Nagasawa Woodblock Residency

In 2009 I was chosen as the British artist, travelling to Awaji Island in Japan, for a residency to study water based woodblock printing. This is the traditional and iconic technique made famous by Japan’s Edo Period woodblock prints.

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Every year for thirteen years the Nagasawa Art Park has held a residency for a handful of international artists in an extraordinary and unique eight week project working with Japanese master craftsmen and artists. The goal of the residency is to bring Japanese woodblock to the attention of Western printmakers while showing Japan a Western take on its traditional techniques.

Awaji Island where I stayed: the flat areas are rice paddies and the hills are covered in bamboo forests. The smoke is where the farmers are burning off the rice stubble.

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On arrival we were each given a complete set of tools; a marvellous present, but a reminder of how much we all had to learn. I arrived knowing nothing except that, at the end of my eight short weeks, I was expected to leave behind three copies of three prints of exhibition standard!

My desk in the studio on the first day: the full printing kit for a professional artist. At the back there’s a bamboo leaf which is for covering the barens (the flat discs which are used to press the paper onto the block to take a print). I still have my leaf, but I won’t be using it: covering a baren is horribly painful for the hands and best left to an expert.

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The residency is an open application (www.endeavor.or.jp/nap) and our skills ranged from printmaking to graphic design and fine art. All six of us lived and worked at the residency building and had great fun negotiating the mysteries of Japanese supermarkets and cooking each other dinner. It was a very demanding and intense experience and mostly we cut and printed all day, every day.

From left to right: Me, Niccolo from Italy, Ross from Ireland, Philipp from Germany, Betsy from USA and Levi from Indonesia. We are with a Japanese actor here during a visit to the puppet theatre: it wasn’t all printing.

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We had three masters or sensei to teach us. Takade-san was an artist printmaker in our sense of the word: designing, cutting and printing his work. Sekioka-san and Ueba-san were master craftsmen, a carver and a printer respectively, who worked with artists to produce prints cooperatively in the Japanese tradition. All our masters were remarkably patient and kind. We must all have seemed so very confused and clumsy. Mind you, we were depending on translators and I think a few things must have got lost in translation: some very long speeches from our sensei came out as ‘move that a bit closer’ or ‘you’ll get the hang of it’...

Ueba-san inking up one of Hokusai’s blocks from ‘Views of Mount Fuji’. This is not an original block, but a meticulous copy cut in cherry by a master carver. Ueba-san was understandably nervous, but let us all print with it. The block didn’t belong to him. It was the property of his publisher.

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It would be safe to say that this residency changed my working life profoundly. Learning from scratch, during eight weeks of solid cutting and printing, taught me some much needed patience which has improved my general practice. I use woodblock in much of my work now and combine it with linocut in some of my printing. The main change, however, has been discovering a love of teaching. I want as many people as possible to learn this portable, non-toxic and adaptable method of making complex multi-layer prints and I now teach on a regular basis.

Children at a local primary school. Part of the residency involved meeting local people, some for fun and some so that Western ideas about printing and art could be seen in Japan first hand.

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This is the first of my three ‘apprentice’ prints. All three are a thank you to the farming community of Awaji who host this extraordinary residency. This shows their landscape and the lovely apricot sunsets which were a common event while I was there.

Elements of Awaji: Land

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Orchards are crammed into every available space. I watched persimmons ripening in a five tree orchard squeezed into a roadside verge near the residency. Japanese farmers are amazingly adaptable and see every square inch of ground as an opportunity. Seasonality is an important part of Japanese culture, as it is in my work, and I wanted to depict the fruit of that particular season.

Elements of Awaji: Persimmons

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Bamboo covered the mountainside where I was staying so it was the obvious choice for a print. We were shown so many exquisite prints by our masters it would have been easy to lose heart. My favourite were the botanical prints and this is my version, though it is far more graphic than the delicate and realistic studies that inspired me.

Elements of Awaji: Bamboo