Joie-de-vivre In Wood And Lacquer

By L ynn Tsang

"With eyes to see the wonders of the world, what more could we ask of life?" so ponders Seiichi Watabe, wood-sculptor-cum-lacquer artist. Wood is the canvas upon which he carves his philosophy of life and lacquer the coating of hls Japanese love of nature. Each consummate stroke cuts into the earthy grain, at times light and delicate, at other times deep and powerful.

Unlike his elegant, thoughtful works, the face of this artist is not carved deeply with telltale lines of his arduous past. Watabe, aged 52 and father of three, appears ten years younger as his eyes shine with a joie-de-vivre. Born in Yokohama, he migrated to Aizu-Wakamatsu (Fukushima) at the age of 10 with his family to escape the wrath of the enemy as the American forces rained bombs on the Kanto Plain during World War II. Holding no animosity towards them, Watabe is quick to point out "the Japanese were wrong."

Peace and the dignity of human life has always been part of this man's pursuit of knowledge and truth. He had hoped to be a teacher, but the bankruptcy of his father's business forced him to turn his talents elsewhere-to his other love, art. As a youth he remembers being surrounded by art. His father was a skilled lacquer craftsman (from whom he inherited the art) and his grandfather, a councilor for the Aizu clan before the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, also painted.

Never pushed to succeed his father, he nevertheless learned the craft by keen observation. At the age of 19 with the doors to a college education closed to him, Watabe turned to the study of wood sculpturing as an apprentice to Masu Ko, an Aizu artisan. Driven by a quest for knowledge, he determined to learn as quickly as possible as much as he could. He daringly proposed to his mentor that if he would teach the young Seiichi a new skill every day, he would master each one and never have to repeat a lesson. In 45 days the ambitious young man had indeed mastered all there was to know about wood carving, a skill that would have taken an ordinary man 2-1/2 years to learn. At the end of the short time, his teacher sent him on his way with a certificate, saying, "Go. I have taught you everything I know."

Realizing that he needed a practical trade to live by, the budding craftsman proceeded to learn the lacquer techniques of Kamakura: Kamakura-bori. After four more years of apprenticeship-service in the painstaking Japanese manner he was finally independent. "You can't imagine the joy I felt at that moment," he smiles, remembering the end of his first stage of intense learning. It was really only the beginning of a lifelong study of art and nature "so that I can appreciate all aspects of the arts even if I cannot do it myself."

In the beginning Watabe concentrated on mastering the physical likeness of plants with a botanist's eye for detailed perfection. Out of this period comes a control and understanding of natural form that is technical perfection.

But having mastered realism, the artist discovered to his dismay that it was far from enough. True art, he realized, must be imbued with the breath of life. Form without spirit was dead matter, not art. The revelation was a breakthrough. Watabe began again, this time to create form infused with life. The very first work of this period was a carving of a bamboo shoot in which the essence of life, growing and reaching upward, is shown in the fingers that strain upwards towards the light, full of raw energy. Thls work, titlecl Bamboo Shoot, was exhibited recently at Bungei Shunju Gallery in Ginza, Tokyo.

The sensitive soul of the man is exhibited in another early work, Autumn-Spring, a delicate pavilion of unpainted wood, 6 Inches high. The scene of autumn maples lifts up to reveal a spring garden of blossoming p]ums inside!The whimsical piece was created for an ailing elderly friend, to brlng him joy and cheer. Gazing at the autumn foliage, one needs on]y to look deeper to see the promise of spring hidden inside.

Movement was the next focus of the artist, captured in Climbing Dragon, a large wall plaque. In thls traditional theme in Oriental art, Watabe challenges the medium of wood by successfully elucidating the movement and energy of a dragon rising powerfully through swirling clouds. It is a 3-D portrait of a theme usually executed by brush on paper and attests to the artist's daring and innovative vislon. The warm lacquer enhances the richness of a work that is at once both sculpture and painting.

Watabe's search for new ways or expression is in his latest work, Carp. "I am fascinated with the qualities of light and transparency inherent to water," he says, "and with the illustration of such quallties in a medium totally contradictory of lightness and transparency."

While the products of his visions seem effortless and totally natural, Watabe admits that the study of basic technique is necessary before one can achieve freedom of expression in one's art. As a lacquer artist he also believes that the practical use of any vessel being created, whether it be a bowl, tray, or incense box,

must always be a vital part of the design. Watabe's works are strongly individualistic, not bound by tradi-tion but a surprising blend of classi-cal and modern design.

Not working in any one particular school of lacquerware, he chooses the type most appropriate to the piece at hand. Some pieces are deep brown in the style of Kamakurabori, others are lacquered red-orange in the Aizu type, and still others have no lacquer covering, the beauty of the wood-grain left exposed.

While his accomplishments are enough to satisfy any man's goals, Seiichi Watabe disagrees. "I am still learning and exploring," he says, ever studying and developing his skill and consciousness towards his ultimate goal-to find the meaning of truth in life. Towards this end he has accepted Christianity which he feels answers many of his own ques-tions and suits his philosophy.

"Art is a treasure," he says of his life work, and speaks of the world around us. "It would not be surpris-ing if we did not have these things color, shape, volume, stillness and movement-life itself. That we do, makes it all a treasure beyond com-parison." Here is a man who finds inspiration in a world that most of us take too much for granted. In do-ing so, he gives us the gift of the fine I art of living.