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“Sometimes just to touch the ground is enough for me,” says Wakako Oe with all the warmth of her plenteous years, “even if not a single plant grows in the garden.”

Wakako Oe

We are talking in the sunlight-filled porchlike area that she has designed off her rambling old house halfway between the valley floor and the mountain peaks of the southern Japan Alps. On all sides we are surrounded by her organic sculptures made from sheaves of grain, large tan gourds, hand-carved wooden puppet heads, bundles of millet, stalks of Japanese pampas grass, nests of twisted roots and seaweed. Many of these are attached to the bent bamboo struts of the semi-outdoor sitting area/tea room that she designed and built.

Outside, Oe’s mint and thyme bushes blanket the ground and give off waves of fragrance when one runs one’s hands across them.

Oe is of a slight build and though her voice is not strong, her presence is. Her gaze is unwavering and clear, and the tones that she speaks in are filled with mirth and surprise. Her presence seems to manifest an urban conciseness, a cosmopolitan currency and clarity, mixed well with the rural richness and warmth of almost two decades of living in the mountains.

In the late ’60s, as a university student in Tokyo, Oe joined anti-Vietnam war demonstrations all over Japan. She then became a reporter for a weekly magazine, which is when she met her partner, Masanori Oe (featured in Alternative Luxuries, June 1). Together they traveled and made films in India and Nepal.

“In Japan in the ’60s and the ’70s it was all about ‘growth,’ ” she says, “especially of the economy. ‘Progress’ meant getting rid of old things. But when we got to India, it was all heading in the opposite direction: They treasured their past. I felt a big sigh of relief coming out of me. I am old enough to remember a time in Japan when there was a different focus.”

When they returned, they lived in Tokyo for more than a decade, and then moved in the early ’80s to the mountains. Throughout, they spent their time educating young people about a different way of living, and also translating Asian philosophical and religious texts.

“When Masanori and I were doing the translations of Krishnamurti or Milarepa or Ramana Maharshi,” says Oe, “we would read and reread about their mystical experiences, and that thinking would color our whole lives. Everything that would happen in our lives, we’d ask, for example, How would Milarepa see that? And we began to see the world that way ourselves.

“Utau Ushi,” acrylic on canvas, by Wakako Oe

“That was a good feeling and a good thing. Yet, especially as a woman who was raising children, feeding children, doing laundry and had to meet the neighborhood people, there was a gap between myself and the work of the translation. Eventually, I began to feel that I had to be as ‘like me’ as I could, not as ‘like Krishnamurti’ as I could.

“That was the point at which I really began to liberate myself. In the end, one has to be honest about what actually feels best to oneself.”

She then adds, looking straight at me, “That’s not such an easy thing, is it?”

Oe’s philosophy isn’t just about introspection. She has spent her whole adult life involved in politics trying to make the world better. At the recent Festival of Life in Nagano, she organized workshops on midwifery, natural child-rearing, nonchemical sanitary napkins and human rights — especially the history of the so-called “comfort women” from countries such as the Philippines and Korea who were used by the Japanese army in World War II. “Because the facts of this history are not taught in the schools,” says Oe, “it could easily happen again.”

Now, besides her activism, she is focused mostly on her art. “At some point,” she says, “I just moved from words to images.”

She began drawing with leftover colored pencils after her children started going to school. “I had my hands full when the kids were around,” she says, “but when they went off I suddenly asked myself, ‘Isn’t there something I wanted to do?’ “

At first she just enjoyed the rough rasping, scratching feeling of colored pencils on old pieces of plywood. “I didn’t want to make images of trees or mountains,” she says, “but at the same time I had something to express. Even more than that, though, I simply liked the scraping, scritch-scritch feeling of the pencils on the plywood.”

Though she is a visual artist, it’s hard to clearly distinguish the line in her work between sound and feeling, body sensation and finished product. “It’s like dancing, isn’t it?” she asks me. “You hear a sound and you want to move. Well, I would get some music from the college students that came here to study with my husband — mostly ‘minimal music’ or ambient music such as Brian Eno — and my hand would start to move.

“A color would tug itself out of me and then the color would want to move. I was only there to put the colors down. It wasn’t a matter of exerting my own will, there was just music and movement, and the colors themselves would play. This would also happen watching the movement of trees, or listening to the stories of Kenji Miyazawa that they would read at night on the radio.”

As she tried different media, such as canvas, paper, India ink or acrylics, the experience and thus the work would change as well. “Each one had a different sensation in my hand: a smoothness, or a sweep, or a different kind of resistance. The feel of the material I was painting on and the feel of the kind of paint produced different kinds of art.”

In fact, in all her work, the emphasis is on the feeling. As Oe says, “Different types of music would call and awaken emotions that had existed before, inside me, and were asleep. They were awakened by the music and came out and through me. That’s why my art isn’t as much drawing as it is giving birth.”

Later in the day, after we have finished our interview, I join her and Masanori and their friends for some weed cutting in a vegetable garden some distance away. When the work is done and everyone is ready to head home along the road, Oe asks if we wouldn’t rather take the path along the river. Everyone else declines, as the high grasses are a favorite place for the mamushi, the most lethal snake in Japan.

Unconcerned, she waves to us and heads away from the group on her own along the shady riverside path. I then remember what Masanori said of her earlier, “Wakako doesn’t live by other people’s standards. Wakako lives by her own standard.”

As I watch her walk off through the tall weeds with several purple wildflowers in her hand, I think, how true that is.