Today I spent the day with bamboo. I was invited down to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana to help train their docents to tour their new exhibition of contemporary Japanese bamboo baskets, which I believe are some of the most beautiful artworks created anywhere in the world. The Japanese have over 600 species of bamboo growing on their islands and they have transformed this strong, malleable grass into many items for use in their daily life, from homes and bridges to musical instruments, umbrellas and even food. For thousands of years, they have been weaving bamboo into baskets to catch fish, collect and dry tea leaves and transport fruits and vegetables. They have also woven flower baskets out of the material and it is from this tradition that today’s artist basket makers have emerged. Only about 100 of these basket makers are working in Japan today, and what they are weaving out of strips of bamboo is truly breathtaking. One of the stars of the Modern Twist exhibition at the Bowers Museum is a scultpure entitled Sound of Wind by Uematsu Chikuyu:
The docents at the Bowers Museum are a very impressive group. They are constantly in training for the next new exhibition, which can range from precious gemstones to ancient Chinese bronzes, Egyptian mummies and treasures from the Tzars of Russia. They don’t have an Asian art curator on staff, so often when they have an Asian art exhibition, they ask me to come and help train the docents. I had worked at Pacific Asia Museum when we showed a similar exhibition of these baskets and it had been one of my favorite exhibitions there, so it has been a joy to be revisiting these baskets and share my love of these artworks with a new group of docents. As always, the Bowers docents were eager for information, so I did my best to revive my knowledge on the subject and advise them on how to tour the exhibition. I also decided to give them a copy of one of my books for their library. The book is The Arts of Asia: Materials, Styles, Techniques (London, Thames & Hudson, 2005), and it came out 10 years ago this month, the same month that our son Theo was born. (It was quite a month!)
For this book, I dedicated each of the ten chapters to a particular Asian material – porcelain, jade, lacquer, paper, bamboo, etc… and explored the ways this material has been transformed into some of Asia’s most beautiful art. The chapter on bamboo was particularly enjoyable to write, as the material itself is probably my favorite. Its infinitely useful, it grows quickly and so is highly renewable, and it is both strong and flexible, making it one of the most ideal materials for constructing sculptures. It is also a material associated in East Asian culture with the concept of the gentleman scholar, a learned person with great flexibility and integrity, so symbolizes perfectly the group of museum docents who graciously give their time, energy and knowledge to educate visitors about the wonderful world of art.