Sunday, June 21, 2009

drawing hydrangeas out of season

Here's the hydrangea etegami that I mentioned in my previous post. It depicts the hydrangea in my own yard, late in the year, just before the first snowfall in November. Hydrangea is a plant associated with tsuyu, the rainy season. Famous paintings and woodblock prints often show hydrangea in the rain, lush and dewy-looking. Those familiar with the climate of Japan, know that the rainy season is now (June~July) just about everywhere in Japan--except Hokkaido. We don't really have a rainy season, at least not like the rest of Japan does. And flowers don't even form on our hydrangea bushes until mid to late July. They continue to bloom until late fall. As winter approaches, the blossoms dry on the branches, and as they dry, their color undergoes subtle changes. Ours start out blue, but as winter approaches, some of the blossoms take on purplish and greenish hues. The leaves too, take on the autumnal tints of orange and brown with swatches of red. When the air begins to smell like imminent snowfall, I cut the stems of the flowering branches, bring them inside, and hang them upside down from a clothesline in the laundry room. When the stems and the blossoms are completely stiff and dry, I arrange them in a large ceramic pot to display during our long winter.

In my second (and final) year of participating in a post office-sponsored etegami group, we were given long cards to try our hands at long-ish subject matter. I drew hydrangea for the first time, and was pleased enough with the result to submit it for the annual post office etegami exhibit. I received some interesting feedback from my fellow etegami artists. (1) I used too many colors (2) I didn't leave enough uncolored space (3) hydrangea is a kigo (seasonal word used in poetry) for the rainy season, and is not usually depicted in art outside of that season.

I was a fledgling etegami artist, and hadn't yet grasped the etegami ideal of simplicity in form and color, or the technique of moving the ink brush slowly enough to make the lines wobble. After all these years, I still struggle against using too many colors. On the other hand, maybe I'm not trying very hard to tame that tendency. I guess deep down inside, I'm satisfied with the way I use color. Same with drawing subjects outside the seasons with which they are associated. I'm not going to draw a strawberry in the wintertime. But since the hydrangea is actually there in my yard in November, blooming and changing in subtle ways, I figure it's all right to try to capture it in an etegami, even if it isn't the rainy season. Am I being rebellious? I don't know. But there are almost as many etegami styles as there are etegami artists, even in Japan. Besides, I draw for my own pleasure. And so should you.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

etegami and the postal service

Years ago, when I first took up etegami, I was a member of an etegami class that was sponsored by the Japan Postal Service. The JPS sponsors many such classes all over the country, and it makes sense when you realize that etegami artists can be depended on to purchase many, many postage stamps. Post offices all over the country hold etegami exhibits at least once a year, and people who belong to a JPS-sponsored class are strongly encouraged to submit samples of their work. The attached photo was taken at one such post office exhibit. I googled "post office" and "etegami" and discovered that just about every local post office had a website with a page about the etegami classes they sponsor, as well as photos from their exhibits.

The first year, I tried to get out of submitting anything. Although I was secretly pleased with my progress, my ego couldn't take being compared to other, more seasoned, artists. I did eventually succumb to pressure by submitting an etegami of an apple. I no longer have it, and I never made a copy. The second year, I submitted two etegami. One was of hydrangea in the fall. I was actually quite proud of it, but the comments it drew from my group leader and other etegami artists gave me an education that has stuck with me. I will tell you about it in my next post.

Friday, June 12, 2009

extending a subject over more than one card

Here is a series of three etegami I drew on the subject of tsukushi, the fertile stems of the Equisetum arvense, commonly known as the Field Horsetail or Common Horsetail. Tsukushi are one of the first plants to come up in the spring, but they soon make way for the taller, bushier, greener, sterile stems known in Japan as sugina. Both the fertile and sterile stems have jointed segments that remind me a little of bamboo. They grow profusely at the edges of our garden wall, especially on the public side of the wall where neighbors consider them an eyesore and gently hint that I should be pulling them out. But I find tsukushi to be a charming plant. I like their shape. I like how they grow in clusters of mixed heights and mixed tones of brown, as though they were a close and happy family that enjoyed each other's company. They are edible too, though not exactly full of flavor. I've heard people say tsukushi are only palatable when they first come up, when they are at their most succulent stage. But I kind of like them when they've gotten a bit dry, when their tufted "heads" get a wee bit crunchy. At least once each spring, I harvest a handful of tsukushi and toss them into a lightly oiled frying pan with boiled spaghetti noodles for a nutty accent, or simmer them in a soy-based sauce and fold them into an omelet. Oh dear, here I am again, going on and on about eating the subjects of my drawings. Getting back to the drawing itself: I happened to place three of the tsukushi etegami side by side, and was pleasantly surprised by the way the "field" of tsukushi spread out in either direction. It is not uncommon for etegami artists to place two (or more) cards side by side, extending a single subject over both cards. Usually something long, like a whole daikon radish or corn-on-the-cob. Each card will bear only a segment of the whole drawing. The cards can be mailed off to different recipients, or they can be mailed to the same recipient staggered over a period of time. I didn't have that in mind when I drew my tsukushi, but I accidentally came close to producing just that sort of etegami. Etegami is meant to be mailed-- not hoarded. But if I were to frame these three cards in a hinged three-part frame, it would qualify as a triptych, wouldn't it? Then again, that could lead to visions of grandeur. I like to say that etegami art is not Art with a capital A. It's of the people, to be enjoyed as part of everyday life. The accompanying words? Oh yes, the letters says "mure," which means flock (or band, or troop, or cluster). I drew it for an elderly woman in my church. A dear sweet lady who is part of the same flock as I am.

Monday, June 8, 2009

something pretty for a change

Yes, I know. I am drawn to subjects like the oddly shaped vegetable, the spotty fruit, the nearly empty jar, the rusted can opener, and the bug-eaten leaf. But I can do pretty too. See? Sometimes even I like pretty. "Not even Solomon in all his glory..." Matthew 6:29

Sunday, June 7, 2009

etegami from the heart

Every once in a while I google "etegami" to see what shows up. In the past year, I've noticed that more and more Japanese etegami bloggers are using the alphabet spelling of etegami, and even posting the titles of their work in English. One site that I go back to time and time again is the official website of the Japan Etegami Society. They publish a monthly magazine that I have been curious about for a long time, but it's a bit pricey at 800 yen an issue, and I hadn't been able to take the plunge. Last week, however, I could no longer contain my curiosity, so I faxed them with a request for an introductory copy. To my delight, the June 2009 issue arrived soon thereafter. The title of the magazine is ETEGAMI written in bold Roman letters, which I thought was a bit unusual for a Japanese magazine on the subject of a traditional Japanese folkart practiced mostly by older Japanese men and women. Perhaps, I thought, it was simply a design strategy. But once I started flipping through the pages, I noticed a number of articles about etegami being taught and enjoyed in regions other than Japan-- particularly Hawaii and Brazil. Well, that made sense. Both those areas have a high percentage of citizens of Japanese descent. The photographs, however, showed young people with clearly western features enjoying lessons in etegami. Cool. Etegami really is becoming an international art form. The magazine surprised me in other ways. It featured articles on the late, great wood-block print artist Munakata Shiko, as well as Edo-period ukiyo-e. And another one on the work of the calligrapher Inoue Yuichi. The title of the June issue was Training Your Ability to Feel Deeply, and was subtitled with the words: "when your heart is moved, you can draw good etegami." Wow, heavy stuff. The magazine is filled with photos of etegami sent in by etegami artists from all over the world. Their styles are all so very different from one another. This magazine is serious reading material. Maybe 800 yen isn't too much to charge for it after all. I ended up paying for a year's subscription (each issue is cheaper that way). If I come across something I just have to share with you, I will certainly blog about it here. Stay tuned.