Lacquerware—Commentary and Impressions Three

Gouge the bark, cut into the inner layer and the 
thick cream coloured sap begins to ooze from 
the wound.  Collect what you can and return 
to the tree the next day to do the same thing.
Lacquerware All-sorts Three—Lacquerware Archive, Ninohe
This series of posts on lacquerware continues with a look at work in the Ninohe Archive in Iwate Prefecture.

The aim of my second visit to Morioka and Ninohe was to learn more about the basics of lacquerware, from source to finish.

I learned how to tap a lacquer tree to extract the sap which oozes from a wound made with a gouge in the bark.  The sap is filtered and warmed to drive off some of the moisture in it, before it is filtered again and pigment is added.  Then comes the job of applying the lacquer.

Keep the brush still and turn the bowl.
Simple?  Well yes but not for a novice like me.
It is not so easy, especially when applying a top coat.  The idea is to keep the brush more or less still and turn the bowl.  I struggled at first.  But even before applying a top coat, a tack cloth is used to remove and pieces of dust or hair or fluff.  I did not do it carefully enough and specks are visible on the surface.

I went to the Tekiseisha facility in Ninohe to do this basic work.  I was also privileged to be shown the local history museum, which holds a number items related to lacquerware made in the area.  Even more of a privilege and something of a surprise, I was shown the archive of old piece of lacquerware.  Some I have already presented in other posts, so I have only picked out the more surprising examples.

In the archive some of the bowls were really rustic but refreshingly unpretentious and full of character.

It is assumed that a number of the pieces in the archive were perhaps made as samples.  Nevertheless, there is a spontaneity about the work which is generally unseen in the decoration used on lacquerware in other production centres.

Hand painted random squiggles but rendered with purpose and method.  It is certainly not a doodle.  There may not be a ground to this bowl as the mark of a turning tool is visible.
Simply speaking, the decoration is very painterly.  It is not in a style that an “artisan” would usually work with.  An artisan follows a prepared style of decoration but a number of pieces in the archive look as if an “artist” has used a piece of lacquerware as a canvas.  And unusually each piece would be slightly different.

Here a flame effect is perfected as the lacquer is applied.
This was made clear to me when I visited Wajima last year.  I suggested that it would be interesting to have a kind of chipped effect on the outside of a turned bowl.  I was hoping to achieve something rather random in an attempt to make each bowl unique.  I wanted to see something uninhibited and relaxed.  Once again something painterly.

In this case I was working with a woodturner in mind not someone doing decoration.  Nevertheless, I was told in no uncertain way that I could not expect a woodturner “craftsman” to produce something like that.  He would need something to follow.  In other words his job was “making” not “creating”.

Some of the pieces in the archive in Ninohe, however, bore the touch of someone who was “creating”.

The grain is visible below the surface of the lacquer.  The wood could be beech and may not have been well seasoned as there is some distortion to the form.  The abstraction of the images is appealing and could not be more painterly.  The large collection of this kind of hana-zara is popular with many visitor to Ninohe.
There is certainly room in the field of lacquerware decoration for both of these approaches to rendering pattern or some other decorative effect.  There is a stumbling block however.  The use of true lacquer as a decorative medium tends to inhibit spontaneity.  But I believe there are ways around this problem.

An interesting exception is Tsugaru lacquerware.  However, the pattern common to this ware is “manufactured” rather than “created”.  A chance effect of layering coloured lacquer and then rubbing it back to produced a stippled effect was recognised as an interesting looking finish.

Tora-nuri—Smoke from a burning pine root or perhaps a candle or oil lamp produced the soot to make the smoke-like effect.  The colouring is highly original but may not have been so unusual when it was decorated toward the end of the nineteenth-century or perhaps in the early part of the twentieth-century.  Some how the colouring reminded me of the Pokémon character Pikachu.
The second trip to the north was especially exciting as I came across tora-nuri—“tiger ware” because of the colouring.  This smoky decorative effect is never seen in contemporary lacquerware.  Also after visiting Ninohe I went to three other lacquerware production centres.  None of the people I showed photos of tora-nuri to had even seen the effect before.  What next?

Along with many other traditional crafts, lacquerware is covered in Japan Crafts Source Book, originally published by Kodansha International.  For background information on Joboji access:

Access the Tekiseisha site for more images of products under “Commodity” on the Japanese site.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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