Friday, November 16, 2012

Three Beans ojime

I spent time this summer getting frustrated over several complex carvings that didn't work out well and have either been set aside, or thrown in the scrap pile.  To break through the block, yet keep my hands busy, I completed a couple of simpler carvings.  Here is one- an ojime of three beans.  My wife Emily asked one day what I was carving and I told her "three beans" and then showed her the model I made of three actual black beans superglued together.  She then asked why I didn't just offer the three glued beans as art and skip the carving.

Of note, my beans are about 120% the size of the model.  A half inch or so.  They are carved from a piece of scrap repurposed ivory I had- the grain is fairly coarse, but I think it lends a nice visual texture- after dyeing and polishing.

Bamboo and frog

Carved from marine ivory, this small carving measures no more than about 1 1/8" or 3cm in any dimension.  The raw material was 'D' shaped in cross section, so after a period of brainstorming about what I could fit into such a confinement, it hit me that a short section of bamboo, exposed on the backside to reveal a scene within might be just the thing.

I like the idea of combining two scales of scene, or narration.  The sprouting leaf on the front  curls around and carries the viewer to another scene on the reverse, with a tiny frog perched on another leaf.  His eyes are inlaid in horn, backed with gold to provide some sparkle when turned in the light. The little guy is maybe 1/4" in length.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Local Attractions

No, the Prez isn't coming to town although he was here campaigning in 2008 at the World Famous Little 500 bicycle race. And I did shake his hand.... BUT-
This weekend the town I call home, Bloomington, Indiana is hosting an Open Studios Tour to showcase local artists.  It's the first occasion of what we hope will be an annual event. Rather than welcome people in my home to have them stroll into the small spare bedroom that is my studio, I'll be showing and selling work at a third party location. Textillery Weavers has given about eight of us room within their facility to display sculpture, prints and paintings. Several, including myself, will be demonstrating and creating work on the spot. If you're in the area, please stop by.  I'll be showing recent netsuke and some from several years past, as well as a small selection of other carved pieces.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


I've had the idea for this carving in mind for a couple of years, but only recently acquired the right piece of material: to carve a cicada using the natural rind of antler to suggest the texture of the wings and offer tactile contrast with the rest of the piece.
I've worked a lot with white-tail deer and caribou antler, but this is the first one in sambar stag, which I think originates in southeast Asia, and is farmed for its antler.  One of the beautiful things about this material is how you get three textures in one (rind, solid part, and spongey core) which can be utilized for greater artistic expression by way of suggestion and interpretation.
In length it measures 1 3/4" or 4.5 cm.  To my knowledge it is the first netsuke of a cicada utilizing antler in this manner.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Chrysanthemum blooms

This grouping of five chrysanthemum blooms is carved in boxwood that has been colored. It measures 1 1/2" at the widest point. The idea for this piece came from a finial to a silver incense burner from the late Edo/Meiji period in Japan.

For my netsuke, I tightened up the group to better serve the requirements of the craft. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Antler Owl

I finished up this owl netsuke recently. I'm not sure what type of antler it is carved from, but I suspect it is Whitetail.  The staining is a combination of a couple of natural dyes as well as potassium permanganate.  The pupils have been finished with an inlay of black horn.

An in-progress shot to get a sense of scale

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mandarin Duck

I finished this Mandarin drake a couple of months ago. The piece measures 2" in length (5cm). It's carved out of tamboti wood, a.k.a. African sandalwood on account of its pleasant scent. This wood is very difficult to polish as its high resin content clogs sandpapers and resists abrasive powders. The sawdust alone is so moist it clumps together with slight pressure. Also, detailed work is quite difficult to produce as it splinters easily with the grain. However, it exhibits a beautiful chatoyance when one contributes the time and effort to smooth it (as well as a few tricks to deal with the resin). The form is a simplified mandarin duck, with a robustness of shape that fits nicely in the palm of the hand. On the underside I carved an equally strong himotoshi (cord hole) and gave it a signature in relief, as if stamped with a punch.  
It can be rewarding to carve this sort of minimalist netsuke from time to time- distilling a shape to its essence  yet still trying to provide visual and tactile interest, which I hope I've achieved through a sensitive eye inlay and fine-line engraving on the neck and wing feathers.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Old News...

...but still good news. This past October I was asked to teach a few sessions of a course on artist materials and techniques, being offered at Indiana University in conjunction with the campus art museum. Fine Arts faculty, conservators and art historians pitched in with sessions on textiles, paper, inks, stone carving, leather, etc. I've always been a materials and techniques junkie, and wanted to do this sort of thing for years, so jumped on the chance to teach the session on organic carving materials, using the craft of netsuke as the vehicle for the lecture.

I had a variety of woods on display- boxwood, ebony, rosewood, cherry as well as animal-based materials such tortoiseshell, ivory, antler, walrus tusk, shagreen, and various mother of pearl sources. We then examined objects from the museum's collections such as netsuke, inro, cane handles, and wood carvings, to see the transformation of raw material into worked substance. I brought in examples of my own work, too, plus tools typical of the craft.

I think it's enormously important to periodically take students with future careers in the visual arts away from conventional classrooms and allow them to use all their senses in gaining familiarity with materials. They acquire a greater appreciation for the beauty of natural substances and a greater depth of understanding for the work that goes into fine craft. For me, the best part was showing them the decidedly slow but sure progress of a scraper on ivory, gradually refining the form of a carving while a steady sound plays of metal on tooth.

Two weeks later I taught another session on chalk, charcoal and pastel. We finished this session with the students making their own chalk crayons from raw pigment, water and gum tragacanth. They really seemed to enjoy crafting their own individual sticks and I think began to understand how artist materials can be engineered (in a sense) to bring out characteristics needed by each individual artist- rather than being satisfied with over the counter products. It's something every artist and craftsperson eventually comes to realize.

Within netsuke carving, it's not long before we create our own tools, modify others to suit our needs, tweak the concentration of a home-brew dye, or come to develop our own methods of polishing a given substance. I think this is where the true individuality of the artist/maker shines, rather than a superficial appearance to things; easily arrived at under the term original.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


I finished this piece a couple of months ago, after coming back to it now and again for some time. It's carved out of mountain mahogany, ivory and horn and measures 1 1/2" square (4cm).

For this piece I conceived of a composition of a close-up, tightly cropped snail, against an indistinct background. By indistinct, I mean that I've been thinking about ways to create pictorial depth, without actually depicting anything discernable. This is difficult to convey in the photo above, but by very subtle texturing to the background wood, I think I've been able to create a reminder that it's both a physical substance (wood) as well as a suggestive scene in which the snail dwells.
On the verso I've carved in shallow relief some wood sorrel growth, in keeping with the environment in which a snail might dwell. The sense of scale has been played with between front and back, giving the viewer a pleasant change in the point of view when turing the piece over.

The tapered sides and general rounded-square shape give it a nice feel in the hand; something a one-piece manju netsuke should have.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Rat and Chestnut

Participants at the last netsuke convention all received a very generous gift in the form of an illustrated sales catalog from the Tokyo, Sagemonoya. Item number 105 within, entitled "Rat with Pea" inspired me to create a carving based on a similar theme. The netsuke rat, depicted in the catalog, was carved in a posture suggesting the shape of a chestnut. I thought I'd take things a step further and came up with this:
A simplified rat, in the silhouette of a chestnut holding, of course, a chestnut. It's carved out of mountain mahogany with horn and bone accents, measuring about 1 1/2" (3.5cm) at the broadest point. Mountain mahogany has a wonderfully rich, chocolatey appearance and touch when polished- I think especially well conveyed in this small work.

Where does the time go?

The INS Convention came and went and I had a fantastic time. Got to catch up with friends and acquaintances and of course get inspiration from so much fantastic work on display. I sold several pieces and established relationships with new patrons, one of whom commissioned me to create a carving with a piece of marine ivory (dugong tusk) she has had in her possession for a decade or two.
I created the following piece, in sashi netsuke form, entitled Autumn's Arrival, measuring approximately 3 inches, or 7.5 cm.

Geese and autumn plants are often paired in Japanese artwork. In fact there are seven autumn grasses, or aki no nanakusa which make their appearance time and again, as here. Several of those plants, including chrysanthemums and miscanthus grass, are illustrated in shallow relief against the abstracted form of a goose, in my work. I've never carved marine ivories before (walrus tusk, whale tooth, dugong, etc) owing to their rareity and trade restrictions, but really enjoyed the texture and beautiful creaminess of color when polished. There's even some subtle chatoyance in certain areas lending a shimmer when turned in the light. While the geese migrated overhead in central Indiana a few months back, this goose reached completion.