For Christine Flint Sato, the key to understanding her adopted homeland has been through the world of sumi-e, a Chinese style of water-ink painting adopted in Japan in the 14th century.
But the Englishwoman, who has lived here for more than three decades, has gone well beyond the world of traditional sumi to create works clearly infused with her own ideas and techniques.
“My works aren’t really traditional ‘sumi-e’ but ‘sumi-works,’ ” Sato says.
Sato’s journey into the world of sumi, and Japan, began in Durham, in northeast England. She had done oil paintings, ceramics and drawings as a university student. But a chance meeting with the Japanese man who was to become her husband drew her into the world of sumi.
“I didn’t know anything about Japan at the time. But I was interested in Japanese art, particularly the brush,” she says.
Moving to Japan after graduation she became captivated by the aesthetic of kanji (Chinese characters) and with calligraphy. But then, after about eight years with her teacher, Sato felt it was time to move on.
“I eventually realized that, although I loved using ink to produce calligraphic art, it was still language. And it wasn’t my language, so I felt a bit of a wall,” she says.
That feeling led Sato, around 1999, to go back into ink abstract forms, but from a sumi, not a calligraphy, angle.
“With calligraphy, it’s characters, and very much a world of line and space, and this black-and-white dichotomy that you play with. What I was getting at was the sensitivity of sumi, the gradation of the ink, and the different marks and textures you can do. It was a much more subtle world,” Sato says.
Soon, she wanted to develop a style that was more abstract, even avant-garde.
“We can learn a lot from Japanese layout and symmetry. It’s very helpful. But I eventually decided to go off by myself and concentrate more on the elemental aspects of what I was interested in — air, space, mark-making, line-making, the relationships between different shades of gray,” she says.
The result of her efforts is a blend of Eastern and Western sensibilities. Sato’s early sumi works are more recognizable as traditional sumi-e creations. But as she progressed and experimented with different techniques, including folding the paper, using toothbrushes and other tools not traditionally associated with sumi-e, her style became much more “modern.”
And how has Sato’s work, which has been exhibited in both England and Japan, been received?
“In England, there is a long tradition of black-and-white print work. But they are fascinated by sumi because there isn’t anything like it there,” she says.
The Japanese reaction to Sato’s work has been more varied.
“Some people are interested in what I’m doing. Sumi-e does have all of these preconceptions, but when Japanese people see my work and hear what I’m trying to do — which is to present sumi in a different way — the response has generally been positive,” she says.
However, she adds: “I haven’t seen a lot of exciting abstract work from the sumi-e world here in Japan, although there are some new things happening in China and Korea. On the calligraphy side in Japan, though, there is a lot more experimental work going on, and people are playing around with kanji.”
It’s not just how the materials for creating sumi works are used, but also the composition of the materials themselves that Sato says attracted her to the art form and her current residence in Ikoma, which borders Nara and Osaka prefectures.
“Nara is the perfect place because it’s the traditional center for sumi-ink making. I’ve also developed an interest in the various kinds of brushes that are used. Some are made of horse hair, but others use goat, squirrel, weasel, or raccoon hair. Many of the brushes are also made in Nara Prefecture,” she says.
This process of learning about the different kinds of materials, Sato says, has ultimately aided her in learning not just about sumi and Japanese art but also about the country she now calls home.
“Looking at all of the different kinds of sumi materials and techniques has helped me relate to sumi as a whole person. It’s been a door into myself — and into Japanese culture,” she says.