Basket makers are obsessed with materials, from roots gathered in the towering cedar Forests of the Pacific Northwest to hand-spun linen. And I am no exception. On my first trip to Japan in 1986, I planned to explore new materials and immerse myself in a different culture. Several years earlier, the book How to Wrap Five More Eggs had become a strong influence on my basketry work, and I expected to find this influence reinforced by contact with Japanese materials--specifically, bamboo, rice straw, and paper. I had prepared for the trip by spending long hours in libraries and in museum exhibits devoted to Asia. As I reread Morse's Japan Day by Day and Statler's Japanese Inn, I made lists of places and planned daily activities. I joined the American Bamboo Society (ABS) in order to learn about the horticulture of bamboo. As a result, I came to realize the potential of bamboo more fully, and it became the focal point of my time in Japan.
As my plane circled over Narita airport, my agenda was simply to learn about bamboo as a craft material. I expected to find bamboo baskets, but I had no idea how wide the range, how beautiful the patina, how practical the form would be. In Mary Kahlenberg's A Book about Grass, I had already read about Japanese bamboo fences and analyzed their function. But when I finally saw them for myself, it was their beauty--from the simplest to the most complex--that took my breath away. I had also read about the majestic thatched farmhouses with their towering roof lines, but I hadn't realized how intrinsic a contribution bamboo made, and how beautiful in its massive scale the supporting bamboo grid would be. I didn't know I would love the smooth touch of a bamboo brush handle and smile as I made ink tracings across paper. I hadn't expected to walk down winding roads to a small country train station, enveloped in the shadows of the rustling bamboo that lined the path. I was startled by the beauty of bamboo shoots breaking the ground at a Kamakura temple, their covering sheaths alive with a purplish glow and minute surface fibers. Nor had I realized that bamboo, in all its incantations, was everywhere in Japan.
One of my fondest memories took place during this first trip. Sekijima Hisako, the renowned Japanese basket maker, met me at the small train station near the Fuji Bamboo Garden in Shizuoka. During the course of our walk through the grounds, we stopped between the tall rows of bamboo to eat the rice balls she had brought. The garden was not crowded, so we lay back on the grass in the hot sun, looked up at the clouds, and watched the tips of the tall bamboo sway in the breeze. Mount Fuji was visible in the background. Sekijima, I, and bamboo had become part of a Hokusai ukiyo-e print. Eleven months later, as I stood quietly weeping at the bus stop in front of the airport, I knew bamboo was a passion for life, a passion that required some complicated changes in my goals.
Over the years, my initial response to bamboo has been enriched by personal experiences, new acquaintances, and a wealth of scholarly information. What began as naive fascination became a thorough study of bamboo's complexity. Every conversation, every email from Japan, every ABS meeting, and every book moved me forward in this learning process. I accumulated thousands of slides, hundreds of books, and a collection of bamboo artifacts. Eventually, requests to teach and lecture began to include bamboo as well as basketry, and these offered opportunities to expand my knowledge further. The more I taught, the more information others provided. When I showed slides of the basket collection in the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, students mentioned a basket maker in Kyushu. When I spoke of the Minka-en in Kawasaki City and the Farmhouse Museum of Osaka (both sites that feature traditional Japanese buildings), an architect stepped forward to explain the significance of bamboo in these structures. By 1996, with an opportunity for a seven-month stay in the countryside near Tokyo, the idea of a book began to take shape. From the initial focus on bamboo baskets, the final topic--bamboo itself--evolved, and this expansion led me to new resources: the Ukiyo-e Society of America, bamboo wholesalers, Japanese media, and the museums and research libraries of Honolulu. I have learned about bamboo's part in the Japanese language, the design world, the building industry, and national cuisine. I began the process by wondering about bamboo in basketry; now I see its influence everywhere.
Sometimes, I think I have gone a bit too far. American friends say I talk about bamboo incessantly. Japanese friends still look askance on occasion when I introduce the topic, but more often they now admit they see bamboo with new clarity.
As an observer and a craftsperson, I offer this book to those who have yet to experience the wonder of bamboo, as well as to those who have bamboo in their garden, bamboo shoots in their wok, and lovingly fashioned bamboo objects in their home. Bamboo's contribution to Japanese culture goes far beyond a mountainside grove or a simple basket. Its presence touches every aspect of daily life--art, literature, design, food, and crafts. Its warm golden glow can be found in a pair of chopsticks and a garden fence. It is this very warmth and abundance that I hope will catch your attention as it has mine.
Nancy Moore Bess
Nancy Moore Bess is an internationally known textile and bamboo craftsperson. For the past 30 years, she has been creating unique baskets that reflect her research into the cross-cultural, especially Japanese, influences on her craft. Her continuing interest in multicultural art forms led her to explore the structural and aesthetic properties of bamboo. She lectures on basketry and bamboo around the world and is an active member of the American Bamboo Society. Her studio is in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she both weaves and writes.
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