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.