Today, I attended a meeting at USC Pacific Asia Museum, where I worked for almost nine years, and with which have remained in touch to varying degrees over the nine years since I left. While I was there, I gave three books to three members of the museum’s staff. They are all colleagues who began working at the museum after I left, so I haven’t had the opportunity to work closely with them. Yet, their professionalism and warmth reassure me that this museum, which I still care deeply about, is in good hands.
When I embarked on my postgraduate course in Asian art run by Sotheby’s and London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, I began the course with their module on Indian art, where the roots of much Asian art lie. As soon as I started the course, I realized I that I had some intriguing companions with me on this fascinating art historical journey. One of them was an extremely beautiful and sophisticated woman from Italy called Renata. She was older than most of the other students and had kids who were already in college, so she had seen much more of the world than the rest of us had. However, that didn’t make her any less enthusiastic or interesting to me than the younger students. In fact, if anything, Renata had a keener appetite for learning than most of the twenty-somethings. Now that I am the age that she was then, I really understand why. Despite our age difference, we soon became friends.
“Keep up your enthusiasm! There is nothing more contagious than exuberant enthusiasm.” Harry Houdini, the famous magician and escape artist and one of the world’s most captivating performers, apparently offered these words of advice to aspiring young magicians. I have always believed in the power of enthusiasm. We have all experienced the agony of sitting in a classroom trying to learn from a teacher who has lost all interest in his or her subject. Equally we have all, hopefully, had the opposite experience of being taught by someone overflowing with enthusiasm for what they are teaching. Even though we may not have been interested in their subject before the class, it is hard not to be swept up and carried away by the end of class. Over the years, I have always believed that if you want to achieve anything in life, if you put in the effort and are enthusiastic (and also have a decent amount of luck), you will succeed. I have specialized in Asian art history, a field that is considered esoteric or obscure by many, for over 20 years now, and when I give a lecture, curate and exhibition or write a book or article, the biggest compliment I can receive from someone is that my enthusiasm for the subject got them excited about it too. Just as I caught the bug from others in the past, I hope that I too have infected a lot of people over the years and increased general interest in my professional passion.
My other main passion in life these days is reducing waste, something that is not as appealing to most people as art might be. Yet, I feel strongly about minimizing trash and spend a lot of time and energy trying to encourage others to do so too in my monthly Keen to be Green column in our local paper, in programs I have run in the past at the library, and with the lunch waste recycling program I helped set up at my son’s school. I have been in charge of the school’s Green Dragons program for the last 5 years now. I don’t do much these days, but I do go in once a week to help the kids sort their trash into “trash” and “recyclables.” At the start of this year, I have to admit that my enthusiasm was waning, especially when I saw some of the older kids, who know what to do, just dump all their waste without bothering to sort it. However, there was one kid at the start of this school year who re-ignited my enthusiasm – a bouncy little 1st-grader called August, who was so excited about recycling that he would literally jump up and down and sing while he was helping his classmates to recycle. His favorite song seemed to be the Banana Song, sung whenever someone left a banana on the share table. His excitement spread to his classmates, who also signed up in surprising numbers to help with Green Dragons, and partway through the year, his mom even volunteered to come in once a week as a parent Green Dragon. Now, as the year passed, many of these eager 1st graders, August included, chose to spend their lunch break playing in the yard rather than recycling lunch trash – which I truly understand. But today I decided to give August a pin with a recycling symbol on it because, it was in part his enthusiasm for recycling at the start of the year that got me excited again about working with the kids and helping them to recycle their waste. Of all the infections that I have caught from kids in the last year (and there certainly have been a couple!), this was certainly the happiest.
In 2003, about 5 years after I moved to California, I decided to start a group called the Asian Art Curators of Southern California in the hope of forming a network of colleagues who could share information, collaborate on projects and become a friendly community. I invited all the Asian art curators from the museums in the region to gather at Pacific Asia Museum, and cooked red pepper soup and a salad for lunch! Since then, the group has been gathering twice a year at various members’ institutions from San Diego to Santa Barbara, and much information has been exchanged over much fancier lunches. One of the most supportive members of the group is my colleague and friend Ken, who works full-time as a Professor of Asian art history at a local college, has written many volumes on Japanese art and typically has about 3 or 4 exhibitions he has curated up in a museum somewhere in the country at any one time! Over the years, I have enjoyed working with him on various exhibitions, first while I was on staff at Pacific Asia Museum and he was an adjunct curator, then briefly while he was on staff there and I was an adjunct a few years later! His exhibitions, lectures and writings on Japanese prints, gardens and many other areas of Japanese art and culture are so thoroughly researched, lucid and entertaining that on more than one occasion, they have sparked my enthusiasm for aspects of Japanese art of which I’d been unfamiliar or just plain uninterested.
Today, our curators’ group met at the Japanese garden in Pasadena where I have been helping lately. Ken is the expert in Japanese gardens in the United States and has been involved with the garden for several years during its restoration and transition into a non-profit organization. I have him to thank for introducing me to the owners of the garden a few months ago and encouraging me to become involved there as they expand their programs and open the garden more to the public. So, after today’s meeting, I gave him a 1954 edition of a book called Japanese Colour Prints by Laurence Binyon and J.J.O. Sexton, a charming little vintage hardcover that I hoped he didn’t already have on his many shelves. Somehow he didn’t, and he accepted my little token of gratitude for being just the kind of thoughtful colleague I was hoping to cultivate when I started this group a dozen years ago.
In 1988, I was 21 years old and I had just completed my second year of Japanese Studies at Cambridge. As part of our language program, we were to spend a term studying Japanese at a university in Japan in the fall. I had spent helping some Japanese students from Osaka on a summer program in Cambridge the previous year, and had been invited to do a homestay with one of their families in Kyoto that summer. I flew out to Japan and made my way to Kyoto, where my homestay family lived and was thrilled to discover that I had been placed with a family who were involved in the kimono making industry. The Endos had a company that made kimonos, and at the time I was staying with them, the country was very prosperous and their business was thriving. (Months later, the Emperor died, and people took some time off buying fancy new kimono, which took a toll on his business.) Mr. Endo spent a lot of his time during that summer taking me to see the various stages of the kimono-making process, from the spinning of the threads to the weaving of the lengths of cloth, and he even enrolled me in a kumihimo class so I could learn to braid the silk cords that are tied around the obi, the sash that goes around the waist of the kimono and holds everything together. One day, he took me into one of his showrooms, which contained drawer after drawer of spectacular samples of brocade obi designs. Some of these samples were so intricately woven with an array of colors and gold-wrapped threads that they overshadowed the kimono fabrics he had already shown me. And some were so full of gold that they were actually heavy. I remember Mr. Endo telling me a full-length obi with designs like these typically cost thousands of dollars.
Then he reached into one of the drawers and pulled out a pile of samples. He laid them on the table in front of me and told me to choose one to keep. At first, I was excited but then I became overwhelmed. They were all so beautiful, I couldn’t decide. Mr. Endo had left me to attend to some business and I knew I had to make a decision quickly but it was impossible. I narrowed it down to one with an abstract pattern, one with flowers, and one with butterflies and flowers. I was still trying to choose a winner when he returned. I told him I was having trouble selecting just one. He hesitated for a moment and then grabbed all three of them, had his assistant wrap them in a cloth and present them to me. I bowed a lot and thanked him profusely feeling very greedy but also delighted to have scored three beautiful obi samples. This was just one of the many moments of kindness I experienced in Japan that summer, and from many, many more Japanese people in the 25 or so years since then. My experiences with the Endo family exploring the many arts and crafts of Kyoto no doubt contributed to my wanting to become a historian of Japanese art.
Over the years, I held onto these textile treasures. I gave one away years ago to friend who had been my assistant at Pacific Asia Museum and left to attend grad school to major in Japanese art. She is now an assistant professor. Today, I gave away one more to my dear friend Christine (see April 23) and her brand new and very lovely husband Ryan. It seemed like an appropriate wedding gift to give her a beautiful piece of Asian art that was closely linked to the start of my career in the field, since it is this shared love of Asian art that brought us together as friends. To Christine and Ryan, who have just tied the knot, a framed obi section – from a sash that wraps around the kimono and holds it all together – seems fitting, the ornate but strong sash symbolizing the strength and beauty of their love at the start of this great journey together.