Monday, 29 August 2011

Small Bags for Precious Things

Aoki san

The traditional Japanese house has no real walls. Just sliding doors partitioning rooms. There was always an alcove called a 'tokonoma' where some piece of art was put on display. A hanging scroll of calligraphy or a ink painting, a piece of pottery and perhaps a simple flower arrangement. Unlike a western house where we will keep the same painting on the wall indefinitely, they change the display all the time. I like having a long term relationship and conversations with the paintings and things I have picked up through travels and life in almost every wall and corner and surface in my house. Two different approaches to displaying art.

Here in Japan, many of my friends keep their treasures out of sight and display them occasionally. The objects storage container is important. They love wood boxes here. Boxes inside boxes and objects wrapped in cloth.
I spent some years going to a class on Sundays learning to make the small silk bags for tea ceremony objects. There are some very talented potters in my town and I have been blessed to have some of them as my good friends. I could write a few books on the subjects of the potters in my town and pottery in Japan. My house is awash with pottery.

I was particularly blessed to have known Ryo Aoki for 15 years. He passed away at 50 years old, seven years ago. What a treasure he was. I met him when I first came to Japan and he had just started pottery. He felt he was ten years behind and literally killed himself through hard work making up for his late start as a potter. He had a vision and he worked towards it steadfastly. He lived in the middle of the mountains in a barely standing ancient farmhouse and studio. He had built a climbing wood firing kiln and was fulfilling his life work. He fell down beside the kiln as it was firing, not realizing his fever was from a virus and not the heat from the kiln.

I often visited him over the years and somehow I managed to purchase and receive as gifts a comprehensive collection of his work. A few pieces he gave me as a present because they, " are works of genius I can't possibly put them in a gallery and put a price on them." (He was a humble guy who couldn't help but be overwhelmed by his own genius and hard work at times.)

I am deeply indebted to him. There are very few like him. He inspired me and set a standard very difficult to achieve. His life was his art. And this is where the source of the really good stuff comes from.

There was an exhibition of his work, that had sat cooling in the kiln as he slipped away from us, at the gallery in Tokyo where he often exhibited. The doors were stormed and the shelves were bare in minutes. I managed to grab a few pieces. One is this small sake bin.

Bittersweet...recently his work has been 'discovered' by a famous Japanese artist/curator and Aoki's work is now in demand and the prices skyrocketing.

I wanted to honor him and the sake bin and I finally got around to weaving this small piece of linen and put together this bag for it. The indigo dyed bamboo basket was made another local friend, Ishikawa san, who gets his bamboo from our area. I taught him to process indigo to dye bamboo. My house is awash in bamboo baskets as well.

I made this silk bag from my cocoons many years ago for a sake cup Aoki san made. (Photo below.)


  1. you have been inspired by so many talented artists. the saki cup is simple and beautiful. bamboo indigo dyed, now you get me thinking! my mother's baskets were all made from bamboo. looking forward to learn how to make the bag!

  2. thank you for those memories.
    relating to your post immensely
    i too have potter friends and collect some pottery.
    and your small bags are simple and wonderful at once.

  3. Beautiful little bags. I am going to rethink my treasures.Back to the stash...

  4. thank you for sharing your memories of Aoki-san. It is amazing how a few craftspeople are absolutely driven to create. the pottery, the bags and indigo dyed baskets - all so beautiful.

  5. So simple, and so beautiful. And very generous of you to share something of your friend with us.

  6. the portrait, that face! luminous. what a lovely memoir.

  7. What gentle memories of special friends. And how lovely that exchange of gifts and knowledge supports these relationships.
    I also am surrounded by pottery and baskets - and wonder if the process of preparing indigo (and vat) for the baskets is different than for textile work.