THE ART OF PATIENCE
Kazumi Murose is one of the Japan's most esteemed urushi artists, traditional Japanese art, often called Japanese lacquerware.
He is so respected for his creative work, as well for his commitment to the preservation and promotion of Kōgei, traditional Japanese crafts,
that he was declared a Living National Treasure by the Japanese Government in 2008.
Kazumi Murose sits at a desk in his timber-clad studio in a residential neighbourhood in Tokyo. In one hand, he holds a natsume – a small, round container used for matcha (green tea powder) during tea ceremonies. In the other, he holds a funzutsu tool passed down to him by his father. It is the hollow quill of a crane feather, the tip covered with silk. As he gently flicks the tool, gold filings sprinkle precisely onto the timber surface of the natsume, shaping delicate moss that snakes off the branches of a pine tree. “It takes around three years to master this skill,” he says of the sprinkling technique. It’s around the same length of time that it takes to complete each of his painstakingly crafted artworks – although, they can take up to five years. “Your sense of time is very different when you do this kind of work – the world would be more peaceful if everyone lived at this pace.”
This is the traditional Japanese art of urushi – often called Japanese lacquerware – and Murose is one of Japan’s most esteemed urushi artists. He is so respected for his creative work, as well as his commitment to the preservation and promotion of kogei – traditional Japanese crafts – that he was declared a Living National Treasure by the Japanese government in 2008.
Like so many of Japan’s kogei artists, Murose followed in the footsteps of his father, established urushi artist Shunji Murose. “Growing up, our house was both a home and my father’s studio – his atelier was also my playground and I became familiar with urushi very naturally,” he says. “When I was a teenager, I told my father about my interest in urushi. It was the beginning of the digital age and there was a lot of talk about kogei skills disappearing. So, he was very surprised I wanted a career in urushi. But, I thought, if the culture of urushi is going to disappear, I want to be the last one to practise it.”
Murose went on to study at the Tokyo University of the Arts, and under master urushi artists Matsuda Gonroku and Taguchi Yoshikuni. Today, he is known for his exquisite work, which celebrates traditional techniques through contemporary expression. Take, for example, a small box adorned with two prawns rendered in such a three-dimensional, lifelike manner that they seem to swim out of the surface; or a series of works decorated with graphic, geometric stripes – both expressions were revolutionary when Murose introduced them.
Although often described in English as Japanese lacquerware, urushi has very little in common with European lacquerware. While the latter is a shellac varnish made from lac insects, urushi is the sap of the urushi – Japanese sumac – tree and is the basis of one of the oldest art forms in East Asia, dating back to before 5000 BCE. “It’s only the last 150 years or so that people have used the word ‘lacquerware’ to describe urushi,” says Murose. “They are two different things. The same goes for kogei – there is no English word that captures what this is. Kogei is about utility, not only decoration – it is not art, nor craft.”
To create an urushi work, a base surface is built up on a canvas-covered timber object by applying urushi in layers and polishing repeatedly – Murose uses very soft charcoal made from paulownia wood. Onto this black surface, which takes Murose up to two years and 40 steps to achieve, various decorative techniques can be applied – from raden and rankaku, in which delicate mosaic-style patterns are created using seashells and egg shells respectively, to chinkin (literally, “sunken gold”), in which patterns are carved into the surface and gold filings are applied, and maki-e – which is Murose’s speciality – in which urushi is used as an adhesive for gold filings. These techniques are often combined to create astonishingly delicate and iridescent designs. As each material is layered on, more urushi is applied and polished to achieve the perfectly smooth surface that marks the finest works. Murose does the final polish of each piece using just his fingertips and vegetable oil.
Depending on the size of the piece and the complexity of the design, the maki-e process can take 10 months or longer – Murose once spent five years working on a small chest, and he completes just seven or eight pieces each year. “From conception to the final product, I need to make sure that I keep the inspiration and carry it through to the end,” he says. “It’s very important to preserve this culture of creating things at a slow pace. Three years might seem like a long time to create a piece of urushi, but what you create can last 400 years or even longer.”
The resulting works sell to collectors and museums for tens of thousands. And, it’s not only the time- consuming process that makes urushi work so precious – a single urushi tree produces only 150ml of sap each four-month harvesting season, after which it is cut down and it takes another 15 years to grow.
In Murose’s tool box, alongside the gold filings, tools made from quills and river reeds, are bamboo skewers used to apply fragments of abalone shell and quail egg shell, and dozens of brushes. The most precious brushes are called neji-fude and are used to apply urushi in fine lines during the maki-e process. “Regular animal hair brushes are too thick to use, as I need the line of urushi to be just one third of the width of the actual design I want to create,” he says. “So, I use rat hair that comes from wild rats beside Lake Biwa in the Shiga Prefecture north-east of Kyoto. Nowadays, good rat hair is particularly difficult to come by – and even when I could get the hair, it cost 40,000 yen (US$350) per brush.”
In Japan, as elsewhere around the world, there is a growing interest in traditional arts – perhaps a reaction to today’s digital age. As a result, younger generations are becoming more involved in kogei – especially compared to when Murose began his career in the 1960s and ’70s. “Urushi has a history of thousands of years – the word ‘tradition’ makes it sound like something that is unchanged, though, and people may think that tradition is only about preservation and doing something in the same style over and over again. But that is not correct. While we honour the traditional material and the techniques, we are always seeking a new expression and must always be creative. For me, tradition means passing those values on to the next generation.”