This morning, I was trying to eat my breakfast and get back to the land of the living after spending the last month with an alphabet soup of dead artists. However, Japanese artist, Shibata Zeshin, had other ideas and wrote me another letter.
While I know what he’s getting at, I wasn’t quite sure how to condense all this wisdom into a succinct heading. However, it seems that he has a real heart for young emerging artists, not just in terms of painters, but also musicians, dancers…the works.
You see, he saw quite a difference in how young people and society approach learning their craft nowadays, to when he was a young man and it rattled him a bit. That although we live in this instant everything society, that it still takes time, patience, incredible perseverance, as well as natural talent, to produce a masterpiece. Moreover, it also takes a lot of faith, and an almost unrealistic belief that you can hop from mountain peak to mountain peak. That there might even be a bridge.
Anyway, the way that I’ve been rambling on for so long, soon you won’t need to read his letter, because I’ll have already spilled the beans, but here goes…
A Second Letter From Shibata Zeshin
Last night, I retreated to the Quiet Carriage when I could simply be with my thoughts, my paintbrush and paper and think as an artist thinks…by painting.
Being the last artist onboard, I really haven’t had much of a chance to meet the other artists or see much of the contemporary world beyond our train. However, one thing has come across loud and clear. That is, an almost compulsive need to have everything done yesterday, and that at the press of a button, the world is at your command. This was very impressive. However, this is no way to make a lacquer box, and while you can now buy yourself a cheap plastic or cardboard box, that can never replace the work of a master craftsman. Even with all your gadgets and trashy products, there is still a place for precision, beauty and quality craftsmanship…and it’s worth the extra cost.
However, what concerns me is that your young people think they know it all and have nothing to learn. That the long arduous painstaking methods of, for example, producing one of my lacquer boxes, take too long and they can just go on one of these reality shows and soar from obscurity to fame overnight. While this has seemingly been the lot of the winners, what you don’t see is the many, many years of diligent practice and how they have started from scratch and not usually experienced a smooth path to the top, but more of a jagged trajectory with more downs than ups. That they have a talent for perseverance, just as much as doing their thing be it painting, sculpture, dance, writing. Success is not a gift, and is by no means always guaranteed.
By the way, developing these skills isn’t just about developing technique either. You also need to experience the world in all its complexity to reflect the spirit of a living, breathing thing. Otherwise, there’s only an empty shell, something empty and mechanical and it can go and paint itself.
Being an artist is all encompassing. It’s in every breath that you take, and all that you see. It never stops or switches off. It is your being.
Needless to say, I’m a bit lost for words with his advice, but I will pass it onto my kids because I find it very reassuring. As a child, I was so impressed that my mother could sight-read any piece of music on the piano, but what I didn’t know was how exceptional her talent was, and how hard she’d worked to develop it further. If I had, I might not have been so frustrated by my own efforts. Playing the piano for her, is like breathing. I hope I’m not elevating my own writing abilities, to say that my kids might well look at my writing in the same way, and feel it’s completely unattainable. That they can’t write. Or, that Mum’s the writer. While I was always good at writing, I wasn’t great when I was younger and I had to work at it and my family and friends had to put up with some pretty dreadful and even sickening poetry over the years. However, I improved. Moreover, it’s something I’m continuously working to improve. That journey will never end. I am constantly seeking more, like a parched and thirsty traveller lost in the desert. I will lick the precious water droplets off the leaves if I have to.
On that note, I’d better go and see whether the fridge has cooked dinner tonight. Or, should I have words with the stove?
PS I thought I’d just include a few paragraphs which explain just a fraction of the effort that went into making one of Shibata Zeshin’s lacquer boxes….
“Until Zeshin’s time, most quality lacquerwares had relied for their decorative effect not only on painstaking craftsmanship but also on lavish use of precious metal flakes, foils, and powders, as well as other materials such as ivory, coral, and shell. Zeshin learned these traditional methods from an early age and used them through his life. During the 1840s, however, he responded to harsh new laws against conspicuous consumption by developing alternative types of decoration, using cheaper materials but devoting extra time and skill to their preparation and execution.
To achieve the wave-patterned seigaiha-nuri (“blue-sea-waves lacquering”), for example, he pulled a comb through a thin layer of wet lacquer mixed with cereal starch to
improve its viscosity, an apparently simple technique requiring almost unimaginable skill and accuracy, since the work had to be perfectly executed in a very short time before the lacquer dried, and mistakes could not be corrected. To create a subdued dark-green ground suggestive of antique Chinese bronze, called seidō-nuri (“bronze lacquering”), he scattered several layers of charcoal and bronze dust onto wet lacquer, while in tetsusabi-nuri (“iron-rust lacquering”) he simulated the look of rusty iron using charcoal dust, vinegar, and iron-oxide filings. Shitan-nuri, the most elaborate of all these finishes, combines a whole range of techniques (including the use of a scratching tool made from a rat’s tooth) to imitate polished Chinese rosewood.”