The craft groups and lumberyards in this second part of the Japanese woodworking festival cover a period of about 400 years. The occupations of craftspeople at work were painted on screens for castles and temples, carved on woodblocks that were bound into books, or sold as individual prints. The audience for the screens and books were the upper classes of society. Often, for the amusement of the readers, books featured “poetry contests” between craftspeople on opposing pages. These are similar to painted scenes of peasants going about their daily lives in seasonal calendars found in European medieval prayer books and manuscripts.
Some of the images are, like the one above, from works designated as national treasures or important cultural properties. In the last few years many have become available in higher resolutions and, especially the highly-detailed painted screens, are just plain fun to study.
Similar to western societies, entire families were engaged in making goods for sale. Multiple generations commonly lived and worked in small two-room homes. The front room faced the street and was used to display and sell goods and as a workspace. The back room and small courtyard was the living space and also where much of the goods were made.
In his comments for this image Kaemmerer noted the blades and saws hanging at the shop front, small items in a box near the toolmaker and a display at the shop front that might be nails.
In this second image there is bit more detail and a with more detail and a better view of the forge used to heat the metal in a small shop. Below is a toolmaker with a much bigger operation.
In the same book by artist Hasegawa Mitsunobu a crew is crafting heavy tools for use in a quarry. A much larger forge is needed for this operation with a dedicated “forge man.”
Several years ago I sent the top-left image (15th century) to Wilbur Pan. In his comments on his blog he noted there was no Japanese plane, but there was a yari-kanna, or spear plane, and this is possibly an indication of when the planes used today came into use. The image at top-right, with unknown artist and source, is notable for the tattoos on the carpenter in the foreground and nice curly wood shavings. It is just possible the plank acting as his workbench is a sake barrel.
The busy scene above (except for the guy in the back taking a nap) may be at the carpenter’s workshop with prep work underway or it may the building site. In the background is a drawing of the building plan, something not seen very often in these illustrations. One of the tools near the seated master is the yari-kanna, or spear plane. Other things to note are the tool box in front of the building plan and lunch has arrived.
A very pristine building site of what may be, considering the size of beams, a warehouse. Seated at the corner of the building is the very important sharpener, because as we all know, sharp fixes everything.
The illustration at the top probably shows three generations of the turner’s family and emphasizes the family nature of the business. You can also see how stakes are used to stabilize the lather. The image of the lathe and stand is from the Kinmo-zu-i (Enlightening Illustrations), Japan’s first illustrated dictionary. The dictionary is comprised of 14 volumes of woodblock illustrations with written descriptions.
Working as the power for the turning lathe was an exhausting job as emphasized by these two images. On left, the worker stops and gasps for breath. On the right, his counterpart strains to keep the lathe turning. Also note the large brace employed to work on a larger container.
Some things don’t change much over a period of 200 years: the tools are the same, the body is used as a work-holding device and the wheels are made the same way (except on the bottom-right – is that felly being held in place by magic?).
I’ve often wondered if Hokusai made that barrel extra large just to frame Mount Fuji.
Like the image from Eric Kaemmerer’s book, we get a good sense of how the family was involved in making goods for sale and how the living space was dominated by the workshop.
Back in 2016 (when we were all so much younger) I wrote a piece on Japanese and Estonian cooperage and included information and video of a Japanese company still engaged in making barrels. If you would like to read it you can find it here.
The Cypress Woodcrafters (himono-ya)
Working with hinoki, these craftsmen are making round containers, sanbo (a small stand for offerings in Shinto temples), trays, small tables and stands. After splitting thin sheets of wood, the wood is scored and bent into place. A clamp holds the piece together until it can be stitched together. In the large image the master uses a yari-kanna to smooth the wood and the worker on the right is bending (with the aid of his mouth) a sheet into a round shape. The worker in the foreground has a clamp in place as he stitches the wood together. Two sanbo are stacked to the right of the master and in the background supplies are stacked. The screen paintings from the Kita-in Temple are true treasures in depicting how artisans worked.
The Shamisen Maker
Many Lost Art Press readers make and play musical instruments, even banjos (hello, Mattias). So, I have included the shamisen in this post.
While the craftsmen on the right work on smoothing the neck of a shamisen, the guy on the left trudges home looking like the girls said “no way” or he got kicked out the band. The screens painted by Iwasa Matabei have so many interesting scenes and I couldn’t resist including him.
Although this is one of those staged photos taken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries it does give us a glimpse at how the shamisen is made. The drum is covered by an animal skin (formerly of an animal usually viewed as a pet) which the maker appears to be applying in this photo.
The woman on the left tunes the shamisen; the woman on the right plucks the three strings with a baci, a type of plectrum, cousin to the guitar pick.
The Comb Maker
Fans, umbrellas, sandals, small boxes and combs are just some of the many personal items that were, and continue to be, made of wood. I chose combs because they are a practical item used by women and men and are also an ornamental item.
The kanban, or shop sign, makes it to easy find this comb maker. Comb making requires the skill to make precision cuts, both for blanks and to cut teeth that are evenly spaced. An ornamental comb, or kushi, required a high level of skill and refinement with finishing and decoration completed by a lacquer artist.
There are many painters in the books illustrating craftspeople at work, but I could not find one that was definitely a lacquer artist. However, we do have an illustration of Japanese sumac trees, urushinoki, being tapped for sap to make lacquer, or urushi.
Hara Yoyusai used the maki-e technique of sprinkling gold onto a lacquered surface before it hardened. This raises the design elements and provides texture. The comb on the bottom is gold and the fireflies are black. Note how the painted design extends over the teeth of the comb. The comb at the top has been repaired, a common practice, because there is still beauty in broken things.
Only one image of this craft and it calls for alteration: boatwrights building a big boat.
Bringing Lumber to Market and the Lumberyards
Trees are cut, trimmed and start the float down river to lumber merchants and their yards. These are scenes not usually found in the books featuring town-based craftsmen.
The three craftsmen at the very top of this post need only walk a short distance down their street and into the next panel of their screen to find a lumber merchant. The merchant probably received his supply via boat on the nearby river.
The 1657 Great Fire of Meireki was a conflagration that destroyed over 60% of Edo (Tokyo)and caused the deaths of over 100,000. After the fire lumbar yards were moved east of the Sumida river and further from the city. Thanks to the well-known 19th-century woodblock artists, Hokusai and Hiroshige we have two views of Tokyo’s Fukagawa-kiba lumberyard.
The lumberyard was its own city with a maze of canals, bridges and warehouses.
The lumberyards grew as more land was reclaimed.
In the early 1970s the lumberyards were moved further away to reclaimed land. The old lumber yard is now Kiba Park, the newer yards are Shin-kiba.
To bring the Japanese Woodworking Matsuri to an end I will leave you with a link to high-resolution images of the two screens of “Scenes in and Around Kyoto” (Funaki edition) painted around 1615 by Iwasa Matabei (Collection of Tokyo National Museum, National Treasure of Japan).
You can find the link here. Each screen is made of six panels. When you open the link click on the highest resolution. Scroll to the bottom of the page and you will see two links, one for each screen.
Your challenge is to find this pumpkin-panted Portuguese visitor:
We start our matsuri, or festival, with work commissioned by Philip Franz von Siebold, German physician and botantist. In 1823, under the auspices of the Dutch East Indies Company he was posted to Dejima, an artificial island and trading post off the coast of Nagasaki. For over 200 years, first for the Portuguese and later for the Dutch, Dejima was the conduit for trade with Japan during the isolationist Edo period (1600-1869).
Siebold collected a vast number of plants that were later taken to Leiden. He taught western medical practices and he, along with others, documented Japanese flora, fauna, customs and culture. Siebold quickly began the multi-volume “Archiv zur Beschreibung Nippons” (Archive for Describing Japan). The archive included this illustration of tools:
Siebold was allowed to hire artist Kawahara Keiga (1786-1860?) to further their documentation efforts. Kawahara was taught western painting techniques by Carl Hubert de Villeneuve. He painted harbor scenes, plants, animals and all manner of things. His artwork included the hand tools used by Japanese craftsmen.
Kawahara painted on paper, wood and silk. An archive of his work is held by the Netherlands National Museum of Ethnology (Museum Volkenkunde Leiden). Below is a gallery of Japanese hand tools painted on silk by Kawahara. At the end of the gallery are three illustrations by other artists, each of which has been used in previous blog posts (now they are all together!). After the gallery is a link to use if you would like to see several more paintings of tools, boats, sea life and more.
The link will take you to a Search Page. If it comes up in Dutch you can select your alternate language at the top right of the page. In the Search Box enter Kawahara Keigo and press Search. Use the Green Arrows on the right to advance to Page 11. Kawahara’s work is found on Pages 11 to 51.
Kawahara’s cats! After all, this is the Lost Art Press and Cats blog.
Years ago I attended the Southern Highlands Craft Show in Asheville, North Carolina, and bought a goose carved by an older woman. She had two geese, but I could only afford one. The goose was in the charging position: head down and neck extended. It was the start of my appreciation for carved animals. Unfortunately, a couple years later the beak was chewed up by a long-haired black cat with a bum leg and an attitude (side note: this cat also enjoyed being vacuumed using the upholstery attachment). The damaged goose was packed away to limit further damage, and the cat with the bum leg moved with me seven times in three states, outlived two younger cats and died when she was 18. I did not acquire another wooden bird until well after she was gone.
Now, I have a small collection of wooden birds and will share some of them with you. I have also included some historical examples of practical items shaped like birds. We’ll start with a few from southeast Pennsylvania, a well-known region of talented folk artists.
Dan Strawser has been carving since the 1970s, and his wife, Donna,paints the birds. I’ve seen other birds by Strawser with wings carved in a similar manner. It looks as though the bird is seconds away from lifting off. Strawser did not sand the surface, allowing the surface carving to stand out and give the bird dimension. The bird and rounded base are painted a uniform black with only a small dot of white on each eye. Sometimes there is an urge to paint a base a contrasting color or pattern. For this bird I think a different color would detract from the overall image.
These may be house sparrows or song sparrows or some other birds entirely. Either way, I was attracted to the composition and the painting. Each branch with bird is one piece of wood with saw marks still visible. The body positions of the birds capture the quick movements of their real-life counterparts. Martin’s patterning and use of color on the birds and branches is nicely done, and the solid dark green base complements and anchors the composition.
One of the challenges in carving birds is what to do with the legs and feet. Alvin Martin painted the birds in a natural position with legs bent under the body and only the painted feet shown perching on the branches.
This little bird hangs from a ceiling fan light pull in a room where my mother spends much of her time. Bluebirds are her favorite. As you can see, the paint work is wonderful. Bluebirds are frequent visitors to our yard. One spring I watched a male bluebird trying to show two perplexed youngsters how to take a bath.
As much as I value the work of the carvers of southeastern Pennsylvania, both their observations of the natural world and their creative efforts to craft birds and other animals, I also appreciate a different approach.
Peter Dunham has designed a variety of animals, with most comprised of two to four pieces. The appeal to me is stripping the figure of an animal to its defining elements, in this case, the long curving neck and the large and wide-flung wings.
Putting Birds to Work
Domesticated birds have often inspired craftspeople to make bird-shaped boxes for use in the home. There are many examples of this idea in the “Peasant Art” series of books by Charles Holmes.
The top of the box (one piece or two?) flips open and it looks like there may be a catch mechanism at the base of the tail. A kitchen box to hold eggs is a utilitarian item. It can be a plain square box and does not need decoration. However, when the maker matches the design of the box to its use it becomes an object of joy. The curve of the bird’s neck, the detail given the eyes and beak and the meticulous chip carving add nothing to the quality of eggs stored within. But, for the woman or child that transfers the eggs from an old straw basket to this box it provides a moment of pleasure in the long day of work on a farm.
The idea of a bird-shaped box has a long history and can be found in many cultures. This box was used for cosmetics. The wings, attached with pins near the neck, form the lid and are decorated with crosshatching. The wings, likely cut from one piece of wood, swing out to open the box.
Another New Kingdom cosmetics box with a missing lid allows a better view of the bowl-shaped body of the bird. As can be seen in the color photo and the line drawings, this duck box has a greater level of carved detail. Although they are not necessary for the function of the box, we find the duck’s feet! With the wings closed and sitting in one’s hand this would be a delightful little duck that just so happens to be a box.
Back, or forward, to the 20th century and one more practical item in the shape of a bird.
This egg dish, or bowl, is quite dashing with handles formed by a beak and a tail of almost equal size. The bird’s “crew cut” comb just adds to charm of this piece.
Back to My Birds
This bird, by a carver in the exotic western portion of Pennsylvania, just sings. Dave has captured the dynamic moment before a bird launches itself into the air and takes off like a shot.
I don’t know who made this little bird or where it was made. Except for a portion of the head and neck it is covered in moon-shaped feathers. The head, back and wings are stained, adding dimension and life to the carving.
The wings are not perfectly centered on the body, but it takes nothing away from the piece. I find myself reaching for this bird almost every day. It is a little treasure.
One bird I do not attempt to pick up very often is the largest bird in my small collection, Rémy the Rooster.
I don’t normally give names to inanimate objects, just the special ones. Rémy was purchased from a seller in northeast Alabama close to where that corner of Alabama meets Tennessee and Georgia. It is possible he was made in the southern Appalachians. He was dated as being made in the 1940s, but could be a bit earlier or later. Whoever made this rooster had a good sense of humor.
I found a similar rooster, very likely by the same maker, on a high-end sale site that dated it as 19th century. It sold for more than five times what I paid for my bird and its shipping cost. To me, the 19th century date is doubtful. The entire bird was painted a mottled reddish color that obscured carved details on the head. I suspect the paint job was an effort to artificially age and date the piece.
My rooster is painted black and, based on several nicks and dings, there is no undercoat of a different color. The comb and wattle are dark red.
Carved details on his head include curlicues on the comb and a simple round eye rimmed with white. The carved line of the beak is defined with dark red paint. There is a chip off the end of the beak and on one wattle (or fleshy caruncle) and some dings here and there. Whatever his age, he is in good condition.
Rémy is made of one piece of wood and is staked into a base that is 4 inches high. A feather edge is carved above his legs, and the legs have spurs. His feet are carved into the base, a common feature for many wooden roosters.
One of the problems the bird carver must solve, besides how to present the legs and feet, is the weight of the tail. Often this is solved by carving the bird and base as one piece, or by placing the bird on a base as was done in the crow/raven in the top photo. The showy tail feathers of a rooster require a different solution as the weight and extension of the tail can easily tip over even small carvings. Rooster crafters have solved this problem by chopping out the underside of the tail feathers, thereby reducing the mass of the tail.
Now, I would never knowingly photograph the hind quarters of anyone, even to show you the rooster-tail solution. On the other hand, I have no qualms using a photograph taken by someone else (of the previously mentioned expensive rooster) as a means of illustrating the solution.
Although we may not be able to perfectly identify the species of each wooden bird, or have exact information on when and who made them, what we do have is handmade work that brings us pleasure. By extension, these wooden examples can help guide us to have a greater appreciation for the birds outside our windows.
My internet service was out for a while and I wasn’t able to respond to the comments to Chris’ reading of “A Visitor Comes to Covington” or to the backstory of the book. Thank you for the many very kind comments.
I wasn’t sure how the book would be received. In the letter sent with the book my suggestion was to put it on a high shelf in the library, push it well to the back and put something heavy on it. Alternatively, it could be buried in the basement. Fortunately, the Stick Chair Badge Approval & Distribution Committee (Chris and Megan) liked the book and I heard there was a bit of teary-eyedness when each had read the book. I didn’t intend to make anyone cry but have to confess I got a bit of moisture around my eyes when Chris read the book.
Below is a photo of my last cat, Bunky Beanie Bronzini. He was a big and solid 15-pounder capable of herding me towards the kitchen when he thought I might be headed in the wrong direction. If he had lived another few years he would gained another name or two.