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.

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