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Us and Me. World of Wooden Crafts Born from the Struggles of Uniquely Okinawan vs. Uniquely Me. By Tasato Mokki (Itoman City)
post : 2018.11.19 21:00
“In English, a Hikimono craftsmen are called wood turners. The movements of the turners are very cool. Their movement itself is an act of expression, I think…” That’s what Yuichiro Tasato said to me when I visited a studio in Itoman City located in the southern region of Okinawa Island. Wood turners or turning is a method or the finished product of the method in which a wheel or a lathe is used to turn a block of wood and chisels are used to carve out bowls, plates, and other round shaped containers, or cylindrical rods for table legs.
“I want to show you something,” said Mr. Tasato, as took me outside to where a large log of camphor sat, still with its bark. He explained that unlike the cedar, cypress, pine, walnut and oak trees which are popular to build with or to make furniture with, local Okinawan wood are hard to come by. In particular, a whole log of living banyan, Indian coral, and camphor trees from Okinawa are very difficult to get. “When I hear that someone’s cutting down a large tree, I contact them and I go on the day they’re cutting it down,” he explained, before starting up his chainsaw to cut chunks of wood from a log he got with the help from friends and acquaintances.
The first step is to cut out blocks of wood according to what he wants to make. Where there are natural bumps and knobs on the wood, he can make items that are unique and tasteful in that they are untamed. From the smooth and straight areas of the wood, he can get materials with beautiful grains which are well-mannered to work with.
“Depending on the type of tree, cutting them with a chainsaw can be different, in how hard or soft the wood is, or the level of their viscosity really affects whether I can cut them smoothly or not.” As he explained, he took the blocks of wood he just cut and sliced them smaller and carried them into the studio. Next is the conversion of the wood to cut out a round shape. Using a pen, he marks a round shape and smoothly works with a handsaw to cut it out.
Finally, the next step is wood turning. “The important thing is to make sure that you get the center precisely,” explains Mr. Tasato, as he carefully sets the wood on the turner just right. Once the turner starts spinning quickly, he faces his body directly with the wood and handles the chisel skillfully to start carving. The pieces of wood shavings dance in the air and there’s beauty in that as well. “With every different type of wood, there’s a difference in the touch. When the chisel is sharpened properly, the shavings are like tororo seaweed, kind of like feathers,” he says. The wood that was flat a moment ago was getting chiseled smoothly, and seeing it beginning to have a shape and curves was satisfying to watch.
“I take extra care in the lines seen from the side. I adjust the curves and lines so that it finishes more beautifully. The lines of the hollows in plates, bowls and other containers are very important, too. The curves and lines give different impressions on the overall finish. Once, I made a container based on the designs of a parabolic antenna. These antennas are designed to pick up electromagnetic waves, so they’re designed to collect signals effectively. Light and shadow influence the beauty of wooden plates and bowls. With the parabolic antenna design, the complex interplay of light creates a rich contrast of light and shadow.”
Mr. Tasato says he often finds his inspiration for his creations from nature. For example, the gradation of colors in an acidic pond, the feel of the material born from the scenes of a national park in America, and the beauty and details of insects and animals. He also says he always enjoyed drawing as a child, and went on to a high school that had a good art department. There, he learned various types of art, but he was particularly interested in sculpting.
“There was one art teacher, Mr. Mitsuru Kinjo, who was a very unique man. He started a large art project called Voices of Stones in the days leading up to the Irei-no Hi (Okinawa Memorial Day, June 23) in 1996, as a part of the high school’s art project（http://mkmk.p2.bindsite.jp/mk/cn42/pg414.html）. In the project, small stones were marked with numbers from 1 to 236,095. Each participant marked a number and we began to pile these rocks up. This number, 236,095, was the number of victims confirmed at that time that perished in the Battle of Okinawa. During the project, it was hot, and sweat rolled off our bodies as we quietly wrote the numbers on the stones and placed them on the pile. These actions themselves were artistic. Moving our bodies and creating three-dimensional objects or installations was fascinating to me, this is when I first felt that attraction.”
Later, at a university he entered to study architecture, Mr. Tasato took part in a training class for making furniture and fittings. It was through this experience that he once again found the actions of the body in creating something to be fascinating. After graduating from university, he began working at the woodworking section of the university. He eventually came back to Okinawa where he went to get trained in the art of lacquerware at a technical support center for arts and crafts funded by the Okinawa Prefecture. He then got involved in the restoration project for Shurijo Castle. He worked at the technical support center for some time before starting his own studio, Tasato Mokki, in 2016.
“Shurijo Castle is actually like a single huge lacquerware. The amount of lacquer used there, for some areas, a great amount of lacquer was used in just one day, an amount that a lacquer craftsman might take ten or twenty years to use. With a renowned lacquer craftsman, Moromi-san playing a central role, we were finally able to recreate the vermilion color used on Shurijo and repainted it. During the project, I learned so many things while working at the site. I’ve never been an apprentice to any master. I was always envious of those who were apprentices. But for me, my masters were all those people I learned from at the technical center and at the restoration project,” explains Mr. Tasato. Because he wasn’t an apprentice to anyone, he had to find and pursue his own world of art and expression and that brought good experiences as well as hardships, he added.
“I think tradition is a layering of trends of the times. Is it best to carry on the things that are labeled as traditional, as they are? Sometimes maybe that’s not necessarily the only way…Of course, it’s important to learn the skills from the craftsmen before us, and carry on the beauty of Okinawa and the usefulness of the crafts, but crafts are also an industry. There are a lot of things to think about and do in order to market our creations. That’s what pains me sometimes.”
“I have fondness for my home where I was born, and as a Shimanchu (a person born and raised in Okinawa), I want to carry on the history and culture of Okinawa. I had those feelings when I was working with wood, and over time, lacquer work began to become my core. But as I established my own studio and continued working, the traditions of Okinawa, and the local materials of Okinawa, those things started to feel like they were binding me…There’s a part of me that’s budding, that just wants to pursue a world of art that I feel within myself. To be honest with you, I’m somewhat wavering right now.”
Born from the struggles that he’s feeling, and what is brought on from stepping away from tradition, was his pursuit for “his own world”. Like his works using an airbrush to spray lacquer, or his expressions of colors with such a sensitive touch and taste. Just as leatherwork acquires that unique beauty over time, he has challenged himself in working with UV rays to see the colors change in his lacquerware. He’s also tried translucent lacquering, using four different colors of lacquer, and also used the characteristics of paints to bring out unique changes as well. These are the challenges that he’s taken on to find the method he can express himself in the world he wants to find. To see him searching for his path, caught in between what is uniquely Okinawan and finding his own form of expression, was symbolic and reminded me that this may be where Okinawa itself is, today.
Mr. Tasato said he’ll be working to create various items for every day use, all the while challenging himself in creating unique and artistic items and sculptures, too. I’m very interested to see how his world of woodworking will expand, and how that will connect to tradition.
◎ Works by Tasato Mokki are available for purchase through their website.
Address: 147 Komesu, Itoman City, Okinawa
Okinawa CLIP photo writer, Nobuya Fukuda