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Looking at Japanese Bamboo Baskets

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To the outside observer of the art of Japanese basket making, the emphasis on tradition seems to be loosening, allowing the flowering of individual artistic interpretation, direction, and innovation. However, the discipline and links of new artists to the old ways have been secured by the mentorship of their teachers and by the power of their basket making heritage . . . ensuring a continuation of this Japanese tradition, albeit with the recognition that its future ultimately depends on the creativity
of succeeding generations.
– Lloyd E. Cotsen

Bamboo is a technically exacting and time-consuming medium. Most artists who work with this material spend the first ten years of their careers in relative anonymity, learning to process and manipulate it. This initial period usually takes place under the tutelage of an experienced teacher. Yet to gain recognition in the bamboo art world, mastery of technical skills is not enough. A bamboo artist must also have an innovative artistic edge — the ability to do something new with this time-honored medium. It is no wonder that most of today’s “younger generation” of bamboo artists are in their forties and fifties, having learned from artists now in their seventies and eighties.

Most bamboo artists of previous generations and many of the living artists represented in the video above underwent strict traditional apprenticeships. Typically an apprentice would live in or near his master’s household for ten years or more, working ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week — for little or no pay and with almost no space to call his own. He would probably not be allowed to work with bamboo at all for the first year or two, instead spending his days cleaning house, running errands, and serving tea.

Even after a student actually began handling bamboo he would almost never receive instruction directly from the master. Techniques were not “given away” verbally and direct questioning was frowned upon, thought to be a sign of laziness. Instead a student was expected to learn through observation, to surreptitiously “steal” techniques from the teacher and older disciples by watching for secrets of success-ful execution. One bamboo artist whose work is exhibited here recalls that on rare occasions his teacher would subtly make available tech-nical secrets by placing an unfinished work in full sight when leaving for lunch — giving a stern admonition that no one was to touch the work in his absence.

Though today such rigors may seem harsh and inefficient, most bamboo artists agree that it was the challenges of those formative years that led them to dedicate their lives to technical mastery of
the medium — and beyond, to artistry. This old-fashioned method of teaching has necessarily changed with the times, however. Today many who aspire to become bamboo artists get their start at one of Japan’s two bamboo art training schools before beginning an apprenticeship under a senior artist.