Boarding a train bound for Shiroko, I was thinking about Harry Parkes. It was late April and this was one of several journeys that I made to different parts of rural Japan earlier this year in order to see some extraordinary processes connected with handmade paper – processes which radically change the physicality of paper, some which render it waterproof, others which leave it soft and malleable like cloth. These are papers rarely seen nowadays but 150 years ago or so, when Harry Parkes was travelling around Japan collecting paper samples for the British Government, they would have been familiar to many inhabitants of the islands.
The Parkes Collection lay undisturbed in the V&A for nearly a century – from the date when it entered the museum in 1871 until 1978 when it was rediscovered by Hans and Tanya Scholler. The original inventory that lies with the collection is currently held in the Paper Conservation Studio. It reads, ‘…paper for: straining oil; tying hair; tying presents; temple slides; wrapping medicines in; making bags for tooth powder; letters; poems; …’. In other words, papers with particular qualities for particular purposes.
It was this collection that first drew me to the Paper Conservation Studio. For many years I have used paper as the main support for my work, an interest initiated when I studied as a Monbusho Scholar in Kyoto between 1986-8. I have been interested in its affinity to skin and also in the tension created between the thinness of the material and the physical presence that it seems to carry. I see the changing of the paper’s physicality as integral to the drawing process and have a variety of processes to achieve this: folding, starching, waxing, oiling, piercing, singeing or burning. The Parkes’ Collection is therefore particularly interesting for me. After in-depth discussions with Pauline Webber, (an expert on the collection and at that time, Head of the Studio) and revisiting certain sections of the Collection over a number of months, I decided to try to see some of these increasingly rare papers actually being made in Japan. Funding from the Daiwa Foundation made this possible.
An invitation from Kyoto Arts Centre to carry out a two-month guest residency gave me the opportunity to travel to the paper workshops. The trip to Shiroko enabled me to see not only katakami – incredibly intricately cut stencils for textiles – but also to visit the area of the city which still produces shibukami, the special paper used for these stencils. Shibukami is made by repeatedly coating laminated paper of several layers with fermented persimmon tannin, and then smoking it in a specially constructed smoke house. The resulting paper resists water, is a rich rust colour and carries the strong smell of the smoking process.
As with the workshops producing shibukami, those involved in cutting the paper for stencils are few in number. However a visit to one of Shiroko’s temples brought it home just how extensive the practice was in the past – at its entrance is a stone, the surface of which has been worn down over the years by the repeated sharpening of tools by the stencil cutters’ apprentices. Seeing an elderly craftsperson at work also helped me to appreciate the dexterity and skill needed for this painstaking work. The worker had not only cut stencils for nearly fifty years but he also made some three thousand tools by hand.
In other parts of Japan I visited an indigo dyeing workshop and the last craftsman in the Kansai Region creating momigami. Momigami, a paper that involves coating its surface with two layers of different coloured pigments, is crumpled in a range of various and specific ways in order for lines to be created through the cracking of the top layer and the adhesion of the one beneath. I found watching the eighty three year-old craftswoman dyeing my special order of indigo paper equally fascinating. I had requested that she make it as dark as possible in order to resemble the colour of papers used for Buddhist scripts of the Heian Period. Nine times she lowered it into the vat of indigo and each time it emerged green, only to then slowly oxidise to indigo blue, before our eyes.
I collected many other papers (clay coated, mica coated, lacquered and treated with wax) during my travels around Japan – as well as materials for treating papers in various ways. I came back with written notes and instructions from a range of craftspeople who were generous enough to share the wealth of their experience. And like the papers that Harry Parkes collected, some of these will be taken to the V&A – not to lie undiscovered for a century, but to form an integral part of the installation of my residency work in the museum next spring.
Click on thumbnails for larger versions.