Woodblock prints, or moku hanga, may seem to be the quintessential Japanese art, but they have been embraced by artists around the world.
American artist Richard Steiner, 72, has practiced woodblock printing for most of the 41 years of his residence in Japan.
As a print-making and lettering instructor at Kyoto Seika University since 1980, he has also instructed generations of Japanese students about their native art. Although more of the current students appear to prefer drawing manga, one of the bastions of the university’s art program, a few of his graduates have gone on to become professional print artists.
“Of a class of about 35 students, one or two are usually taken by the art; their lives are changed by it,” he said. In a recent visit to the cramped wooden machiya (townhouse) in a back alley of central Kyoto where he produces his prints, Steiner displayed a 2012 print calendar he had just completed with his students. The calendar’s print run of 170 has already been snapped up by eager subscribers.
Steiner also founded and heads the Kyoto International Woodprint Association, the only major international association for woodblock prints. The group sponsors a print competition and exhibition in Kyoto every four years. “Our sixth KIWA exhibition, although held in late March of this year — only two weeks after the Great East Japan Earthquake, attracted 800 print submissions from 300 artists from 45 countries. There was a tremendous variety of art on display, and some of the prints — produced by Thais, Americans, Turks and others — were real eye-openers.”
Steiner hails from Michigan. He studied ecology at the University of Michigan in 1962, but academic life for a rural boy in the 1960s political ferment of Ann Arbor proved overwhelming, and he dropped out of school after one semester. With three friends, Steiner then formed a photography agency that worked on various projects, including a stint in Egypt for the University of Michigan as the photographer for an archaeological dig in 1967.
“After I came back to Michigan I realized that Ann Arbor was too small. In 1968 I moved to New York City, where I worked for two years as an assistant to Lillian Bassman, a noted photographer for Harper’s Bazaar and other magazines. I met lots of famous people and many very skinny models. Then I became independent, renting a studio and specializing in studio black-and-white female fashion. And then I suffered a breakdown.”
Steiner had been asked to shoot a male model for a fashion magazine, but after shooting all night and developing the film he discovered that due to an elementary equipment mishap during the shooting the film was completely blank. The experience sent him into a tailspin. He stayed in bed for weeks and quit photography completely.
Friends told Steiner about English-teaching jobs available in Japan. He wrote to a job recruiter and soon had an offer to teach English in Hiroshima, housing and airfare paid, at a time when $1 yielded ¥360.
In March 1970, Steiner arrived in Hiroshima to teach at a private English-language school. He rented an apartment near the A-Bomb Dome. “Hiroshima at the time still had uniformed soldiers without legs or arms, begging in the streets, and you still saw houses on stilts in the riverbeds because there was nowhere else to live.”
In Hiroshima, Steiner initially studied ikebana and calligraphy, and was later introduced to a woodblock print master, Masahiko Tokumitsu, one of the founders of the Japan Print Society. He loved the tactile appeal of the craft as well as its egalitarian nature. “With paintings people can buy only one, but with prints 100 people can enjoy the same work.”
At first, Steiner merely imitated his teacher’s representational black-and-white prints of Hiroshima temples and carved wooden dolls, but as he gained confidence he began to experiment with abstract themes. After two years, in 1972, Steiner moved to Kyoto to work for an American Quaker college, returning to Hiroshima when he could to continue studying under Tokumitsu. After 10 years, his mentor bestowed on Steiner a teacher’s license and an artistic name, Tosai.
He subsequently worked for five years as a natural dyer and interior designer for a silk company in Kyoto, which helped him hone his technique. Steiner’s works have been purchased by the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of New York and many other collections and galleries.
When Steiner first arrived, Kyoto was “a low city, a slow city,” he said, of wooden shops, gardens and tradition, with a charm that subsequent development-bent governments have done their best to destroy. “Today Kyoto is just a suburb of Osaka,” he complained.
Steiner has said he considers himself primarily a poet, and many of his works contain a written message, conveyed by the title, some word play or a fragment of a poem. “The title of a work is 50 percent of the meaning,” he said. “With ‘Gray ears,’ for example, I depicted an angry little girl pointing at a bamboo stick in the lower right corner. Her ears are gray because she’s tired of the pointless gossip about sickness and death by the adult women around her.” The bamboo stick is the pointed sotoba found at the back of a gravestone.
Using woodblock prints to satirize conformists and hypocrites, as Steiner does in his 1995 work, “Attention Please,” or to express the pain of the socially marginalized, like the shame-faced caterpillarlike subject of “Webbly” (1990), may appear to be a modern interpretation of the print artist’s role. However, Steiner may also be seen as merely reprising the Edo Period role of ukiyo-e woodblock prints: With their lavish sensuality and depictions of the social underclass, the medium often proffered a nuanced poke in the eye at societal hypocrisy.
One of Steiner’s favorite prints depicts a whimsically drawn character with one blue eye and one black eye. The title is “Yam-Ydolem thinks you are beautiful, too” (2007). He explains: “I’ve depicted a person here, but she’s really a gaijin (foreigner). She’s not dangerous. She’s also not beautiful, but she thinks that she is, and she thinks that all of us are beautiful as well.”
A true artist creates only self-portraits, says art critic Chinshi Yu-shih. Steiner concurs, saying, “All my works are comments by me about my life in Japan.”