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Paper and Spirit

Winter 2011
Winter 2011
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Jane M. Farmer is an independent paper historian who has been organizing traveling exhibitions and artist exchanges for over 35 years. Formerly employed by the Smithsonian Institution, Farmer has worked with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the Arts America Program at the United States Information Agency, and the Crossing Over Consortium. She was a founding member of the Paper Road/Tibet Project and the Crossing Over Consortium. Her primary interests are the history of papermaking, cultural exchange, cultural preservation, and economic development using traditional crafts.  One night as a young child I sneaked out of bed, not to raid the fridge, but to watch a slide show of Japan. It was being presented by my parents' friend, Lennox Tierney, curator of Japanese art at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California. The Shinto temples and ancient gardens captivated me. Thus began my love for Japanese aesthetics.  In 1975 I was organizing "Paper As Medium," the first national survey of American artists whose work of handmade paper went beyond using paper as a surface. As I selected artists, I was drawn to the luminosity and spirituality of the work by Winifred Lutz, Caroline Greenwald, Paul Wong, Nancy Genn, and Donald Farnsworth. Many of their pieces were made of Asian handmade papers or Asian-style papers made by the artists.

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In my initial research on papermaking I was struck by the fact that the Japanese word for paper, kami, also means god or spirit. To learn more about the spiritual connection, I studied Asian culture, Shintoism, Buddhism, the culture and use of Japanese functional objects made from handmade paper, and the spiritual role of paper in Asia. I read Soetsu Yanagi, Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, Kawai Kanjiro, Sukey Hughes, Timothy Barrett, and of course Dard Hunter. I read about block-printed door gods in Taoist China; about paper scraps being so sacred that they were only to be burned in the Taoist temple furnaces; about the role of paper in the Japanese Shinto religion—its use for shide or gohei, the zigzag-shaped Shinto paper streamers used to cleanse and attached to shimenawa (straw ropes) to mark sacred areas; and about other Asian sacred papers descended from sacred pounded barks used in rituals by ancient Pacific Rim cultures. In 1981 I finally made my first trip to Asia—to Japan on a washi tour with Asao Shimura. Traveling with Asao, Donna Koretsky, Margaret Sahlstrand, Helen Fecenko, and Diana Marto was a life-changing experience. Visiting traditional villages and the studios of multi-generation papermakers was the ideal lens through which to finally experience Japan firsthand. I was awed by the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, the traditional country towns, and the cultural riches of Kyoto. I was drawn to the essential character of Japanese aesthetics, to the inter-connectedness with nature, the traditional functional objects, and the spiritual uses of paper. One of our first group experiences was to visit with National Living Treasure Abe Eishiro during his exhibition at an Osaka department store. What an eye-opener this exhibition/sale was: elegant women—in their finest kimonos, some with paper kamiko or shifu obi sashes—were shopping for Abe's handmade papers; they were treating him like a rock star; and prices for his paper started at thirty dollars a sheet, stamped directly in the center with his red name chop.2 Despite all of this, Abe was unassuming, humble, and gracious. We visited his home, studio, and his fascinating collection of traditional Korean and Japanese paper objects. The home and personal museum were imbued with his careful attention and his love for paper. One of the more moving experiences of that first trip to Japan was a visit with Tanino Takenobu and his wife in Najio, Hyogo Prefecture. Walking into Tanino-san's studio was entering a monastic cell: dark, extremely simple, and except for the splashing of water, silent. Imagine Tanino-san seated in a wooden box called a hikibune traditionally used in the making of maniai-shi. Taninosan's seated position, the silence, the rhythm of his sheet formation, the long pauses, his posture, and his facial expression all suggested meditation rather than paper production. It was as if his equipment was placed in the exact same position, day after day. His work was infused with ritual, even spiritual meaning. Later Tanino-san's wife separated the damp sheets and brushed them onto the worn, bleached, and elegant ginkgo drying boards with the same meditative air. For this couple, descendants of generations of traditional papermakers, the day-to-day aspects of making maniai-shi were a ritual practice. Maniai-shi is a unique paper, even among the many specialized handmade papers of Japan. Not only is the formation method a hybrid between the Eastern and Western methods of sheet formation, it is one of very few papers that have local clay added to the pulp giving the paper its unique smooth surface that is used for the pounding of gold/metal foils and for the decoration of folding screens and sliding fusuma doors in traditional Japanese homes, palaces, and shrines. Toward the end of our trip we visited the Gold Foil Museum in Kanezawa where we saw the small squares of gold foil, the thickness of aluminum foil, placed between the maniai-shi sheets and pounded into thin, extremely fragile gold foil. Since that visit long ago, two important events have honored Tanino-san's careful work. He was named a National Living Treasure by the Japanese government in 2002 and his university-educated son has recently "come home" to study the family traditional papermaking, having "missed his childhood world." Hopefully the maniai-shi tradition now has a much better chance of surviving.3 During the 1981 trip, we also traveled to the town of Imadate northeast of Kyoto. With due deference to Dard Hunter, we visited the Okamoto-Otaki shrine that is dedicated to papermaking. The shrine features bas-relief carvings depicting the legend of a goddess who introduced papermaking to the local people in the area. She told them that the land is too poor to grow rice, but the water is pure so they could earn their living making paper. She disappeared into the valley, up river, and hence goes by the name Kawakami Gozen, upriver princess.4 In Imadate, we had the privilege of visiting Iwano Ichibei IX who was named a National Living Treasure in 2000. Iwano's kozo hosho paper is prized for the printing of woodcuts and for making Iwano Ichibei IX demonstrating his traditional paper press, Imadate, Japan, November 1981. Chulungta hanging with gohei on the shimenawa, Otaki River Shrine, Imadate, Japan, October 1995. 16 - hand papermaking textured, fabric-like paper called momigami, which is used for the cleaning of swords and for making the costumes of traditional Japanese dolls.5 Iwano-san is the thirteenth-generation papermaker in his family. He told us, chuckling, that he is Ichibei the ninth, as all generations are not deemed worthy of the name. For Iwano-san the practice of making hosho paper is akin to being a reincarnated lama, practiced with the utmost grace and a humble appreciation for the honor involved. In his papermaking studio, Iwano-san has a small Shinto shrine featuring the papermaking goddess watching over the women doing the backbreaking labor of picking the bark or chiri out of the cooked and beaten kozo pulp. The reverence for Kawakami Gozen is still very strong, providing a spiritual connection for the papermakers. As we completed our visit with Iwano-san, we mentioned that we had visited the historic Okamoto-Otaki shrine. Iwano-san told us that the papermaking goddess was really kept in a small shrine on top of Mt. Omine behind the shrine complex. Our group decided that we could not be this close to the papermaking goddess and not go to the correct site. In the cold fall rain we tramped up to the small group of Shinto mountaintop shrines. We tried to identify the correct shrine, made small paper offerings to the shrine on the right side, and left feeling that we had experienced something very special. Over the years I continued to be drawn to the spiritual nature of paper as papermaking migrated east and west from China along "The Paper Road." In 1995, Tom Leech, Carol Brighton, Jim Canary, and I embarked on our Paper Road/Tibet project,6 traveling to Tibet where we met Gwakgo, our nomination for the dean of Tibetan hand papermaking. An elderly gentleman, he had been nick-named Gwakgo by his family for the sound that the crows made when he chased them constantly as a child. He lived in Xuela Village, Nyemo County, in a floodplain river valley to the north of the Yarlung Tsangpo River, southwest of Lhasa. Nyemo is regarded as the "Workshop of Lhasa" because it has long been a strong center for Tibetan culture and handicrafts including papermaking, woodblock carving, incense production, and weaving. When we traveled to Nyemo and met Gwakgo-la, he invited us to his family home. Like many in the region, his family are subsistence farmers who practice handicrafts to supplement their income. There is a legend in Nyemo, similar to the one in Imadate, that a goddess descended to the rocky floodplain of Nyemo and told them that because their life was so difficult, she was going to show them how to make paper in order to earn their living. Gwakgo-la came from many generations of papermakers who have sold paper to the Karmapa at Tsurphu Monastery, several days' trek away. The 14th Karmapa had blessed young Gwakgo-la with his formal name, Tingshog, named for the blackened laminations of handmade paper that are used for scribing the most sacred sutra with inks of semi and precious stones and metals. Gwakgo-la's family continues his practice of completing the necessary farm work during the day, and weather permitting, making two batches of large handmade paper sheets, one in the morning and one at midday. Their equipment and formation area consist of, at most, a dozen large moulds that they float on the farm pond using the Himalayan-style sheet formation. When appropriate the entire family participates in the lengthy fiber preparation, cooking and beating during the long winter and in the evenings. When we first visited Gwakgo-la's family his fifty-something-year-old son was completely familiar with the entire papermaking process; but his specialty was weaving yak wool blankets decorated with stitching and small conch shells. When we had brought Gwakgo-la to Lhasa to teach traditional Tibetan papermaking to the Jatson Chumig School and since Gwakgo-la's death in the winter of 1998, his son has become a spokesman for Nyemo papermaking and his grandsons have begun to make paper as well. They are now the only remaining papermaking family in Nyemo County. I am delighted to learn that his now adult grandsons have returned to the traditional larger sized papermaking moulds and that even Gwakgo- la's great-grandson is following after his father and hopefully will someday maintain the family tradition. Nyemo papermaking is now named a Chinese Intangible Cultural Property.7 Gwakgo-la regularly walked the four days' trek to Tsurphu Monastery to deliver paper to and be blessed by both the 14th Karmapa and more recently the 15th Karmapa. On a later visit to Tibet, a group of us participated in a public audience with the young 15th Karmapa and then trekked from Tsurphu to Nyemo to visit Gwakgo-la and his family, in order to literally walk a piece of the historic Paper Road in Tibet. Gwakgo-la teased us that it took us a day longer than he required. Tibetan prayer flags are printed with mantras, auspicious symbols, aspiration prayers and images of Tibetan deities and Buddhas. The passage of air activates the prayers and carries them into the ether. It is said that hanging or distributing them brings merit and dispels obstacles in one's life. Most Tibetan prayer flags or lungta8 are traditionally block printed on symbolically colored cottons from India. Two types of Tibetan prayer flags are traditionally printed on handmade paper. First are the small square paper lungta, printed on very thin paper, cast by Tibetans into the wind from the tops of hills and mountains and at mountain passes. As the wind scatters them, so the energies of the prayers are distributed across the countryside. The second, chulungta,9 appears to originate in the Nyemo Valley. These are long, thin prayer flags printed on traditional paper to be hung near moving water. We saw them hanging in trees in a little town along the Tsangpo River and near Nyemo. We then saw chulungta hanging from the trees near Gwakgo-la's house. He told us of their special relationship to water, a sacred and precious commodity in Tibet. Chulungta are for sale in the stalls in the Barkhor in Lhasa. The modern chulungta are printed from woodblocks carved in Nyemo, but regretfully are printed on inexpensive machine-made Chinese paper. We later bought the Nyemo woodblocks on the Barkhor and taught the students to print chulungta on traditional Tibetan paper! In 1995 I was invited to serve as a juror for the 13th Contemporary Paper Art Works Exhibition in Imadate and the Azabu Museum in Tokyo. What an honor to return to this special region and to see the support being given to the papermakers there. Once there, I had a special mission: to hike up to the mountaintop shrine to re-visit the paper goddess. I made the hike, this time in lovely, dry fall weather, and arrived at the small group of buildings. I had brought a chulungta from the Barkhor in Lhasa. Deciding that the paper goddess would be amenable, I added the paper prayer flag to the shimenawa gracing the small shrine on the right. Later at a reception at the museum I confessed my infraction to a fellow juror. He laughed and told me that I still did not have the correct shrine; the small shrine on the right was for the River Goddess and, of course, the larger shrine in the center was the home of the Paper Goddess. I decided that the chulungta and our offerings of fifteen years earlier were most appropriate at the shrine of the River Goddess, as pure water is so necessary for the making of good handmade paper. Over the years, I have developed my own special meaning and practice for chulungta. These paper flags have become my preferred vehicle for the sending of energy or prayers. The first decade of this century was a time heavy with the deaths of several close family members. Fortunately these events were also interspersed with joyous occasions such as weddings, new homes, and new friendships. For me the making of traditional Tibetan and my own personalized chulungta have become a comforting Jane M. Farmer, detail of I08 Chulungta: Prayers for Safety and a Cure, Commemorating the first Big Expedition for Cancer Research, 2008, 10 x 2 inches each, traditional Tibetan chulungta woodblock prints on handmade Himalayan daphne paper, waxed linen threads, 108 prayer flags, suspended from linen thread, in three groups of 36, courtesy of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, Washington. 18 - hand papermaking ritual and meditation that allow me to convert worry or anticipation into positive energy for those who are in my thoughts. I have hung them as offerings for those who have died, shared them with friends and family to consecrate new homes, made non-traditional chulungta with the names of brides and grooms, and stamped chulungta with woodblocks from my collection to support newly planted trees. When my husband was being treated at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (the Hutch) in Seattle, I used to sit in the many waiting rooms admiring the beautiful art collection; many of the works were donated by grateful patients. I had intended on making 108 chulungta and donating them as a thank-you gift for the wonderful care and treatment he had received after our sojourn of several months was successfully over. Instead I found myself with my family placing chulungta along with his ashes on his favorite mountaintops in the Sierra and the Appalachian mountains. Several years later, my son was asked by the Hutch to lead an expedition to climb an un-named peak in Alaska as part of a promotional campaign to point out the similarities between mountaineering exploration and research for cancer cures. Normally I hear the details of his work after it is over and don't worry about the dangers; but since this was a publicity campaign I knew far more in advance and became more concerned than usual. I made a series of chulungta on which I had printed a photograph of the un-climbed peak along with the names of the mountaineers and the names of their parallel research scientists from the Hutch. I sent these for the climbers to carry on their climb. While they were on their trip I decided it was time to complete my intention and made 108 Chulungta, a piece that I donated to the Hutch. I continue to find myself turning to my own forms of chulungta as a meditation for others. Most recently I have omitted any printing at all, tying blank strips of Himalayan paper onto a particular tree outside my front door, more in the tradition of Japanese omikuji which are fortune-telling slips drawn randomly and tied around a branch of a tree at the shrine or temple in the hopes that the printed fortunes will come true. In my personal practice of tying blank strips, I believe that the chulungta's power lies in my intentions, not in a specific prayer. The allure of Asia early in my childhood sparked a lifetime attraction to Asian-style papermaking, and led me to my own meditative kami/chulungta practice. ___________ notes 1. Jane M. Farmer, Paper As Medium (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, 1978). 2. Sukey Hughes reports that Abe Eishiro made less than three dollars a day in 1925. See Sukey Hughes, Washi: The World of Japanese Paper (Tokyo, New York, and San Francisco: Kodansha International, 1978), 138. 3. Ibe Kyoko, "Washi into the Twenty-First Century," translated by Mina Takahashi, Hand Papermaking vol. 22, no. 1 (Summer 2007): 8–11. 4. Editor's note: For more on Kawakami Gozen, see Paul Denhoed's article in this issue. 5. Sukey Hughes, Washi, 203. 6. For an account of the beginnings of the Paper Road/Tibet project, see my article "Retracing Tibet's Paper Road, " Hand Papermaking vol.11, no. 2 (Winter 1996): 7–12. 7. "Nyemo ‘three treasures': (sic) Tibetan paper, engraving, incense," from the China Tibet Online website, June 15, 2009, .cn/6678679.html (accessed March 21, 2011). 8. Lung means wind and ta means horse: the motion of the wind—or of printed prayers spinning in a prayer wheel—carries the prayers. 9. Chu means water and lungta means windhorse or prayer flag. This paper, graciously donated by Tom Leech, was made by Gwakgo- la in Xuela Village, Nyemo County, TAR, China. I visited his home in 1995 with the Paper Road/Tibet group. We presented him with heat-shrink nylon mesh from Lee McDonald that Gwakgo- la found to be very suitable for his technique of papermaking. Gwakgo-la used—and now his grandsons use—the typical papermaking fiber of southern Tibet, Stellera chamaejasme, or in Tibetan re lcag pa (more or less pronounced Tuk Relchak) to make traditional Nyemo paper. His family is the last of a small group of families in Nyemo County producing this traditional paper, carrying it north over the mountains to Tsurphu Monastery, the center of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and the seat of the third most powerful lama, the Karmapa. This paper has been recently named a Chinese Intangible Cultural Property.