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Cross Currents


He complained to me that 50 minutes was too short for a presentation.
“I know,” I replied, “but it’s all the time we have.”
He then began his presentation to the high school class by telling them how samurai gathered in castles for their evening meals but had to eat before it got dark.
“Oh no!” I thought, suddenly sweating. “This is way too off-point already! Where’s he going with this?”
Magically, in his elfin-like way, my mentor and friend Yoshisuke Funasaka – who had come to Kalamazoo from Tokyo to exhibit his work and do a number of outreach programs – continued his story while the students leaned in.

Left, a woodblock from his Origami Series – a shadowless, pink and white shape on a striped background. Right, Mr. Funasaka (I can’t help but notice that his shirt is similarly striped) is holding sheets of paper while talking to high schoolers about his work.

Mr. Funasaka went on about Japan in the Middle Ages (paraphrased) . . .

The samurai had to be able to see what they ate lest they be poisoned. The cooks were all women and they lived in the castles full-time, but the samurai dispersed once the sun went down. Left to their own devices, the women were then free for entertaining themselves and folding paper was one of their social activities.

The practice of folding paper – origami – is commonly performed with sheets of square paper today. But the exact proportions of the paper in the era of the samurai are not known. What is known, is that they folded washi – handmade paper made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree – and it was very strong. 

The women’s folding activity began with them passing a sheet of washi around the room with each person adding a fold. In the end, the folded object became a creation that they all had a hand in. And since the washi was so strong, it could be unfolded rather easily and used over and over and over again.

Mr. Funasaka then held up an elongated sheet of paper (pictured above in his left hand), showing the students the very paper he folds, unfolds, and refolds into different shapes for the source material of his Origami Series, woodblock prints on washi.

Cross Current: East/West is on display through July 28, 2023 at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center, Kalamazoo Michigan.
Mr. Funasaka’s presentations also included examples of historic prints and short printing demos. He even gave away a number of his own original works of art!

He proceeded to pass around samples of historic Japanese woodblock prints, then gave a short printing demo – a couple of students were lucky enough to give it a try – and he even gave away some original works for the students to take home.

“Any questions?” he asked after 49 minutes.

“Why do you wear flip-flops?” a student asked.

“Because my feet sweat,” he replied.

“I can relate,” I thought.

Then another student asked how she could become a professional woodblock printmaker.

I took her aside, resisted putting my hand on her shoulder, and said, “Take a class in it. That would be a good first step.”

After a group photo and a big, in unison THANK YOU, we left the classroom and went to the school office for check-out. Once we were back in the hallway and near the exit door, we were met by another student who was quickly and repeatedly bowing.

“This was an opportunity of a lifetime,” she said softly and with sincerity. Mr. Funasaka gave a slight bow in acknowledgment before heading out into the cool spring sunshine.

A couple of days later, the director of the Kalamazoo Books Arts Center, Jeff Abshear, and I were reminiscing about how well the activities all had gone. People came from as far away as New Mexico and North Dakota to attend the opening reception and baren-making workshop. Everything was a big success in our minds, especially after having to reschedule the exhibition four times because of COVID.

“See? All that worrying for nothing,” Jeff said, knowing how nervous I was about how well Mr. Funasaka could perform after years of delay, and now 84 years old.

“It worked out better than I expected,” I said in response. Then I wondered what it would be like to live in a castle in medieval Japan, cook for the samurai, and fold washi with a group of women.

16 responses to “Cross Currents”

  1. anne dooley says:

    This is a lovely story
    I wish I could have seen Mr Funasaka’s presentation . And I love your work and his .

  2. Peggy Napier says:

    What a wonderful story and opportunity for those students.

  3. Marcia says:

    Spectacular account… I can picture it. ❤️

  4. Honore Lee says:

    Oh Mary! This is truly a story to carry along. I am so happy that your long-anticipated collaborative project with Funasaka was so very successful. Hits all the high-notes! Which HS did you work with, by the way?

  5. Thank-you for that story! I loved it!

  6. E says:

    You are a great storyteller! And the part about the origami really added to my appreciation for his imagery. I, too, wonder what it would be like to live in a castle, cooking for the samurai and folding paper with the other women in the evening. Fascinating. 🙂

  7. Frank Lyons says:

    Simply awesome, Mary! So great to meet you, your friends/colleagues, and significantly, to see Funasaka-san again.
    Thanks for the amazing opportunity that an event like this provides…perhaps it could occur more often, maybe a bi-centenial or moveable feasts for wider audiences. Alas, Funasaka is already a ‘moveable feast’ having been a woodblock ambassador around the world.
    We are so fortunate you’ve established such a strong link to the aura of this wonderful medium.
    Congratulations on this unique presentation.

    • It was fantastic meeting you too, Frank! I’m so grateful that came from so far away to attend the opening reception. It really meant the world to Funasaka. It was a very special evening. Thanks so much for your support!

  8. Jack Ridl says:

    You are a gift to us all and you offer other gifts to us all🌻

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