February 9, 2015

“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

Japan’s most famous poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94) spent much of his life traveling around the country and capturing details of nature, moments in time and passing thoughts in short poems known to us today as haiku. These 17-syllable verses are the world’s shortest poems, but many of the haiku by Basho and other master poets contain as much wisdom and power as any sonnet, ballad or other long poetic form. The ability of the Japanese to say so much with so little, both in poetry and in art, is one of the reasons I have been drawn to Japanese culture for so many years.

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Sake cup by Japanese artist Rengetsu, in the collection of the Hololulu Academy of Arts

Today I drove out to Scripps College in Claremont to give a lecture on another of Japan’s poets, the Buddhist nun Otagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875), a remarkable artist who not only wrote thoughtful poems about love, nature, life and loss, but inscribed them in exquisite calligraphy onto ceramic tea bowls, flower vases and sake bottles. She was famous during her lifetime, but was largely forgotten in Japan until recently. I was delighted to be invited to talk about her at Scripps College, in part because I wanted to talk about this indomitable female artist at a women’s college. But mostly I was happy to be invited back there by my colleague and friend Bruce, who has been teaching Japanese art at Scripps for many years. A specialist in a range of subjects including Zen Buddhist architecture, Japanese gardens and woodblock prints, Bruce not only has a deep knowledge of his material, but is also an inspiring teacher who gives his students the rare opportunity to handle art objects from the college’s Asian art teaching collection, which he has also nurtured over the years.

I met Bruce when I was a curator at Pacific Asia Museum, and over the years he has been one of my most supportive colleagues, generously lending art works from Scripps to exhibitions I was working on and regularly hosting meetings of the Asian art curators group that I formed a few years back. Last year, before going on sabbatical, he took a leap of faith hiring me to teach an undergraduate Japanese prints seminar course, despite my lack of college teaching experience. The course took me on a challenging journey, pushing me to the edge of my knowledge and into new, uncomfortable places where I felt I had no right to be. But after a while, the unfamiliar places along the way began to feel friendly and warm, indeed like home. Today I gave Bruce a book about haiku poetry that had been sitting hidden on one of my book shelves, in gratitude for trusting me with his students and pushing me to make that journey.

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