NEW YORK — Armed only with an art knife, Shu Kubo over the last few months has single-handedly built up a fan base after battling blizzards and floods to introduce thousands of Americans to the intricate art of paper-cutting.
The Japanese government appointed the 58-year-old in 2009 as special adviser for culture to reach out to citizens on the East Coast. He hoped to pique their interest in things Japanese.
“I am passionate about delivering my message about ‘kirie’ to as many people as possible,” the contemporary artist, whose work has appeared on postage stamps and on New Year’s greeting cards in Japan, said recently.
Since arriving in New York in December, he has traveled widely throughout the city, to neighboring states and even as far away as Tennessee and West Virginia.
The countless visits to schools, museums, libraries and hospitals to lead workshops and give lectures have buoyed the spirits of the gentle Yamaguchi Prefecture native, opening his eyes to positive differences between the cultures of Japan and the United States.
Whether the students were elementary schoolers or adults, Kubo was impressed by how open and enthusiastic they were, embracing his lessons despite language and cultural barriers.
“I was very happy and surprised to find many participants of my workshop creating their own art pieces based on the pattern we prepared for them to work on,” he explained.
The artist was thrilled when some took the initiative, such as carving their own names in kanji, or adding a sun to a Mount Fuji outline or birds in the background.
At a recent classroom visit with third-graders at PS59, an elementary school in Manhattan, the artist quickly captured their attention after showing them his work.
There was a rendition of the impressive Himeji Castle, which is located in Hyogo Prefecture, and an example of an intricate traditional kimono design.
Kubo often spends hours sketching ordinary scenes, such as falling cherry blossoms. Then using an art knife he carefully cuts the outlines to create multilayered pieces. By using different colored pieces of Japanese “washi” paper he also adds a depth to his pieces.
In the classroom with 20 enthusiastic children at his feet, Kubo gave a lesson about using the sharp art knife.
Methodically, he showed the enthusiastic students the steps. Hanging on every word, they eagerly copied him.
They placed their papers with an outline of a rose over a pad. Then, they began cutting the petals out from the center while moving the knife from top to bottom as instructed.
By the end of the class most completed their work but not without learning more about Japan.
Describing the activity as a “grownup thing to do,” Sofia Antolini was pleased with the outcome. She planned to go home after school to search online for more information about Himeji Castle and wanted to start learning Japanese.
Another 8-year-old was equally impressed. “I think it is really cool,” Julia Catrambone said. “I am going to pick Japan for my project.”
Kubo felt he taught the children more than just cutting techniques and had instilled in them an appreciation of their relationship to the piece they created.
The visit was arranged by Hisayo Izumo, a mother of another third-grader, who contacted Kubo after taking a workshop from him at the Nippon Club.
Izumo thought his visit would be the perfect way to enhance the third-grade curriculum. Each spring the three classes learn about world cultures.
“It is a great introduction to Japan,” said Jane Youn, one of the teachers.
After observing the classes, Izumo thought it valuable to have a Japanese national teaching a “hands-on” activity that required such concentration.
“Attention to details and precision techniques are part of Japanese culture and I hope the students could learn about these through Mr. Kubo’s class,” she added.
As his first visit there was canceled due to a snowstorm, the students were especially eager to finally meet him. They greeted him in Japanese. Some even asked for his autograph.
“I like Mr. Kubo’s artwork, as it captures so well the beauty of seasonal traditions of Japanese life, which I feel nostalgic about while living in New York,” added Izumo, who has lived in New York for the past 20 years.
As word has spread about the classes, requests for his visits have piled up. Kubo is likely to return to the United States again in the near future.