American artisans try to help Japan appreciate its ‘washi’

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo

At a studio nestled in the woods in Saitama Prefecture, where it is quiet enough to hear the sound of a nearby stream, a 63-year-old man carefully tilts a wood-framed screen to create the traditional paper known as “washi.”

It is not an uncommon scene in a country where the craft of making handmade paper is still practiced nationwide — until you find that the man is not Japanese and that his work has helped people rediscover the beauty of washi.

Richard Flavin, a Boston native who has been living in Japan for about 35 years, crafts a variety of washi artworks, from abstract collages to woodblock prints, interior crafts and quilt covers.

The formative stage of his work involves embedding the paper with natural materials, ranging from plant fibers and weeds to cedar bark. This has prompted him to describe his works as achievements resulting from “communication with the material.”

“The work is always stimulating. These materials teach me the next step, and that’s the most exciting thing about this process . . . and I like the aesthetic of Japan, so they are always in my work,” Flavin said at his home in Ogose, Saitama Prefecture. His studio is next door.

Since he likes the traditional Japanese aesthetic of “wabi sabi,” which connotes austere beauty and elegant simplicity, he often uses what he calls “tone-downed color,” such as earth colors and charcoal gray, to give it a more “warm or natural feel.”

A Japanese art coordinator who has known Flavin for some 20 years said his works have taught her about the beauty of washi.

“At a time when Japanese people have wrongly labeled washi as old-fashioned and forgotten about it, it is Mr. Flavin who said, ‘Wait, Japan has such wonderful things,’ ” said Kyoko Ishihara, vice president of an art gallery in Tokyo’s Ginza district.

Flavin’s works show “a mind that is more Japaneselike than a Japanese,” she said. But his works are also “modern” at the same time, probably because he has “a different view of Japan from ordinary Japanese people.”

Flavin’s interaction with Japan began when he visited Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 1968 for a short sightseeing trip while he was posted at a U.S. Army base in South Korea.

During a stay of about 10 days mostly in the city, which was once the capital of a dynasty of shoguns, Flavin was impressed by the scenic view he had at a temple tearoom and found his interest in Japan deepening.

He started living in Japan the following year, hoping to learn about woodblock prints. But he developed an interest in Japanese papermaking while studying for two years at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.

“When I wanted to learn to make washi, my teacher said, ‘Artists don’t make washi, you use it.’ Actually I didn’t think I was going to make it. I just wanted to know more about it,” Flavin said.

He started to learn papermaking in Ogawa, Saitama Prefecture, which has a 1,300-year history of making washi. He moved there in 1976 and opened a studio later before moving to Ogose.

“The formation (of washi) was tricky at the beginning — how to form the sheets evenly. So we would practice and make 100 or 200 sheets a day,” Flavin said, recalling his days spent training at an experimental papermaking facility then run by the prefecture.

The people at the facility were surprised to see an American without even much fluency in Japanese pursuing the making of washi.

“It’s a tough job and they couldn’t understand why a person would want to do this work. Nowadays, these people are respected as craftsmen. But at that time, they were paper laborers, really,” he said.

As part of an effort to improve the quality of his paper, Flavin grows his own paper mulberry, called “kozo.” It is the main material from which washi is made. Nowadays many Japanese papermakers import their raw materials from Thailand or the Philippines.

After harvesting kozo and stripping the bark in wintertime with the help of volunteers, Flavin boils and washes it in a stream near his home to remove the specks. Each step is a painstaking process.

Some of Flavin’s washi, including paper made from kozo and from pineapple, was listed in an updated version of a book of paper samples titled “Washi — Handmade Paper of Japan,” which was published in 2006 by the nationwide association of handmade paper makers.

“Mr. Flavin cultivates the raw material himself, and is sticking to the ancient form of papermaking,” said Shohei Asano, president of a washi paper outlet in Tokyo who helped compile the book.

While Flavin has been involved in the washi world as an artist and papermaker, others have come to Japan from abroad to study more about it.

Paul Denhoed, 37, from Toronto, started living in Japan in 2002, obtaining a scholarship to conduct research on washi.

Denhoed has helped Flavin at his studio and is especially interested in the washi-making process — which he says is more labor intensive and difficult than the Western papermaking process but results in “a material made of beautiful intact, natural fibers.”

He has visited many Japanese villages with a history of papermaking, including those in Shimane and Fukui prefectures, to gather information on techniques at each studio and learn how differences in those techniques can affect the quality of the product.

Both Flavin and Denhoed have acquired considerable knowledge of washi, which has led to offers to teach the traditional art to the public.

Flavin has taught in an international school in Tokyo, and Denhoed has recently been asked to give lessons at a private unified junior high and high school in Saitama Prefecture.

The two admit, however, to feeling a bit “strange” as foreigners teaching a Japanese traditional art.

Flavin said he hopes this will prompt the Japanese to think about why this situation has occurred. Denhoed seemed to accept it as part of “globalization.”