Suspended in Time

Using a small palette attached to his thumb, Toshio Ebata charges his “rat hair” brush with lacquer.

Makie Master—Toshio Ebata
On a warm Sunday morning in June 2015, I went to see Toshio Ebata.  I had met him for the first time a few days before, so after exchanging simple greetings where he stood waiting for me at his doorway, we went into the porch and removed our shoes.

The ground floor clearly housed the domestic quarters.  The muffled sound of a radio or was it a TV immediately created an image in my mind’s eye of the kind of interior that had become so familiar.  I have been very privileged, firstly during my 24-year-stay in Japan and since then on a number of other visits.  Without the slightest hesitation many people have welcomed me into their homes and workplaces.  Being tall I have always been told to mind my head on the low beams or asked if I am able to cope with sitting on the floor but that is all.  There is never any awkwardness, or even shyness on the part of my hosts.

I followed Toshio up a narrow staircase leading off the small porch leaving my shoes waiting for my departure.  No doubt someone would warm-heartedly turn them round and line them up, so that I could slip into them with little difficulty as I left.

Sitting where he works close to the light from the window, Toshio spelled out the real essentials of his work—patience, dedication, accumulated skill and the satisfaction in completing something to be proud of.

The stairs were steep, so I had to take a good deal of care ascending the narrow shiny wooden treads with my camera bag.  The smell of lacquer wafted down the stairs and heralded the opening of a portal into another world. 

At the top of the flight of stairs we entered a room flooded with light from a large window at one end away to the left.  This was Toshio’s domain.  And it was easy to see that it was truly a place of work.  Not a place of heavy labour but more akin to a watchmaker’s workshop.  Essentially speaking, it was a room that could hardly have changed in appearance for an awfully long time.  It may well have looked virtually the same in 1915, or 1815 or even earlier but inhabited by Toshio’s forebears, of course.

There were drawers and small cupboards, a cushion facing a bench near the window, brushes and very little else.  And yet is was certainly a place of “work”.  At the end of the room by the window there was an area of tatami matting spread out on the wooden floor.

 The hair of these brushes used to come from rats.  Just like the brushes used by a miniaturist, the long hair absorbs the trembling of the hand and even the beat of the heart.

Tatami matting is usually composed of a fine reed topping stretched over a thick rice straw substrate.  Although later on they came to be used wall to wall, originally one mat was used as a seat signifying the elevated status of the person sitting on it.  In this room the area of fine reed matting alone was indication of where the master sat and worked.

Sipping freshly made green tea, we talked about the makie work that is Toshio’s speciality.  His work is delicate, perfection epitomised, and like jewels of the art and craft of lacquerware born in a world suspended in time.

The snaking trunk of a willow tree is seen against its slightly raised and delicately rendered festoons of foliage on a natsume—a small caddy to hold the powdered green tea used in a tea ceremony.

Compared to Toshio’s willow tree tea caddy, the more than one-hundred year old lidded box from his collection has a robust character of a piece of household ware.  The decoration is striking and yet delicate, simple and yet full of life.
A glazed paper packet holds the tiny chips of gold with which Toshio decorates his work.  In this case, contrary to what the proverb says, all that glitters is gold.

The multi-layered pattern on this box took many hours to complete.  The jewel-like character he has achieved, however, more than justifies the time and effort expended in its decoration.
 There is almost a kaleidoscopic quality when the patter is seen in closeup, with a shower of sparkling gold drifting across the surface like a shower of drizzle.

Toshio still relies on a “rat hair” brush fixed to a sprung bamboo compass to draw arcs and circles.  The spur of bamboo holding the brush is pulled toward the pointed element with fibres from a vine, just as it has always been.

Each glossy black dish holds a galaxy bursting with energy emanating from the pool of gold chips at its centre.
Makie—A generic term covering many decorative techniques, often involving powders of gold or silver mixed with lacquer.  It may result in a flat painterly rendering of motifs or shallow relief.  Sprinklings of chips of gold or silver as well as pigment may also be used in this technique which has been developed and enhanced over the centuries.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright
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