It is spring. Migratory birds are coming back to our northern skies and I’ve been thrilled to watch them return. This week in particular the chirping of birds have gotten varied and louder, sounding nearly feverish at dawn. There’s nothing like their happy (sorry for my anthropocentric description, but they do sound quite happy) chorus — chitter-chatter, gurgling, cheep-cheep, tweet-tweet, pip-pip. At least to my ears they sound so excited and exuberant.
I enjoy drawing birds. Right now on my desk sits the chickadee carving for my new print. Chickadees are curious, friendly little birds with a cute black-cap and white breast, about the size of a large egg. They jump from branch to branch, hanging here and there; they’re a natural acrobat.
Recently I caught what my husband calls “a bird fever”; it is like the spring fever. I am just obsessed with birds. I have the urge to learn about them. I wanted to learn beyond American robins and stellar jays. Just imagine my excitement when I spotted a couple of bluish looking birds (the size of American robin) and could intelligently say that they weren’t stellar jays, but they were Western scrub jays swooping down from the cherry tree.
I’ve been seen walking around the backyard with my I-phone app for bird call identifications. I attended an Audubon meeting at a local library. I bought books on birding. I’m trying to act like a birder, but honestly I have to say, I’m not even a fledgling birder. I’m more of a nestling, or should I say I’m basically a hatchling birder at this stage.
Since I love music, I am particularly interested in the sounds they make. Birds sing just as we humans use our voices to communicate. Bird calls are varied and functionally specific, such as “Come here, darling” (a mating song) “Keep out!” (territorial signal) “Danger!” (alarm call). A male sings more often than a female as their singing is often a gesture of courtship. The length of the male birds’ songs correlates directly to his popularity.
Sure, so far these all sound pretty much a common sense. But it gets more interesting here. Why do they sing so loudly at dawn? Louder than other times in the day? Have you noticed?
Is it the perfect stillness of the morning air which allows their voices to transmit further? Or is it just a perfect time for love gestures from a boy bird to a girl bird who is nesting somewhere in the morning? Or are they simply excited with too much stored energy in the morning? (Look at my children racing the staircase up and down in the morning! We can’t stop them.)
We humans really don’t seem to know why. . . why they sing at dawn, so much louder than the rest of the day?
Or simpler yet, how do they sing so well, I wonder. How do the little birds produce such pure tones with such ease, out of that tiny body? I found out that birds don’t use larynx for their voice production. They use syrinx instead. Is it the perfect placement of sound traveling through their small bodies into their tiny head cavities that enable their perfect voice production? As an amateur soprano myself, I admire these small backyard singers’ remarkable abilities.
Fascination with birds is boundless. Over the centuries and across continents — from the ancient Greece and China, to Victorian America, humans tried to capture these wonderfully musical creatures on earth by making bird automatons. We humans have the desire to replicate the delicate songs of the birds, but it is like trying to count all the stars in night sky.
Inevitably bird songs have inspired music composers as well. Songs inspired by birds are everywhere, from folk songs, classical, to pop music. From imitations of bird sounds (like cuckoo), to the pastoral sounds depicted by the call of a lark, we have a rich legacy of “bird inspired music.” I am compiling a list of bird-inspired music right now, but the list is endless. Just to name a few of the classical music composers, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Edward Grieg, Saint-Saens, Berlioz, Benjamin Britten, Messian. It goes on and on. Flute, piano, violin, and soprano voice, among others, have been used to portray their brilliant whistles and songs.
Biber’s Sonata Representativa in A Major is so much fun with all the faithful imitation of bird sounds, from nightingale, cuckoo, quail, cock, hen. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VXcuaHwpac) And if you’re curious what a human voice can portray, please listen to the great soprano Lily Pons’ “Pretty Mocking Bird” or Kathleen Battle’s “Lo Here the Gentle Lark” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3itv-6VT7lc and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Mu7oZXcYxg, respectively.)
It is spring, dear friends. I hope you get up early in the morning, walk outside and enjoy the beauty of their songs at dawn. Some of the migratory birds will be gone in a few more months, so now is the time to listen to their songs. Not a morning person? Hmmm. . . Just try it once; the reward is for you to discover!
How do we go on after a catastrophic event like a loss of a loved one or a massive hurricane or a tsunami ?
At 2:46 pm, all throughout Japan, peace bells rang and citizens– old couples, office workers, to school children–bowed their heads in silence. Three years ago yesterday in Japan, the 9 magnitude Tohoku Earthquake hit the Northeast region of Japan and the massive tsunami took over 15000 lives. When this tragedy happened, we teamed up with an emergency medial relief team called Empact Northwest; I made a block print of the Matsushima Bay (once a beautiful bay in the Tohoku region) for a fundraiser. Together we were able to donate over fifty thousand dollars to the recovery effort.
Today in America (3/11) marks exactly three years since the earthquake. Still over 2600 people are missing and with the ensuing problems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the area continues to struggle with the post-disaster recovery. Currently the Japanese government shut down all 48 nuclear power plants for safety inspections, with a future plan to resume their operations.
Japanese citizens’ anti-nuclear sentiment has been rising. On March 9th, many protesters took to the streets in Tokyo — rather an unusual spectacle in Japan where group conformity is still important. They argue that Japan needs to stop using nuclear power and instead look into alternative energy source such as geothermal (which is abundant, constant, and promising!), solar, and wind.
A group of about 100 men and women also staged a protest in front of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. They released 300 red balloons with the words “No to nuclear power” in Japanese. A perfect peace message for an insular government headed by Prime Minister Abe who seems to lack the awareness of international political sentiments.
This year I’m planning to release my own “red balloons” into the Seattle sky. Not during day time like the protesters in Tokyo. But it’ll be at night. A group of Seattle-area volunteers have been staging an anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons ceremony and event called “From Hiroshima to Hope”. At Green Lake in North Seattle neighborhood, they invite thousands of attendees to make a paper lantern, write their messages with a brush and ink, light a candle inside, float them into the lake.
My husband volunteers for this event and our kids and I participated last year. The experience of floating over 1000 lanterns into the dark lake water was moving and mesmerizing. When I returned home, I made a quick watercolor sketch. Using this sketch I’ll be making an original linoleum block print for the 2014 “From Hiroshima to Hope” poster. Just like the red ball0ons in Tokyo, our paper lanterns will be filled with our wishes and hopes for a better world, a better future.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been designing a set of 6 cards for the next season. Three are new holiday cards and the rest are a set of three quote cards that are adapted from my designs for the Wisdom of Trees prints that originally were commissioned by American Bungalow magazine in 2012.
Today I finished drawing and designing one of the quote cards, “Plant a Tree”, based on a poem by Lucy Larcom. Known today for her memoir A New England Girlhood (1889), Larcom was a widely published poet, teacher, and an abolitionist. In this book Larcom recorded the lives of New England girls who were working at textile mills in Lowell, calling attention to the dangerous conditions of factory work. It is a vivid account of the fast changing lifestyle of workers from agrarian to industrial age in America.
Larcom’s phrase “I defy the machinery to make me its slave” still resonates today. Here at the Arts & Crafts Press, we use both our hands and machinery. Just as William Morris advocated in his writings over a century ago, we’re trying to find a good balance between the use of our hands and machines. As I write this, my assistant, Rachel, is printing our note cards using our 1951 Heidelberg letterpress printing press. And on my worktable is a unfinished linoleum block for the next print, “Banditry of Chickadees”.
The goal for us is to find the pleasurable balance between machinery and handwork, in order to offer our note cards and prints at an affordable price while keeping our quality.
Below is the entire poem “Plant a Tree” by Larcom. Enjoy!
“PLANT A TREE”
He who plants a tree
Plants a hope.
Rootlets up through fibres blindly grope;
Leaves unfold into horizons free.
So man’s life must climb
From the clods of time
Unto heavens sublime.
Canst thou prophesy, thou little tree,
What the glory of thy boughs shall be?
He who plants a tree
Plants a joy;
Plants a comfort that will never cloy;
Every day a fresh reality,
Beautiful and strong,
To whose shelter throng
Creatures blithe with song.
If thou couldst but know, thou happy tree,
Of the bliss that shall inhabit thee!
He who plants a tree,–
He plants peace.
Under its green curtains jargons cease.
Leaf and zephyr murmur soothingly;
Shadows soft with sleep
Down tired eyelids creep,
Balm of slumber deep.
Never hast thou dreamed, thou blessed tree,
Of the benediction thou shalt be.
He who plants a tree,–
He plants youth;
Vigor won for centuries in sooth;
Life of time, that hints eternity!
Boughs their strength uprear;
New shoots, every year,
On old growths appear;
Thou shalt teach the ages, sturdy tree,
Youth of soul is immortality.
He who plants a tree,–
He plants love,
Tents of coolness spreading out above
Wayfarers he may not live to see.
Gifts that grow are best;
Hands that bless are blest;
Plant! life does the rest!
Heaven and earth help him who plants a tree,
And his work its own reward shall be.
by Lucy Larcom
Born March 5 1824; Died April 27, 1893
Shin-hanga artist, Kawase Hasui’s woodblock prints are simply beautiful. Some might say they are nostalgic, but they are all executed with impeccable draftsmanship. I have been a big fan of his work for years. This year marks the 130th years since his birth and in order to commemorate this, two museums in Tokyo are having major exhibits of his work.
Hasui lived his later years in Ota ward and so this ward is the depository of his papers, sketches, watercolors, and the woodblock prints that were printed by Watanabe Publishing house. The Ota Museum has planned a three-part exhibit: the first one focusing on his work through the 1920s, the second one covering the period from the Kanto Earthquake in 1923 into the 1930s, and the third one from 1930s through his later years.
A good ten-minute walk from the Minami Magome station, the Ota Museum building is an unassuming modern concrete building. But once inside I was immediately amazed by the quality of the items on display. The glass cases were filled with Hasui woodblock prints and, not only that, the prints were arranged carefully next to the pencil sketches and watercolors he had prepared for each print.
I had read before that late in his life, due to a fire, Hasui lost most of his original watercolors and sketches. I had never thought I would be able to see so many watercolors of such astonishing quality by him.
As a block print artist, I am familiar with the process of making woodblock prints. Being able to examine first-hand various stages of Hasui’s work — from rough sketches to final execution, was a real treat for me, and I believe will be for many others. Especially I enjoyed viewing how he studied and sketched parts of the buildings, trees, and townscapes, first with pencil, then in watercolor. As artists, we’re constantly trying to achieve a harmonious composition — we eliminate unwanted details, rearranges compositions, find motifs, create patterns, adjust colors, so that the final work will hopefully achieve the balance we wish for.
One might be tempted to ask which he/she prefers — Hasui’s watercolor sketches or the finished block print. Without question there is undeniable perfection and beauty in the finished woodblock prints executed by the Watanabe publishing house based on Haui’s sketches. Compared to the prints, Hasui’s sketches look unfinished and raw. But the real value of these sketches lies in its ability to reveal this artists’ process of work, his skills, and his mind at work.
The exhibit will be on until March 2nd and I hope many people can have the opportunity to see this wonderful exhibit. For those who cannot make it to Japan this winter, the Museum produced a very comprehensive color catalog of the three-part exhibit. It includes all the images that are on exhibit. But I must say that there is absolutely no comparison between looking at the printed catalog pages and seeing the actual sketches and woodblock prints. Nuance and immediacy are gone in these catalog pages. If you really want to look into the artist’s process of creation, then I recommend you hop on the airplane to Tokyo today!
Information about the Hasui Exhibit:
■Early Period: from 27th October (Sunday) to 1st December (Sunday) 2013 “Works from Taisho Era to Restoration after Great Kanto Earthquake” — closed
■Middle Period: from 7th December 2013 (Saturday) to 19th January 2014 (Sunday) “Works from early to 10’s of Showa era” — closed
■Period: from 25th January (Saturday) to 2nd March (Sunday) 2014 “Works in the Showa 20’s and at his last years” — ongoing
■Venue: Folk Museum of Ota City, 5-11-13, Minami-magome, Ota-ku, Tokyo
■Contact: TEL: +81-3-3777-1070 FAX: +81-3-3777-1283
You can also visit Watanabe Woodblock Gallery in Ginza, Tokyo, to view and purchase newly reproduced woodblock prints and other “shin-hanga” artists.
What is your New Year ritual? Some like to gather and party and others dare to jump into the ocean (I tried that once!) Recently I like to go to a mountain or a beach with our children. This year I was ecstatic as I was able to be in Tokyo and celebrate the beginning of a new year in a traditional Japanese way.
All over Japan at midnight on New’s Year’s eve — people both young and old —go to a nearby shrine or a temple, get in line, and wait for their turn to ring the large bell there to welcome in the New Year. At temples, townspeople ring the bell 108 times to rid themselves of bad karma. It is a festive, communal affair, with hot sake being served along side soba noodles in a warm broth. The famous large temples make a lot of money from people coming and tossing coins in as they pray, while the the small temples and shrines have events that are organized by local neighborhood groups and are more about the community gathering together.
The one I walked to with my children was a tiny shrine that dates back several centuries near my parents home. My uncle and a band of local men and women had volunteered to set up a large bonfire and offer food and drink to the visitors. After saying hi to my uncle, we stood in line like the others, bundled up against the cold, and waited for an hour for a chance to ring the bell.
I am a skeptic at heart. So I don’t particularly believe in the 108 bad karma (no thank you!) or the religious benefit of the bell ringing. But standing there, with the other Japanese men and women, I thought: This is the way to start off the year right. I suppose it was the community aspect of this event that made me want to participate, spending time with my children, and passing down our traditions, one generation to the next.
In the early hours, after ringing the bell, we hurried home, wishing others “Happy New Years” as we passed by them. My daughter was walking half asleep and I had to pull her along by the arm. The streets were dark and quiet. But occasionally as we approached another temple or shrine, we could hear the deep slow sound of the giant gong echoing through the darkness.
But then, when the sun rose on the first of January and I woke up, the day seemed so bright, and so ordinary. The mysterious aspects of the night before seemed like a dream, or something from a movie. Getting dressed and waking up children, I felt the beautiful extraordinary ordinariness of this first day of the year.
Recently I came across a senryu (a form of haiku poem) by Issa Kobayashi. He seems to capture this feeling well.
A New Year arrives
In utter simplicity
And a deep blue sky
And so here is my wish to my friends and families: I wish all of you many days of extraordinarily ordinary happiness, simple pleasures of daily life, and a lot of blue skies.