“How long have you been painting?” is a question people often ask me. The short answer is that ever since I could scribble on paper, I’ve used art to express my emotions and play. Pivotal to my being the artist I am today, though, is the time I’ve spent in Japan with my family. My first visit was during the summer of 1991 when my father was invited to a series of conferences. For every place we traveled, I had a sketchbook in hand. With my limited skills in Japanese, my friends and I could amuse ourselves for hours drawing out pictures of our lives and giggling over our cultural differences.
Three years later I returned to Japan for seven months when my father was invited to teach. I met a traditional Japanese brush maker, Sakuma-san, whose shop up the street my mother had discovered while out on a walk. Seio Sakuma-san took me under his wing, and our mutual love of art bridged the language barrier. Soon I was spending afternoons in his shop, sitting on the tatami mat in the back room drinking tea, meeting his wife and friends, and absorbing his demonstrations of sumi painting techniques while he explained (with my mother helping some translations) the reasons and needs for different brushes. Back home in our apartment, I spent long hours practicing my brush strokes, drawing out events of my day, and simply playing with ink and watercolors, exploring their possibilities. I brought my efforts back to Sakuma-san, some as gifts that were given a place on his wall, and others just for feedback. It was the beginning of a long-lasting friendship, as well as my still growing collection of beautiful, handmade brushes, each with a story and most of them gifts. Before I left in March of 1993, Sakuma-san’s wife took a pair of scissors to my ponytail. “Japanese parents,” Sakuma-san explained, “often have a paint brush made with their baby’s hair. Then when the baby comes of age, it is given as a gift.” I left Japan with my own hair brush and the self-awareness that art is integral to who I am.
In 1995, I again had the opportunity to visit Tokyo and say hello to Sakuma-san. We visited in his shop and he and a friend jotted down notes for my art career. I would continue sumi and watercolor painting through highschool (I was then a freshman). In college, I would study oil painting. I was to continue painting throughout my life and to return to Japan and visit! Throughout highschool, I thought science and biology was my career path, but in college art was central in my life (in part to cope with my first cold Minnesota winter). I majored in Studio Art, received a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to paint around the world for one year, and I knew I must return to Japan to thank Sakuma-san for his support and inspiration in person.
I arrived in Tokyo having just spent 6 weeks painting in the Marquises Islands of French Polynesia. Two sketchbooks were freshly filled from my adventures and I felt disoriented on the Tokyo subway after the open South Pacific ocean. Sakuma-san was teaching out of town, but would be able to come to Tokyo for the evening to meet me and a wonderful family friend of mine helped me coordinate the visit. We sat down at a small sushi bar and Sakuma-san looked over my work. “Maria,” he related, “Before you can think of becoming a master you must make at least 10,000 pieces.”
10,000 pieces. That’s about 3 a day for 10 years… what I take away from that is the process of artwork- the process of doing anything well, really. It’s about a daily practice and finding productive patterns. Since seeing Sakuma-san in 2004, I have had the opportunity to travel around the world and focus on my art. I am still finding my patterns, though, and developing the practice of my art. I assume this is a life-long project.
In the spirit of 10, 000 pieces, I am going to make a small painting a day. Some may be studies for larger pieces while others simply experiments with new media… but I will post them here and hope you enjoy them!