“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!
6 Responses to “10,000 Pieces”
What beautifull journey… And peacefull place…
What a wonderful pièce of your live you shared with us! thank you! now I will do a little picture every day to open my creativity channel… I Hope once to visit Japan (my child dream)) and to go into the shop of Sakuma-san to learn about his brushes and other.
Thank you! Happy sketching and I hope you make it to Japan someday! It’s a beautiful country, I hope to return soon.
Catherine K Gowen
Maria I’m just reading this for the first time, as you’d linked it to your post about your workshop with Barbara Luel tomorrow (looking forward!). It’s such a delight – how lucky you were in having such formative art & traveling experiences so young! What a joyful piece to read. I hope to travel to Japan sometime. 10,000 pieces is inspirational. I paint everyday, but …. 10,000 ?! Thank you for sharing!
Hi Catherine! Yes, I feel so fortunate for the time I had in Japan when I was younger. Mr. Sakuma truly inspired me to become a painter and the 10,000 pieces story always reminds me that it’s all about practice, not perfection! And to have fun!
Hi Maria! I loved reading this — and it made me long to get back to Japan again! My husband spoke at a conference in Tokyo and I got to go with him — we were there for a week. He was invited back the next year to speak again and this time we stayed two weeks so we would have more time and took a series of trains and buses up to Hokkaido and went hiking and exploring. I still think of it often., especially when we stayed at a hostel with a hot springs! While he was working in Tokyo I explored the city and went to a number of stationery shops — some were over 400 years old. I’ll never forget going to an art supply store in Ginza (the high-end shopping district!) and I went back to the office and some of his co-workers asked what I did that day and when I said I went to Ginza there was an “oooooooohhhh” in the room — then they laughed when I showed them my purchases of pens and paper haha!