Celebrating ‘washi’ in tune with Kyoto winters

by Angela Jeffs

Traditional farmhouses amid wintry landscapes. Schoolchildren under brightly colored umbrellas cross snow-covered paddy fields. Footprints mark an otherwise pristine street scene after a snowfall. Then, as if to remind us that summer will soon be coming round again, a woman bearing a child on her back converses with a friend cutting watermelons for sale in front of an indigo-blue “noren” curtain.

Collectors and admirers of Sarah Brayer’s work already know that her exhibition “Celebrating Washi” opened last night at the Kato Gallery in Hiroo, Tokyo. Many will have queued to snap up hitherto unseen artworks made from handmade paper. She has that kind of following — and not only in Japan.

You can find her paper works and prints in collections as far afield as London’s British Museum, the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Museum in the U.S., the American Embassy in Tokyo and Xerox Corp. in New York. An enormous body of work that represents 20 years of study and experimentation in all three countries.

The oldest of five children, Sarah was a quiet and sensitive type of kid who liked making things and reading. “I used to watch my mother (who is a writer as well as an artist) paint us — we were her models — from when I was very small. When I did my first oil painting, I realized how much I had learned from watching her.”

With supportive parents and teachers, Sarah began art classes at the art museum in Rochester, N.Y., from age 6 and continued from there. “I graduated from Connecticut College in May 1979 and then spent the summer teaching ceramics at the same museum in Rochester until leaving for Japan six months later.”

She came here because she had developed a fascination with “the design and fine tonal gradations of Japanese prints.” Also, having spent part of 1978 studying in London, she wanted more adventure abroad. “I loved the perspective of living in a culture not my own, especially when that culture meant Kyoto.”

She had always liked Japanese “washi,” but only began collaging it into her prints five years later. “Initially I was attracted to washi’s texture: the softness of the edges and the marvelous variety.” Then in 1985, while working in a friend’s print studio in New York, she noticed artworks made of washi.

“Kathy (Carracio) suggested I go visit the paper studio Dieu Donne, around the block in Soho. The day I went, I met another artist in the elevator who told me how she worked at the studio several times a year. When we stepped inside, and I saw the possibilities of working with liquid pulp, something clicked. I thought, ‘Why make plain sheets when you could ‘paint’ with pulp and create images?’ ”

Shortly after, Sarah booked time at the studio and made her first paper works. When she returned to Kyoto the following month, she knew she had a new task ahead of her: making paper works in Japan. “I went to the paper shop in my neighborhood and asked the proprietor, Yoshihiro Taki, where I could make paper. He said, ‘Well why don’t you go to my brother’s “fusuma” factory in Fukui (prefecture)?’ A week later he took me there for my first session, and I’ve been working at Dieu Donne and Taki paper mills ever since.”

Initially she created images of nudes as an extension of a series of bath-related prints she had been working on. But at the Taki mill in Imadate — a famous papermaking center since the Heian period — she could work really large. “One- by 2-meter sheets are standard, so I did some life-size flying nudes, which expressed the joy I felt in trying a new medium. From there I moved into landscape.”

Sarah learned how to layer colored “mitsumata” (daphne) pulp and build up layers of mountains, mist, etc. onto a base sheet of “kozo” (mulberry). Thus she was able to form an image not unlike a painting, except that it was made entirely of pulp. “After that I became interested in more-abstract imagery, and began using the medium for ‘action painting.’ “

She would mix up huge vats of pigmented pulp, in say four colors, then form a base sheet. “I would then take the energy of whatever arose creatively at that moment — maybe an upward stroke — and pour in the red pulp, then tip the screen, pour over it, and jostle it around until an image emerged from the combination of movement and intent.”

In all cases, she says, she tries to allow the medium its own voice — meaning “that I utilize the characteristics most unique to paper itself: the texture, feathery edges, the fact that it’s wet when you use it and it can be blended, and that you can make radical changes by pouring over what is already laid down.”

One of the technical challenges in handling pulp is the weight. Washi pulp is heavy when wet, and to achieve control she may need two or three other people to help her manipulate the larger tools. Also, it’s hard to predict the color when dry.

Making screens, scrolls and framed paper works, her last exhibition in Tokyo was two years ago. All the pieces on show until Dec. 7 are current, featuring a series of winter landscapes that utilize soft mitsumata fibers to create the impression of snow. She also has several new editions printed on washi.

Asked the major turning points in her career to date, she counted them off on her fingers. 1984: she stopped teaching English and devoted herself full time to her art. 1985-6: finding the paper studios in New York and Imadate. 1988: renting an obi factory in Kyoto as a studio. 1988: her first museum show, at the Museum of Modern Art in Shiga Prefecture. And 1992: a special solo show in Kyoto. “I made very large paper works which hung all around the outside of Byodoin Temple.”

A celebration of washi indeed.