Bark Off

Every year in January, Richard Flavin holds what he calls the Bark-off Party. I usually participate, but I wasn’t able to go last year, so I was especially happy that last weekend I could attend this year’s event.

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Richard Flavin and his wife, Ryōko Haraguchi (photo taken by my friend Hiroko Karuno).

Richard is originally from Boston, but has lived in Japan for four decades. He is an artist in many mediums, but he is likely best known for his woodblock prints and various bookworks, including paper that he makes in his studio. He has taught both woodblock printing and papermaking, and his classes over the years (esp. Paper and Book Intensive) have been well-loved. I took one of his papermaking workshops in 1996, and lived with Richard and helped him in his studio for a period in 2003 and 2004. (For more about Richard and his recent work, please see my article in Hand Papermaking SUMMER 2009, Vol24, No1).


Friends working at peeling kozo.

Richard has a small kozo plot in Ogawa-machi, with a few hundred trees. Every year, his friends gather to help him harvest and then process the kozo. There are always returning faces of people who attend every year, as well as new faces. During the day, the group strips all of the kozo. The cut branches are steamed for a few hours, which makes peeling the bark away much easier. Usually, some scraping of the bark will also be done. The outer black bark is scraped away to reveal the inner white bark, which is the material for making paper.

Richard’s wife Ryōko heads up a small staff in order to prepare what is always a gochisō (feast) for both lunch and dinner. After the work is finished, the beer, wine, sake, and shōchū start to flow, and a good time is always had by all! In this way, Richard turns what is most often considered a labourious chore into a fun event.


Abe san in Tokyo

Today we went to see the papermaker Abe Shinichirō. Every year around this time he has a small exhibition at a store here in Tokyo that sells goods only from the prefecture of Shimane. I’ve been to Abe san’s studio a number of times, including two extended study sessions in 2005 and 2008.


Some of Abe san’s decorative papers, cards, and envelopes, including the mizutama (water-drop) pattern that I am particularly fond of.

Abe san’s grandfather (Abe Eishirō) was designated as a National Living Treasure. He made papers of many different kinds, including some of his own invention, but he was known mostly for his gampi papers. When Yanagi Sōetsu saw Abe’s gampi paper in an exhibition he is said to have found it to be the epitome of the ideals of the Folkcraft Movement. Now, Abe Shinichirō (along with his brother and other members of his family and a small staff) continues to make a variety of papers (including gampi of course), but the main line is a range of mitsumata papers, including the very popular Mingei-shi. The subtle sheen and mottled pattern are proud features of these papers.

Lately I’ve been struggling with what I guess would be called social anxiety and I was actually feeling rather nervous about going to see him. But just as I was agonizing over whether to go or not, I chanced upon this:

Humans are creatures of habit, and often when we get caught in habits we can become limited by these behaviours and it can become difficult to progress and grow. Often it is the challenges that we face in life that provide the greatest opportunity for personal growth. Although sometimes these experiences can be painful for us in the short term, in the long term facing challenges provides opportunity for growth.

Boilerplate stuff, I suppose, but perhaps it was the timing of its discovery that sold it for me. Of course now that I’ve gone and come back, I’m glad for it, but this quote gave me the push I needed to get out the door!


A group photo with Abe san (far left), and his family and staff, at the end of my one-month study there in 2008.