Articles From the March 1995 Unification News


The Artist and His Character

by Harry Phillipe

When I look at beautiful works of art form different ages in human history, I often find myself wondering about the character of the artist that created them. The personal lives of many well-known artists have been researched extensively and it is disappointing in many cases to find that the men and women who created some of the most inspiring and significant works of art in human history had very troubled and uninspired personal lives. Many gallery-goers these days are similarly disappointed to find that their favorite contemporary artists, while creating beautiful objects, have unhappy personal lives and very little to say about creating a more beautiful society.

Although I wasn't able to meet him in person, a contemporary artist whose work is on view at the Smithsonian in Washington has inspired me a lot. His name is Kazuo Hiroshima, he is 79 years old and unless you know something about Japanese basketmaking, you have probably never heard of him. The exhibition, "A Basketmaker in Rural Japan," celebrates his life's work and among the 80 baskets on exhibit are backpack and hip baskets used for farming, harvesting and transporting; round, shallow baskets an sieves used for many kitchen and farmyard tasks, and fishing traps, creels and storage baskets. His baskets have served as the everyday tools for the farmers, their wives, and freshwater fishermen of the Hinokage region of the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.

The real eye-opening part of the exhibition is the short video of Mr. Hiroshima explaining his life and work. It shows him walking out into the bamboo grove cutting the stalks, carrying them back to his workshop, pulling the strips and weaving them. He was apprenticed at 15 to a basketmaker, in part because of a lame leg that made him unfit for heavy farm work. Because they owned no property, basketmakers were looked down on by the land-owning farmers. For many years Mr. Hiroshima would travel to the farms in his area, live with the farmers and make exactly the baskets they needed for their various farm tasks. For the baskets that the farmers would wear as backpacks, he would custom fit them for the users.

Mr. Hiroshima's view of his craft is a profound one. "Making a good basket is like a form of prayer, I keep telling myself `Do it well.' I want to make something that will please the person who uses it and suits that person's needs." "If a craftsman chases after money, his work will be no good." "I think about the person when I am making it. It's that person who must be pleased more than myself." His views were no doubt shaped by a very hard life working 12 to 14 hours in summer and 10 hours in winter. In the video, Mrs. Hiroshima recalls having such a difficult apprenticeship, he would fall asleep late at night trying to complete the days's work. He also comments that because everyone knows that his raw material is free to him, nobody wants to pay much for his finished works.

The baskets themselves are visions of perfection, their geometry a wonder. By contrasting the green and brown sides of the bamboo strips, the artist has produced abstracts of harmony. The finely turned curves and exact lines, although grounded in the design of utility, are works of art in the truest sense.

In an age where many artists have become so totally self-absorbed in their own personal visions that defy interpretation, or have set themselves up as imperious social critics, the perfection of the basketmaker's craft displayed here is a refreshing reminder that art can come in simple everyday forms.

Mr. Hiroshima has no apprentice, and plastic baskets are taking the place of the natural bamboo ones that this artist so lovingly crafts. But his tradition will live on in those artists that strive in his spirit. "The handmade thing forms a link between the hearts of the person who makes it and the user. It seems to me that this is the meaning of the craftsman's work." The baskets of Kazuo Hiroshima will be on display until July 9 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery on the mall in Washington D.C.


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