Mall Okinawa Rycom
Kobo (Studio) Nuriton
Address: Nakaza, Yaese Town, Shimajiri, Okinawa
Okinawa CLIP photo writer, Nobuya Fukuda