Tuesday, December 29, 2009
While I wait impatiently for the chance to post some of the Etegami New Year's cards I expect to receive on New Years Day (fingers crossed), let me tell you about yet another fun use for etegami: Etegami Recipe Cards. This is something that evolved out of my habit of sending etegami thank-you cards to several friends who send me yearly presents of the agricultural products their home prefectures are famous for.
Many years ago, when I first started sending out etegami thank-you cards, I simply drew a picture of the gift received with some appropriate words of gratitude. Later, for variety, I began accompanying my drawings with the names of the dishes I had made from their gift, and still later, I started writing down entire recipes, either alongside the drawing or on the other side. My friends know how enthusiastic I am about cooking, and that is one of the reasons they enjoy sending me the produce. So what better way to show them my appreciation than by sharing the recipes for the yummy dishes made possible by their gift?
The Potato Etegami above is one of the earliest thank-you cards I sent to a woman who sends me a big box of potatoes every year from a potato-growing region of Hokkaido. This particular one is the first time I accompanied the drawing with the names of all the dishes I made from her gift. The Udon Etegami (noodles in a bamboo basket) is one I drew for a woman in the US who has a keen interest in cuisine from around the world. I did not include a recipe, but on the other side, I explained the culture of udon and the different ways it is served depending on the season of the year.
At the same time that my thank-you cards were evolving, I had begun to attach etegami drawings to the recipes I was posting on my food blogs. Although I didn't write the recipes on the cards themselves, they were meant to illustrate the recipes. The Banana Etegami shown above is one that I drew to illustrate my "Screaming Banana Chocolate Fondue Pie." The strawberry-stuffed rice cake drawing was the first one that illustrated a completed dish, rather than just the main ingredient from which the dish had been made. It was initially the last drawing in my Strawberry Diary series, but I later used it to illustrate a recipe I posted on my food blog. Since then, I have drawn many etegami of the results of my cooking, and these days I usually write the recipe on address side of the card. One recent example is the etegami showing Lotus Root Cakes. I posted the recipe, along with photographs of the cooking process, on my Wagashi (Japanese confections) blog.
If any of this stimulates your creativity, please try making a hand-drawn recipe card (etegami if possible) and send it to me. I'd LOVE to see what you all come up with.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Japan has a long tradition of exchanging New Year's greetings in writing, apparently going as far back as the Nara period (AD 700s). It wasn't until 1873, when the Japan Postal Service began to print standardized postcards requiring less postage than an ordinary letter, that the idea of postcard greetings began to catch on. In 1899, the current system of nenga yuubin (New Year mail) was conceived, in which all mail marked as New Year's greetings, and which is posted within a specific time frame in December, will be delivered en mass on New Year's Day. There are lots of other delightful historical details on the subject that I don't have room to post here, but maybe you can read them for yourself on Wikipedia Japan (in Japanese only, sorry).
There are many cool things about traditional Japanese New Year's cards, not the least of which is how images and words are used. Certain images are associated with the New Year holiday specifically, and with spring (which New Year's day is symbolically the start of) in general. For example, the etegami I drew for New Year's 2009 depicts sprouting water chestnuts (water caltrops). The sprouts make it a felicitous image and conducive to word play, a common device with etegami in general, but especially at New Year's. The accompanying words translate roughly to: [the new year brings with it] the sprouts of new possibilities.
For New Year's 2010, I made several new designs. One depicts a toy top, symbolic of the new year because it is one of a group of traditional toys that children used to play with during the New Year holidays. The accompanying words say: May 2010 be a well-balanced year [for you]. Word play again. The rest of my holiday etegami are variations on tiger images, because 2010 is the Year of the Tiger. I've posted one of these here. The animal representing a particular year is probably the most common motif for Japanese New Year's cards.
Not all New Year's cards are etegami, of course. These days most people whip up greeting cards on their computers, using stock images and formulaic words. If you have over 100 people on your greeting card list, as I do, it really is too much to expect of yourself to hand-make each one. What I do is draw several original designs, and color-copy my favorites to send to the people on my list. For my fellow etegami artists, though, I do make an effort to send original cards only.
Tell me what kind of cards you will be sending this year. Something hand-made I hope. After the holidays I plan to post a sample of some of the etegami cards I receive from my Japanese etegami colleagues.
Friday, November 20, 2009
Time passes very quickly for me these days, but never so fast as when I notice that it's time to make my holiday greeting cards. I try to get Christmas cards posted before the end of November, because at this time of the year, even air mail delivery to overseas addresses can be delayed beyond belief.
The etegami pictured here is the one I drew for Christmas 2007. It depicts the berries of the mountain ash (rowan) tree, each berry covered with a cap of snow. Mountain ash is one of my favorite trees, and while they grow profusely in the mountains of Hokkaido, they are also a favorite for planting along city streets. The berries start out pale and yellow, hardly noticeable in the green foliage, but by the end of fall, when the leaves have dropped off the branches and it begins to snow, the berries are bright, bright red.
Snow is a tricky thing to depict on a white card. I added blue shadows to make the snow more distinct, but this didn't show up very well in digital form. Nevertheless, it remains one of my favorite etegami. In my next post, I want to write about nengajou, the New Year cards that are traditionally exchanged in Japan. All the mail art I do now has its roots in the tradition of nengajou. Stay tuned!
Saturday, November 14, 2009
I once received an email from a woman who confessed she had gotten discouraged by her brief encounter with etegami because it was a "one-shot deal." I assume she meant that the success or failure of a piece often becomes apparent with the first few strokes, and there's simply no way to un-do the damage. Not to mention that a perfectly good drawing can be ruined when you add the words. Or sadder yet, a poorly placed or mis-pressed name seal can mar an otherwise well-balanced piece at the very, very end. I am familiar with the frustration this causes, and have filled numerous trash bags with torn-up etegami to prove it.
When I first started Etegami, I was advised that if I was unhappy with a piece, I should set it aside for a time. It often happens that a piece which seems all "wrong" will not look wrong at all when you come back to it later. I've saved a lot of etegami from oblivion this way. But I came to realize that there was something else-- something more troubling-- going on each time I judged one of my etegami a success or failure. I was looking at my work and thinking: "Does this piece reflect well on me?" or, "Will the receiver admire me for this?" And I recognized that there was something very wrong, very un-Etegami, in those thoughts. Etegami is not about making yourself look good. Etegami is about enjoying the process, and about wanting the receiver to feel good, amused, comforted, or maybe stimulated to thought.
I've mentioned before that the motto of the modern Etegami movement can be summarized as: "Clumsy makes good Etegami." Anyone can draw etegami. You certainly don't need to be an artist, and you don't need to have what the world calls talent. The more unselfconscious the mind and unrefined the skills, the more charm an etegami often has. I confess I am weak. Praise is as sweet as honey. But in craving honey I am in danger of losing the Etegami spirit.
This is all by way of explaining the attached photo. Many things went "wrong" with this drawing of a small orange and yellow pumpkin. Almost from the beginning, I was unhappy with the shape. Then I didn't wait for the sumi outline to dry before I started coloring it, so the outline got smeared. By the time I added the words, I had given up on it, so I wrote sloppily and overlapped the drawing, which I usually try not to do. I set it aside for a time, and later decided the squashed drawing and sloppy writing had a sort of charm. Then, as I was writing out the address of a new friend, I inadvertently laid the card face down on a surface spotted from a rubber air mail stamp, and the red ink transferred to the drawing. There was no way to un-do it. What to do? What to do?! I caught myself thinking, "How is this etegami going to reflect on me?" And that did it. I was not going to let my vanity keep me from sending this card. "You don't need talent to draw etegami," I had written in my brief message on the other side. So there was no reason to hesitate. Hopefully this clumsy card will encourage my new friend to give etegami a try. And if not, it may at least amuse her.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
I spent a morning last weekend reading the September, October and November issues of Etegami magazine (published by the Japan Etegami Society) that I'd been too busy to give proper attention to when they first arrived. It was the title of the September issue that captured my eye, and then my heart. The Japanese title was really quite poetic, but the best translation I can come up with at the moment is: "The Joy of Having Someone who Welcomes Your Etegami."
In my last post, I reviewed the basics of etegami. But there is another-- perhaps more important-- "basic" of etegami: The relationship between the sender and the receiver. Etegami is a form of communication from the heart, from one person to another. A great deal of the value of Etegami is in the fact that there is someone at the other end to welcome it, and ideally, the artist draws each work with the intended recipient in mind.
The sunflower etegami posted here is accompanied by words which mean "Puddle of Sunshine." I drew it to cheer up a friend who loves sunflowers. As the volume of my mailart exchange grows and grows, this is one basic of etegami that I hope I never, ever forget.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
It's been a while since I posted a traditional etegami, so I thought it was time to review the basics. Etegami has very few rules, but there are certain characteristics that combine to make it what it is, and not some other kind of art.
Traditional etegami is: (1) hand-drawn artwork accompanied by hand-drawn words on postcards, and (2) usually depicts subjects from everyday life, especially those that reflect the changing of the seasons.
The equipment for traditional etegami usually includes: (1) absorbent washi postcards (2) ink brushes of various lengths and thickness (3) sumi ink (4) gansai paints (5) a name seal to affix to the work when it's finished.
The method for traditional etegami usually involves: (1) "living lines"~the wobbly, blotchy lines of inconsistent thickness that result from very, very slow strokes of the ink brush when forming the outline of the subject (2) a brief session of "living lines practice" every time you sit down to make etegami (3) "laying" the color on the card, rather than making strokes, and letting it spread naturally according to the character of the washi paper used (4) a limited selection of colors for each work, making the colors darker or lighter by judicious use of water, rather than by mixing different colors together (5) leaving areas of the drawing uncolored, rather than completely filling it in.
Having listed all these characteristics, I should say that etegami can be done on any kind of paper with any kind of tools, and if you use a paint brush on non-absorbent paper, you will have to use strokes to color it. Many etegami artists paint scenery, especially as a kind of picture-diary when they travel. But it isn't etegami without the addition of words. And it isn't really etegami unless it is meant to be posted to someone, or is at least in a form that can be posted at any time. Digital artwork accompanied by words and emailed to someone could be called etegami, as nontraditional as that form is. And you've seen my recent attempts to turn collage art into another nontraditional form of etegami.
The autumn-themed etegami I posted above depicts a kabocha, or Japanese pumpkin. And the accompanying words say exactly that: Japanese Kabocha. No humor, poetry, or delicate nuances on this one.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
I've been going a little bit crazy over collages lately, thanks to being stimulated by the works of Western mail artists, who tend to be very collagic (? well, you know what I mean). My versions are always a combination of pictures and words, which technically qualifies them as Etegami. But I wasn't certain enough of this interpretation to introduce the collages on this blog. Then, the other day, I stumbled onto a blog about etegami made with fabric fragments. It was one more in a series of eye-opening encounters for me. You'll have to see these for yourself. The blog, called Ponpoko's Etegami, is in Japanese, but I think you will be able to see the images. Click here. The pictures are formed with bits of cloth and yarn. Sometimes, the artist writes the accompanying words by ink brush, and other times she forms them from yarn or fabric. If these delightful postcards can be called etegami, then my collages certainly can. If any readers of this blog are more comfortable working with fabric than with ink brushes and paints, you won't find me resisting that approach anymore. Just don't forget the element of words. The image I posted here is a collage of photos pasted onto a background made from the kind of hand-dyed wispy washi used in the art of chigiri-e, which I've mentioned in previous posts.
Monday, October 19, 2009
If you already have an interest in traditional Japanese Art, you probably realize how important that final pressing of the name stamp is to the overall appearance and balance of the work. And if this blog is your first exposure to Etegami, you probably noticed, and were curious about, the name seal that is always pressed somewhere on the card in red ink. The common name for these name seals is hanko. They are usually carved with the hiragana sign for the first syllable in the artist's given name. Sometimes they are carved with the entire given name, and sometimes they are carved with other words that enhance the artwork, such as the character for "Spring," or "Welcome the New Year," or something else that applies to the season.
If you go to an art supply or stationery store in Japan, you are likely to find a nice collection of ready-made hobby hanko, even ones that have a cozy, home-made feel to them. Using store-bought seals is a great option, especially if you are a beginner. But soon you are sure to get the itch for a name seal of your own design and carving.
Furthermore, you may be one of those people whose name begins with a syllable that is nowhere to be found among the racks of commercially produced name seals. I belong to this group. My name begins with the syllable De (Te with two dashes next to it), and I haven't met a Japanese person yet whose given name starts with that syllable. So from the beginning, I had to make my own hanko. I did this the way most etegami artists do, by carving my syllable into a rubber eraser.
The photo posted at the top was scanned from an introductory Etegami textbook, and illustrates the steps to making a hanko. The steps are very simple: (1) Draw your initial or syllable on a smooth piece of paper (tracing paper is good) with a soft lead pencil. (2) Press the drawing against a clean, flat piece of eraser, and rub gently till the drawing has transferred from the paper to the eraser. The transfer will be a mirror image. (3) Using a sharp craft knife or carving tool, cut away the white part, or alternatively, cut away the dark part, depending on the effect you desire. (4) Ink the seal and press on paper to see where you still need to cut away. Keep doing this till you are satisfied. If you want to start over, slice off the layer you were working on, and go through the steps again.
I've attached a photo of some of my own hand-made hanko. Some represent my name in various forms (De, DeBi, DeBoRa, dd) and others are images (slice of watermelon, mouse's paw print, human foot print, leaf, star, wind chime). I use the images to add humor or otherwise personalize certain etegami. They're easy and fun to do.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
I stumbled across a delightful post about etegami the other day and received permission to share the link with you. The blog itself is called Daily Onigiri and features news from Japan, but the post that caught my eye was titled "Etegami: Japanese Picture Letters," and what made it special were the photos of an etegami exhibit at a local train station. Dozens of etegami focused on just one subject: Broccoli! I've seen many, many etegami exhibits, even exhibits focused on one theme (such as war memories), but I have never seen an exhibit focused on a single subject before. It was visual proof of what I am always saying, that each etegami is a unique work of art. Not only because each etegami artist internalizes what he sees differently and may have different skills or even tools for expressing it, but also because each head of broccoli-- even though it may at first appear like a clone of every other broccoli-- is different from the others. Isn't it cool how each etegami in the exhibit has its own character?
Sunday, October 11, 2009
I made a new mail art friend recently, who has a keen interest in minority languages. That inspired me to try an etegami that reflects the culture and language of the Ainu, the native people of northern Japan. It happens that I have been translating Ainu folklore into English for over ten years. Click here to see my blog about the Ainu translation project, Project U-e-peker.
The etegami I posted is a representation of the Shimafukurou (Blakiston's Fish Owl) which the Ainu have traditionally regarded as the guardian of Ainu villages. It is the largest owl in the world, with a wingspan that can extend to six feet (2 meters), and it is an endangered animal. The Shimafukurou features in many Ainu folktales, and I've quoted the opening lines of the most famous one on this etegami. The English version of this story can be read here, if you are interested.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
The first time it hit me that etegami (at least a non-traditional version of it) could be done on material other than washi, was when one of my etegami colleagues showed me a card cut out of corrugated cardboard. The card had been cut out so that the logo of a cantaloupe was on one side, leaving the rest of the card free for a thank-you note. Other clever cut-outs and drawings decorated the blank spaces on both sides of the card. It turned out that my colleague sends a case of fruit to this woman every year, and every year, she returns a thank-you card crafted from the cardboard carton that contained the fruit.
Once or twice, I have run out of washi postcards and had to make do with cutting cards from old file folders. I blogged about it here. But it's been my recent exposure to international mail artists who cut their cards from old cereal and cookie boxes that really got me thinking about the possibilities. As appealing as the idea of recycling old cookie boxes is, it simply isn't possible to reproduce on such material the lines an ink brush makes on washi.
That's where this nifty product comes in useful: iron-on washi. These thin sheets of washi-like paper come 50 to a pack. They respond to sumi ink and gansai paints very much like ordinary washi postcards do. And they're much cheaper, so it doesn't hurt so much throw a sheet away if you mess it up. They're perfect for making etegami out of otherwise unsuitable card material. I dug out some great oriental-patterned boxes that had once contained traditional Japanese confections, thinking the postcards I could make from them would be sure to please someone with an eye for beautiful patterns. I painted my pictures on the iron-on washi sheets and ironed the drawings onto the un-patterned sides of my make-shift cards, leaving the patterned sides for address labels and postage stamps. They turned out great. So great, I almost don't want to send them....
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
I found some packets of plain washi coasters at the art supply store and it gave me an idea. The coasters didn't respond to my ink brush and gansai paint the same way my preferred card stock does, so I had to make adjustments. The surface area of each coaster was much smaller than a postcard, of course, so adjustments had to be made for that too. Limited by space, I decided to accompany each drawing with an alphabet version of the Japanese name for each subject. In other words, the letters were simply a design element and had no independent meaning as Etegami words usually do. Before they can be put into use as coasters, they need to be sprayed with water-repellent or covered in plastic. I haven't decided yet which to do, or what product to use. Any suggestions?
Thursday, September 24, 2009
A couple months ago, one of my online foodie friends mentioned hand-decorated chopstick wrappers-- the paper ones that encase disposable chopsticks at Japanese restaurants. Whether sealed bag-style wrappers, or open-topped folded wrappers, they are often printed with the restaurant logo and address. I told my friend it was fun to decorate the folded ones with etegami-style drawings. This works especially well when the wrapper is made of washi, as they often are at the higher-end restaurants. In Japan, you can also buy plain washi chopstick wrappers at the supermarket. I have a collection of plain wrappers that I decorate myself for parties or for gift-giving. If you don't have access to ready-made wrappers, they are easy to make from washi or plain printer paper. It isn't easy to draw on that small a scale, and words don't usually fit, so it has to be a drawing of a single, simple object. Or you can cheat, like I did this time, and print a reduced-sized scanned image of one of your drawings on a sheet of paper. Cut and fold the paper into a chopstick wrapper after the drawing is printed. I unfolded a washi chopstick wrapper and used it as my model. (The sealed bag-shaped ones won't work, sorry)
Sunday, September 20, 2009
I've been doing a lot of experimenting lately, giving etegami a bit of chigiri-e accent, or combining traditional etegami with the collage-style mail art that seems to be so popular in the West. Today I was looking at some pear drawings that were left over from one year I'd used pears for my Christmas card design. Although I'd been somewhat disappointed in the drawings, I received a lot of positive feedback when I posted them online. So I ended up keeping the leftover drawings I would otherwise have thrown away. Today I decided to use them as a base for a hybrid mailart greeting card, by gluing some cutouts of partridges onto the drawings of the pears. I still have a strong resistance to messing with traditional etegami method. I'm not sure what to think of these hybrids. Shall I put them in the post? The jury is still out.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
How I love Autumn in Hokkaido! I love the sharpness in the air, the smells on the breeze, the colors on the trees, and the sardine-shaped clouds in a deep blue sky. I find myself looking upwards a lot. My joy is tinged with the bittersweet awareness of Winter lurking around the next corner, but that makes it all the more precious to me.
I draw persimmons every fall. I used to wait till they were ripe, and paint them in all their persimmon-orange glory. Later, I became intrigued by the green and yellow stages leading up to their fully-mature state. Then, last year, I became fascinated with dried persimmons, and I struggled to express the many sugar-dusted wrinkles on shrunken fruit that had faded to a salmon-pink. Maybe this year I'll focus on sliced fresh persimmons, with their flat black seeds and sticky juices. Ahh, persimmons!
The etegami I've posted here is of unripe persimmons on the branch. The greenish fruit is tinged with yellow, which I emphasized by gluing lacy yellow tissue paper (see earlier post on chigiri-e) over the green orbs. The accompanying words are an old Japanese proverb: Momo Kuri San-nen, Kaki Hachi-nen (Three years for Peach or Chestnut- Eight years for Persimmon) It is a reference to how long it takes for these trees to produce fruit. In other words: don't get upset if your efforts don't bear fruit right away. These things take time. The proverb advises patience.
Monday, September 7, 2009
Etegami is a combination of drawing and words. I know I say this a lot, but I'm beginning to think I can't say it often enough. Words are an element of Etegami that frequently sets it apart from other kinds of art-- even other MailArt. I don't just mean words as part of the design. Rather, words that complement the artwork (may even be visually stunning) but are also meaningful on their own, apart from the artwork.
If it weren't for the words aspect of Etegami, I probably wouldn't have defected from Chigiri-e or Woodblock printing or Pottery or any of the other arts and crafts I've dabbled in over the years. Etegami engages both the heart (emotions) and the mind (reason). I'm not saying other forms of art can't do the same thing. But no other art did this to me until I discovered Etegami. And yet, as meaningful to me as my choice of words are, they may signify nothing to you. Hopefully, though, I choose words that speak to the people for whom the cards are intended.
Today I combined a drawing of a lotus tuber with an old Japanese saying: renkon no ana ni unagi (literally: "an eel in the hole of a lotus root"). It's an expression that refers to things that don't suit each other. Maybe you can think of an equivalent expression in your mother tongue. Is there anything from your own experience that can be expressed by these words?
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Years and years before I became involved in Etegami, I dabbled in the art of Chigiri-e, sometimes described as Japanese Torn Paper Collage Art, or even Painting with Paper. Chigiri-e has a long and venerable history in both Japan and China, and was such an enjoyable hobby, that I once considered pursuing instructor certification. But when I discovered Etegami, I was smitten with its relative lack of rules, its simplicity, the freedom to draw as I pleased from the very beginning (rather than years of imitating the teacher until I had "proven" my mastery of the basic skills), and the fact that it combined words with artwork. It fulfilled something in me that Chigiri-e had not.
Recently, however, I had occasion to look back nostalgically to my Chigiri-e days. I was rummaging through my leftover stock of the fibrous, hand-made paper used in the art, when the idea of a collaboration between Etegami and Chigiri-e occurred to me. One characteristic of Chigiri-e is that the layering of the hand-torn pieces of colored paper creates a three-dimensional effect that is not usually possible with Etegami. I tried several experiments, but the most pleasing results came from using the colored paper with a light hand. I glued bits of the special paper on this drawing of bean pods, which resulted in added thickness, texture, and color where the bean bulges are, without overwhelming the drawing's basic Etegami nature.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
In late spring, I had a chance to visit the largest stationery supply store in our city. The etegami supplies are sold on the top floor of the building, so I went straight up, barely sparing a glance at the other four floors full of art and office supplies that tempted me at each break in the escalator ride. Naturally, the etegami displays were on the theme of summer. The shochuu mimai greeting cards, that I blogged about in my previous post, were prominently displayed-- as were the tools and card stock for making your own. I also found sets of uchiwa (flat fans) and sensu (folding fans) fitted with blank washi paper for painting your own designs. The miniature flat fan sets, called mame-uchiwa, come with an envelope, so they can be sent through the postal system, and tiny stands so the recipient can display them once they arrive. I prefer the larger, normal-sized fans, because I actually use them to cool myself off, though you can buy tasteful racks to display these as well.
For the two flat fans pictured here, I tore off the worn paper from the plastic frames of two old uchiwa and replaced them with my own drawings. For the one on the left I inked cross-sections of okra and stamped them on the paper randomly in an attempt to represent the Milky Way. This was to commemorate the Tanabata Festival on July 7, a festival associated with the once-a-year meeting of the stars Vega and Altair. The one on the right is a representation of a fresh persimmon, which is a late fall/early winter fruit, and not a suitable motif for a hot-weather item-- It was a dumb choice, but I do so love persimmons! Because I was planning to make bunches of these fans to give away to people, I chose to enlarge and paste photo copies of my original drawings onto the frames. This is cheating. Use the original etegami drawing if possible.
See this post on the KimonoBox blog for more on the tradition of making uchiwa.
Monday, August 17, 2009
When the rainy season ends, making way for the intense heat of mid-summer, the Japanese customarily send out a special kind of greeting card called the shochuu mimai to ask after the health of their acquaintances. Like the New Years greeting known as nengajou, it is a postcard, and is sent primarily to friends and family members that one doesn't see very often. Sometimes they are unadorned cards printed with the standard phrase, but more often they depict photographs or drawings of something representing summer-- especially something refreshing, like flowing water, a cool drink, fluttering wind chime, or slice of dewy fruit. The custom of exchanging cards like these at various set times of the year may seem burdensome to some, but I find it smooths socialization with people who have been on my mind but whom I hesitate to contact without an excuse. I've attached some samples of summer greeting cards that I've drawn and sent in the past. A wedge of watermelon. A famous-brand cantaloupe (popular summer gift). A retro pig-shaped ceramic container for coils of mosquito repellent.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
This is an etegami I submitted to a mail art exhibit at the A.S.Popov Central Museum of Communications in St.Petersburg, Russia. I've been in "fish mode" ever since the etegami I drew for the Sea Exhibition. So I drew a goldfish and applied a new twist. The bubbles coming from the goldfish's mouth were cut out of a magazine and pasted onto the card. There are both Japanese and English words inside the bubbles. These bubbles, combined with the accompanying words, are my attempt to tie the drawing into the theme of the exhibit, which I understand to be the history of communications technology, and a celebration of Popov's 150th anniversary. [Alexander Stepanovich Popov was a Russian physicist who first demonstrated the practical application of electromagnetic (radio) waves.]
The card is, in a sense, a departure from traditional etegami-- a sort of fusion between etegami and collage. It's not something I would have dared to try with etegami until very recently. But my exposure to the wider world of MailArt has been influencing me to test certain boundaries. And I'm having a great time. : )
Monday, August 10, 2009
My fairly recent discovery of the global community of mail artists has had an enormous impact on the way I think of etegami. Wikipedia has this definition of mail art: Mail art is art which uses the postal system as a medium. The term mail art can refer to an individual message, the medium through which it is sent, or an artistic genre. Mail art is also known as postal art and is sometimes referred to as Correspondence/Mail Art (CMA).
This may or may not be a sufficient definition of Mail Art. One site I came across further specified that the artwork must be visible to the people handling the mail on its way to being delivered. In other words, it's not Mail Art unless the mailman can see it. Art on postcards, such as etegami, qualifies (as long as it's not enclosed in an envelope), but art on the envelope itself also qualifies.
Though I think of myself as primarily an etegami artist, the astounding variety of styles and approaches towards mail art around the world has been a wonderful stimulus to my work. The images I posted above are of an etegami I am submitting to a mail art exhibit on the theme of The Sea. The drawing on the top is a porcupinefish (harisenbon) in repose. The drawing below it is the same fish in defense mode. This is the first time I've drawn on both sides of the card. Drawing on the side where the address goes is a little tricky, but it was a cool experiment, and I think I'll do it a lot more from now on.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
This week I finally had the chance to watch Letters from Iwo Jima, the second of the pair of films directed by Clint Eastwood portraying the Battle of Iwo Jima. While the first film, Flags of Our Fathers, depicts the battle from the American point of view, Letters from Iwo Jima portrays the same battle from the Japanese perspective, and is almost entirely in Japanese. Though I had heard the film received very high reviews (it is an excellent film), I had no particular interest in seeing it until I learned that it was both inspired by and based on the actual letters of Commander in Chief Tadamichi Kuribayashi (portrayed on screen by Ken Watanabe), and that these letters were, in fact, picture letters (ie: etegami)!
Kuribayashi wrote to his family frequently and obviously loved them deeply. As his children were still very young, he kept his letters simple and filled them with drawings. The picture letters were published by Shogakukan in 1992 as Gyokusai Soshireikan no Etegami (Picture Letters from Commander in Chief). Amazon now carries three books (that I know of) in English that incorporate the translations of these etegami. If you are interested, you may want to start with this one: Picture Letters from the Commander in Chief.
Monday, August 3, 2009
August means many things to the etegami artist in Japan, one of them being a time to reflect on war and peace, especially as it relates to the "Pacific War" (World War II). August 15 is known as shuusen-kinenbi (literally "memorial day for the end of the war"), and although another name meaning "the day for mourning of war dead and praying for peace," was officially adopted in 1982 by the Japanese government, it is still shuusen-kinenbi by which the day is commonly known. This year, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the opening of the National Showa Memorial Museum in Tokyo's Chiyoda ward, the public was invited to submit etegami depicting war and end-of-war memories. These submissions, along with letters, diaries, and other documents in the museum archives, are being displayed in the special exhibits room at the museum from July 25 to August 30.
I've scanned a few that were displayed in the August issue of Etegami magazine (mentioned in my previous post) to give you a preview of this exhibit. The etegami on the top right shows the touching reunion of a soldier with his wife and three children. In the middle is an etegami showing the cremated remains of another soldier who was not so lucky. The one on the left corner shows the evacuation of Japanese citizens from China. Many of the etegami are memories of running from burning buildings, of hunger, and of doing without. Yet, these memories often come with a joyful twist, such as the red book bag that one mother made from paper for her daughter's first day in school, and which the girl showed off to all her neighbors, though it soon fell apart. And a surprising number depict happy memories of kindnesses received from the American soldiers. One etegami that particularly caught my eye shows Japanese evacuees from China who have just stepped off the boat and await a shower of white "lice-killing powder" from the American plane above their heads.
If you are in a position to visit the museum during this exhibit, by all means do so!
Thursday, July 30, 2009
When the August issue of Etegami Magazine arrived a few days ago, I realized I had forgotten to blog about the July issue. But I am forced to press ahead. There are so many interesting things to draw these days, and so many topics I still want to write about on the subject of etegami. The title of the August issue was "Sense Life and Draw with Detachment." [I'm still not clear on what I'm supposed to be detached from. Distractions? Expectations? The desire to excel?] But I suppose another way of translating it would be: Be focused.
The drawings that drew my attention were the ones you would expect in this season of growing things. Flowers in full bloom and newly harvested vegetables. Yes, I could sense the life in these things. They were fairly bursting with it. Then I looked through the pictures again. Drawings of home life. A school bag tossed in the corner of the room. A tiny girl carrying her baby sister (almost as big as she is) on her back. A pair of knitting needles and a half-finished woolen scarf. They were more subtle, and I had to listen harder, but I sensed life in them as well-- maybe more powerfully than the drawings of the flowers and summer harvest. It was an intriguing discovery. The evidence of life is everywhere, not just in the most obvious places. In fact, the August issue announced an etegami exhibit on the subject of war memories. Life was powerfully present in these drawings too. Even in the burning house and the white cloth-wrapped cremation urn. I'll tell you more about this exhibit in my next post.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Four months ago, even before our long winter was over, a strawberry seedling was delivered to my door. It was my first hesitant step toward raising something edible in my garden. I decided to keep an etegami diary of the plant's growth, and recorded the six main stages that I was able to observe. I drew it on the first day it arrived, in its tiny vinyl cup. A few weeks later, I moved it into a large planter and set it outdoors. But then the temperature plummeted and it snowed off and on for many days. I thought I had lost my strawberry plant. It was looking spindly, and the leaves were orange and brown-tinged. It turned out that the earliest leaves were just naturally withering away, and the leaves that replaced the first growth were lush and vigorous. A little later, pretty white blossoms appeared, followed by hard knobby green fruit. More waiting, and the fruit grew plump and red and ready to be picked. On the final day of my diary, I picked the fruit and used it in making ichigo-daifuku, an-filled (sweet bean jam) dumplings made of glutenous mochi rice, with my freshly picked strawberries in the center of each dumpling. My strawberry plant had fulfilled her destiny. And my strawberry diary had come to its end. Why don't you give it a try too? Record the growth of something dear to you with etegami.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
In June I had the honor of guest-posting on The Nihon Sun, an endlessly informative website on all aspects of Japanese culture and life in Japan. The theme of my post, of course, was etegami. I was asked to include a tie-in to Tokyo's bid for the 2016 Olympics, which was not at all a difficult thing to do, since etegami is one of the means by which Tokyo, and many other municipalities, raise public interest in civic events. Please visit my post on The Nihon Sun for details.
The photo attached above is from the annual Etegami Contest sponsored by a Hiroshima-based writing brush maker, the Fude-no-sato-kobo. Using etegami to promote a writing brush company may seem an obvious ploy, but what about a hot springs? Last year Gero Onsen in Gifu prefecture called for submissions of etegami related to the spa bathing experience. The winning etegami are displayed on this page. Some of the shops in this spa town even had their shutters painted with images of the winning etegami, a charming idea for entertaining spa guests even when the shops are closed for business.
The ways that regions, organizations, and businesses use the grass-roots popularity of etegami to fan the flames of public interest increase with each passing year. Consider the power of etegami the next time you have something you want to promote.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
When adding color to my drawing, I usually avoid filling up the space inside the lines. You may remember that I wrote about this in the post beauty in blank spaces. Some subjects that are very detailed or very thin, however, actually benefit from having color bleed beyond the borders. A single, thin, asparagus spear for example. Or a bean sprout. Or a cluster of very tiny flowers. One day I decided to experiment and see how much I could get the colors to bleed. Before I drew anything, I brushed plain water over the whole card. Then I quickly sketched these Gerber daisies and painted in the color before the card could dry out. I also wrote the letters while the card was still wet. Bold, sturdy, Gerber daisies were probably not the best choice for this experiment, but I did learn something from the result. I have a feel now for how much water my cards absorb and how this affects the application of both color and sumi ink. In the future, when I come across a subject that begs for this treatment, I'll know what to do.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Here's the hydrangea etegami that I mentioned in my previous post. It depicts the hydrangea in my own yard, late in the year, just before the first snowfall in November. Hydrangea is a plant associated with tsuyu, the rainy season. Famous paintings and woodblock prints often show hydrangea in the rain, lush and dewy-looking. Those familiar with the climate of Japan, know that the rainy season is now (June~July) just about everywhere in Japan--except Hokkaido. We don't really have a rainy season, at least not like the rest of Japan does. And flowers don't even form on our hydrangea bushes until mid to late July. They continue to bloom until late fall. As winter approaches, the blossoms dry on the branches, and as they dry, their color undergoes subtle changes. Ours start out blue, but as winter approaches, some of the blossoms take on purplish and greenish hues. The leaves too, take on the autumnal tints of orange and brown with swatches of red. When the air begins to smell like imminent snowfall, I cut the stems of the flowering branches, bring them inside, and hang them upside down from a clothesline in the laundry room. When the stems and the blossoms are completely stiff and dry, I arrange them in a large ceramic pot to display during our long winter.
In my second (and final) year of participating in a post office-sponsored etegami group, we were given long cards to try our hands at long-ish subject matter. I drew hydrangea for the first time, and was pleased enough with the result to submit it for the annual post office etegami exhibit. I received some interesting feedback from my fellow etegami artists. (1) I used too many colors (2) I didn't leave enough uncolored space (3) hydrangea is a kigo (seasonal word used in poetry) for the rainy season, and is not usually depicted in art outside of that season.
I was a fledgling etegami artist, and hadn't yet grasped the etegami ideal of simplicity in form and color, or the technique of moving the ink brush slowly enough to make the lines wobble. After all these years, I still struggle against using too many colors. On the other hand, maybe I'm not trying very hard to tame that tendency. I guess deep down inside, I'm satisfied with the way I use color. Same with drawing subjects outside the seasons with which they are associated. I'm not going to draw a strawberry in the wintertime. But since the hydrangea is actually there in my yard in November, blooming and changing in subtle ways, I figure it's all right to try to capture it in an etegami, even if it isn't the rainy season. Am I being rebellious? I don't know. But there are almost as many etegami styles as there are etegami artists, even in Japan. Besides, I draw for my own pleasure. And so should you.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Years ago, when I first took up etegami, I was a member of an etegami class that was sponsored by the Japan Postal Service. The JPS sponsors many such classes all over the country, and it makes sense when you realize that etegami artists can be depended on to purchase many, many postage stamps. Post offices all over the country hold etegami exhibits at least once a year, and people who belong to a JPS-sponsored class are strongly encouraged to submit samples of their work. The attached photo was taken at one such post office exhibit. I googled "post office" and "etegami" and discovered that just about every local post office had a website with a page about the etegami classes they sponsor, as well as photos from their exhibits.
The first year, I tried to get out of submitting anything. Although I was secretly pleased with my progress, my ego couldn't take being compared to other, more seasoned, artists. I did eventually succumb to pressure by submitting an etegami of an apple. I no longer have it, and I never made a copy. The second year, I submitted two etegami. One was of hydrangea in the fall. I was actually quite proud of it, but the comments it drew from my group leader and other etegami artists gave me an education that has stuck with me. I will tell you about it in my next post.
Friday, June 12, 2009
Here is a series of three etegami I drew on the subject of tsukushi, the fertile stems of the Equisetum arvense, commonly known as the Field Horsetail or Common Horsetail. Tsukushi are one of the first plants to come up in the spring, but they soon make way for the taller, bushier, greener, sterile stems known in Japan as sugina. Both the fertile and sterile stems have jointed segments that remind me a little of bamboo. They grow profusely at the edges of our garden wall, especially on the public side of the wall where neighbors consider them an eyesore and gently hint that I should be pulling them out. But I find tsukushi to be a charming plant. I like their shape. I like how they grow in clusters of mixed heights and mixed tones of brown, as though they were a close and happy family that enjoyed each other's company. They are edible too, though not exactly full of flavor. I've heard people say tsukushi are only palatable when they first come up, when they are at their most succulent stage. But I kind of like them when they've gotten a bit dry, when their tufted "heads" get a wee bit crunchy. At least once each spring, I harvest a handful of tsukushi and toss them into a lightly oiled frying pan with boiled spaghetti noodles for a nutty accent, or simmer them in a soy-based sauce and fold them into an omelet. Oh dear, here I am again, going on and on about eating the subjects of my drawings. Getting back to the drawing itself: I happened to place three of the tsukushi etegami side by side, and was pleasantly surprised by the way the "field" of tsukushi spread out in either direction. It is not uncommon for etegami artists to place two (or more) cards side by side, extending a single subject over both cards. Usually something long, like a whole daikon radish or corn-on-the-cob. Each card will bear only a segment of the whole drawing. The cards can be mailed off to different recipients, or they can be mailed to the same recipient staggered over a period of time. I didn't have that in mind when I drew my tsukushi, but I accidentally came close to producing just that sort of etegami. Etegami is meant to be mailed-- not hoarded. But if I were to frame these three cards in a hinged three-part frame, it would qualify as a triptych, wouldn't it? Then again, that could lead to visions of grandeur. I like to say that etegami art is not Art with a capital A. It's of the people, to be enjoyed as part of everyday life. The accompanying words? Oh yes, the letters says "mure," which means flock (or band, or troop, or cluster). I drew it for an elderly woman in my church. A dear sweet lady who is part of the same flock as I am.
Monday, June 8, 2009
Yes, I know. I am drawn to subjects like the oddly shaped vegetable, the spotty fruit, the nearly empty jar, the rusted can opener, and the bug-eaten leaf. But I can do pretty too. See? Sometimes even I like pretty. "Not even Solomon in all his glory..." Matthew 6:29
Sunday, June 7, 2009
Every once in a while I google "etegami" to see what shows up. In the past year, I've noticed that more and more Japanese etegami bloggers are using the alphabet spelling of etegami, and even posting the titles of their work in English. One site that I go back to time and time again is the official website of the Japan Etegami Society. They publish a monthly magazine that I have been curious about for a long time, but it's a bit pricey at 800 yen an issue, and I hadn't been able to take the plunge. Last week, however, I could no longer contain my curiosity, so I faxed them with a request for an introductory copy. To my delight, the June 2009 issue arrived soon thereafter. The title of the magazine is ETEGAMI written in bold Roman letters, which I thought was a bit unusual for a Japanese magazine on the subject of a traditional Japanese folkart practiced mostly by older Japanese men and women. Perhaps, I thought, it was simply a design strategy. But once I started flipping through the pages, I noticed a number of articles about etegami being taught and enjoyed in regions other than Japan-- particularly Hawaii and Brazil. Well, that made sense. Both those areas have a high percentage of citizens of Japanese descent. The photographs, however, showed young people with clearly western features enjoying lessons in etegami. Cool. Etegami really is becoming an international art form. The magazine surprised me in other ways. It featured articles on the late, great wood-block print artist Munakata Shiko, as well as Edo-period ukiyo-e. And another one on the work of the calligrapher Inoue Yuichi. The title of the June issue was Training Your Ability to Feel Deeply, and was subtitled with the words: "when your heart is moved, you can draw good etegami." Wow, heavy stuff. The magazine is filled with photos of etegami sent in by etegami artists from all over the world. Their styles are all so very different from one another. This magazine is serious reading material. Maybe 800 yen isn't too much to charge for it after all. I ended up paying for a year's subscription (each issue is cheaper that way). If I come across something I just have to share with you, I will certainly blog about it here. Stay tuned.
Friday, May 29, 2009
About once a month I get together with three other etegami artists to spend the morning drawing. We call ourselves the "Yoninkai" (literally: group of four). Each of us is supposed to contribute something to draw. I am often delighted by what the others bring, because so often they are things I have no access to. Whimsically tinted wild grapes. Exotic dragon fruit. Homegrown tomatoes that are too lumpy or oddly colored to show up in the supermarket (so much more interesting to draw than the perfectly round ones). Etegami requires very close-up observation, so the four of us do not draw the same object at the same time. We bring the objects right up to our faces to study them. We spend a lot of time handling them, feeling their texture, smelling them. After drawing one, we pass it around to the others so they can have a chance at it. By the end of the day, the items have been handled so much, they aren't much use for eating. Some really hard-to-find objects are actually hand-me-downs from a different etegami group. The tendency my companions have of not regarding the edible objects as food used to astonish me. I was vaguely uncomfortable with what I considered a "wasteful" treatment of good food. But somewhere along the line, a shift occurred in my brain. Now I can spend a morning drawing fresh fish from the fishmongers, knowing full well that it will no longer be fresh enough to cook for my family when I am finished with it. I can even pay an outrageous price for an exotic, strangely-shaped fruit that I know I will never eat, because I see it as a challenging thing to draw. I have to laugh at myself even as I write about it. I have to laugh at the price I paid for these mangosteens, which I bought for no other reason than the fact that I am fascinated by their color, and hope that, with a lot of practice, I may someday be able to reproduce it.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
At the far south end of our yard, snuggled against a wall that offers just a bit of a barrier between our property and the thoroughfare, grows a forsythia tree. I guess I'm supposed to call it a shrub, but this one is taller than I am. It reaches over the wall and spills its willowy yellow-blossomed branches into the airspace over the sidewalk and street. I've used various methods to try to force it to stay on our side of the wall, but it seems to have a mind of its own. I used to worry that pedestrians and cyclists, not to mention cars, would ram right through the branches in their hurry to proceed down the street, but it seems that there is a common instinct that prevents violation of the forsythia's space. Everyone slows down and moves around it. In the earliest days of spring, when the piles of dirty snow along the streets have finally melted, and tulips and daffodils dot our yard at ground level, the forsythia is the first thing at eye level that bursts into color. A yellow so pure and bright, amidst the still drab and leafless maple, cherry, birch, and ash trees, it seems as if all of the sun's light were soaking into that one plant. Of course, I draw it every spring. The flowers soon make way for the leaves, and the greened-over forsythia melts into the background of the other trees, as their leaves too unfold. This year I caught the forsythia as the blossoms were making way for the leaves. The blossoms were already losing their plumpness and the purity of their color. I tried to match this in the thin wobbly writing, which I accomplished by dangling a gel-pen (like a ball point pen) from the tips of my fingers and barely scraping the paper as I formed the letters. The drawing and the writing together give an impression of fragility, don't you think?
Monday, May 18, 2009
Hokkaido, the northernmost and second-largest of the main islands of Japan, is a prefecture unto itself, unlike the other three main islands which are divvied up into multiple prefectures, or southernmost Okinawa, a prefecture consisting of a chain of hundreds of small islands spread over 1000 kilometers. Hokkaido accounts for 22% of Japan's forests, and nearly one fourth of Japan's total arable land. It ranks first in the domestic production of a staggering number of agricultural products, as well as marine products and aquaculture. More importantly, Hokkaido is my home. So you can believe me when I say we have the best asparagus in the country. One of the many pleasures of spring is the eating and the drawing of fresh asparagus spears. (Actually I draw them first, then I eat them.) My very first asparagus etegami was of a single, very thin spear taking up only a sliver of space across the middle of the card. It was so thin, it was difficult to place any color between the lines. That was when I first discovered that with thin subjects, letting color spread beyond the outline of the drawing can produce pleasing results. Since then, I've drawn all manner of asparagus. Thick ones, straight ones, curved ones, twisted ones, tall ones, short ones. They're all gone now, except for one from last year and the one I drew just this week. I posted them side by side so you could see the differences in technique, style, and concept. The one on the left is from last year. The straight thick spears were drawn with a reed pen (which explains the many inky blotches). The one on the right is this year's attempt. The thick, curved spears were drawn with a writing brush. The friction of the writing brush against the paper, and an unforeseen jerk in my arm muscles, affected the angle at which the spear in the foreground bends, making it look a little surreal. At first I was disappointed, but later, I decided I liked it.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Some days I have loads of things I could be drawing, but no motivation. Other days I have loads of motivation and I can't seem to find anything to draw. It was one of those "other days," and the only subject I could come up with was an empty applesauce jar. I set the jar in front of me and took some time to look at it carefully. Then came one of those telescopic moments when everything around the jar went out of focus, while the jar got bigger and clearer. My mind was flooded with memories of my paternal grandmother's backyard where my cousins and I would catch fireflies and put them into jars.
Having grown up an entire ocean plus half a continent away from where she lived, there were only five occasions--the shortest being one week in duration, and the longest being 9 months-- where I spent time in the vicinity of my grandmother during her lifetime. This sudden recollection of catching fireflies in her backyard (I must have been about 12) was a precious gift, because I have so few memories of her. I googled images of fireflies and drew them into the jar.
By this time my mind had made another leap, this time to a prematurely discontinued American television series called "Firefly." My son had spoken highly of it, so I ordered the DVD set from the US and watched it all the way through in record-breaking time. I was mesmerized by it, and immediately watched it all the way through a second time. The show's theme song contains the words "you can't take the sky from me." I adapted those words to accompany my drawing. The resulting etegami is quite different (maybe disturbingly so) from my usual style, and the references are complicated to explain, so I was dubious about displaying it publicly. But a friend persuaded me to do so anyway, saying it had a certain appeal, even apart from my convoluted explanation. So here it is. In celebration of (grand) Mother's Day.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
In my early years of etegami, I drew mostly vegetables and fruit. Then, with some trepidation, I graduated to flowers. Those have been traditional subjects of etegami and they were perfect for learning the basic techniques of the art. But as I began to run out of new things to draw, I grabbed whatever was at hand. A tea cup. My cell phone. An old pair of shoes. In a separate, non-etegami-conscious, part of my life, I took the first baby steps towards a new hobby. Bird-watching. I put together makeshift birdfeeders and set them out in my yard near the window so I could watch from inside the house. I observed the birds with binoculars, and I googled to make even closer observations and learn more about them. It wasn't long before I started drawing them. I enjoyed capturing the identifying characteristics of each type of bird without the pressure of complete accuracy or realism. Etegami is cool that way. A friend said to me, "I like how your hobbies have come together." Being a voracious reader, I was already using quotes from favorite books to accompany the drawings. But my friend's comment opened my eyes to a whole new world of possibilities for etegami. I'll be blogging more about this in the future. For today, I've attached my earliest bird etegami. The bird is called Shime in Japanese, and is apparently a kind of Hawfinch. The black band around its eyes, the shape of the beak, and the color of its feathers are the identifying characteristics. Mine turned out plump and fluffy. Not unlike me, actually. The accompanying words are adapted from Job 12:7 "Ask the birds of the air and they will tell you."
Thursday, April 30, 2009
In Japan, we are now smack in the middle of Golden Week, the period from April 29 to May 5 and whatever weekends can be roped in to expand its duration. There are four national holidays during this period, and since many companies chose to close for the in-between days, for much of the labor force it is the longest vacation period of the year. The etegami I posted today commemorates Kodomo-no-hi (Children's Day), which is celebrated every year on May 5. It is a drawing of a koi-nobori, one of the many huge carp-shaped windsocks that fly from tall poles next to homes, schools, and community parks all across Japan from April to early May. The custom honors children (originally only boys), and represents the hope that they will grow up healthy and strong like the carp, which is said to swim against the current. The number of koi-nobori flying from any one pole depends on the number of children (or sons) in the household. They are strung in the order of larger to smaller, and come in various colors. The largest one at the top represents the father of the family. Koi-nobori can be gorgeous works of art with beautiful details, and are treasured family heirlooms. They are made of soft fabric, with metal rings placed in the mouth openings, on which the string that connects them to the flag pole is tied. I wanted to convey the power and energy symbolized by the koi-nobori. So rather than showing how they look from afar --as pretty a sight as that is-- I chose to try a close-up of the Daddy Carp. Since the mouth isn't inside the frame of the card, someone unfamiliar with koi-nobori might think I was trying to draw a real live carp. But I was actually trying to show a koi-nobori whipping about in the wind, like a real live carp might swish and leap against a fast-moving river current. The accompanying words can be translated roughly as "with great vigor."