Washi Art + Design at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center

Washi Art + Design at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center, Bloomington, Indiana

Washi Art and Design, an international paper art exhibition, is the first group exhibition I curated and organized. The show runs from August 26th to September 21, 2017, at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center in Bloomington, Indiana. The participating artists are Yuri Kawai (Japan), Sachiko Kinoshita (Japan), Amanda Ross (U.S.), Rowland Ricketts (U.S.), Koji Shibazaki (Japan), Jenny Stopher (U.S.), Mikao Suzuki (Japan), Ruigan Zhou (China), and myself.

The Exhibition is focused on the theme of Washi and other paper art. Washi paper is made from the long inner fibers of three plants: Kozo (mulberry tree), Mitsumata, and Gampi. Due to these raw materials and the traditional craft techniques, Washi papermaking has no adverse environmental impact. The paper is very durable and can last as long as a few hundred years.  In Japan, Washi has played a significant role in the lifestyle and culture of the Japanese people. In addition to its more common uses in stationary and in the fine arts, Washi is used in many different cultural activities such as in religious and ceremonial events. Its fabric-like quality makes it suitable for applications in fashion, interior lighting, and interior furnishing. Though there is a long history of Washi papermaking in Japan, today only a few Washi papermakers are continuing their papermaking traditions, and Professor Koji Shibazaki’s Washi research lab at Aichi University of Arts is one of them.

A Surihaku (gold foil painting) workshop was conducted by artist Mikako Suzuki at the Waldron Arts Center. For more information about the workshop, please visit here.

The exhibition and workshop are supported in part by a workshop grant from Indiana University’s College Arts & Humanities Institute.

Washi paper light by Professor Koji Shibazaki of Aichi University of Arts
Jiangmei Wu explaining to Professor Katy Borner about the intricate Kirikane art by Japanese artist Mikako Suzuki as Professor Hamid Ekbia watched on
Japanese textile artist Sachiko Kinoshita’s Swing Circle is made of yarn and Kozo paper fiber

Paper Making at Aichi University of Arts, Nagoya, Japan

I had a very special and fruitful paper making workshop with Professor Koji Shibazaki at his research lab (labo.z-mz.com) at Aichi University of Arts in Nagoya, Aichi prefecture, Japan this summer. Professor Shibazaki’ researches and creative activities are centered on the traditional Japanese Washi paper, a type of paper that is hand made from the barks of various mulberry pants, such as Kozo, Gampi and Mitsumata. He has been giving workshops and lectures on traditional Washi paper making and exhibiting his amazing lighted art pieces that are made out of hand-made Washi paper in Germany and France.

I arrived at Aichi University of Arts in mid-July and the temperature during the day had been in the mid 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Though it was not the ideal temperature for making traditional Washi, Professor Shibazaki and his students had managed to conduct a very successful paper making workshop. We made a variety of paper from outer barks of Mitsumata, a mixture of outer barks of Mitsumata and inner barks of Kozo, and from fine inner barks of Kozo, using several different techniques Professor Shibazaki demonstrated. The papers that were made from outer barks of Mitsumata and the mixture of Mitsumata and Kozo were used to create three large tapestries that were finished with gold and silver foil printings and were later exhibited at Ozu Washi Gallery in Tokyo.

Though I have learned about paper making by reading and watching videos before this workshop, I had no idea how time consuming the entire process took, from the preparation to the actual paper making. However, after this experience, I realize that how important it is for an artist/designer to start at the material level. Working with the material directly opens new opportunities for me to discover novel ways and new processes to design, a topic I hope to focus in the near future.

To speed up the process, Professor Shibazaki and his assistants had prepared different batches of the raw material before I arrived in Nagoya as this part of the process typically took about two to three days. To prepare for Kozo paper making, about 1.5 kg of raw material Kozo and 300 g of soda ash, another name for Sodium Carbonate, were combined and soaked in a large water pot for one day (it would have required two days of soaking during the winter months). These Kozo fibers were then boiled for about three hours and were left to soak in the water pot overnight.

When I arrived in the lab, we started the process by washing the Kozo fibers to get rid of yellow and brown coloration and other impurities.  The results were the soft, long and strong Kozo fibers with beautiful off-white color. I could hardly believe that these raw fibers were able to be turned into beautiful translucent sheets of paper at the end of the process.

Washing Kozo fiber (Photo Courtesy: Sachiko Shibazaki)

After washing, I learned the most labor consuming process of breaking down the fibers by hand using large wooden mallets that were made by Professor Shibazaki himself. According to Professor Shibazaki, this labor consuming hand process couldn’t be simply replaced by machines as the hand techniques would produce finer and stronger fibers than the machines. Several of us took turns pounding and smashing the fibers for a few hours using two different mallets.

Preparing Kozo fibers ( (Photo Courtesy: Sachiko Shibazaki)
Preparing Washi fibers (Photo Courtesy: Sachiko Shibazaki)

After we prepared the Washi fibers we then worked on preparation of “Neri” by crushing “Tororo Aoi” and then by beating and mixing it with water. We put the “Tororo Aoi” in a cloth bag and squeezed it to remove sticky liquid that was then used in the paper making. This sticky and gooey liquid was the true secret behind all papermaking. It was hydrophilic with a negative electro-chemical charge, helping to suspend the paper fiber evenly in the water and produce strong molecular bonds between the fiber, water and “Neri”. Besides obtaining “Neri” from “Tororo Aoi,” Professor Shibazahi also used ready-made powders he purchased from handmade paper shops to simplify this process. The “Neri” was then added to a large water vat, also called “Sukifune,” with a mixture that was made of about 400 grams of Washi fiber and 200 liters of cold water. Before the “Neri” was added, the mixture had to be stirred skillfully so that the fibers could be separated evenly.

Preparing “Neri” ( (Photo Courtesy: Sachiko Shibazaki))

The last step in the preparation of paper making before actual paper making was to prepare “Shito,” or the plate to put web paper. Professor Shibazaki used simple alignment methods to make sure that the set up would allow each wet paper sheet to be aligned and separated properly. In one instance, he used thin gauges to separate the paper in a grid, and in another instance he used nylon threads to keep each of the wet sheets of paper separated.

After all these preparation, we finally started making paper. The goal here was to keep the paper fiber to spread evenly and smoothly on “Su”, or the bamboo blind that used by Japanese traditional paper makers. The “Su” were in various of dimensions, depending on the sizes of the paper one was making. There were only a very few handmade paper artisans who could produce high quality “Su” these days and the one that Professor Shibazhaki used in the workshop could cost up to $2000 and would allow us to produce two pieces of A2 paper simultaneously. Using “Su” to make paper was a very artistic, rhythmic and beautiful process. I was told that I must listen to the sound of the water movements. Smooth water movements would produce beautiful and smooth paper. After about twenty tries, I felt that I was finally able to adjust the forward-back and left-right movements of “Su” and hear various sounds of the water splashing and flowing. And I knew I was far from being a paper making expert.

Wabi Sabi in Japanese Art and Paper Making

Wabi Sabi is a concept of Japanese aesthetics that is expressed through the integrity of hand-made process and nature. Wabi Sabi aesthetic is characterized by imperfection, incompleteness and ever-changing. Through collaborating with many Japanese artists at the International Art Festival in Toyota Civic Center of Aichi prefecture, I became more fascinated with Wabi Sabi aesthetic in Japanese art and design.

Well-known artist Satoru Kato, a practitioner of Ikebana, uses natural materials such as straws, stones, wooden sticks, flowers, etc to create mesmerizing and impermanent installation. He described his work as “making spaces” by “sacrificing the lives of plants in order to give new life to the surroundings.” At the exhibition,  Mr. Kato created a large wall installation using dry straws and dyed sponges in about 6 hours.

Satoru Kato working on his large installation at International Art Festival at Toyota Civic Center

Artists Hisashi Kano and Tomomi Kano created an ephemeral display of whispering dresses using Washi paper/fabric that were hand-made. They used one of the most traditional techniques that were passed down in the family at their studio in Obara. Mr. Kano said that their intention was to create a new textile for clothing that was effortless, nonrestrictive and free. They used three different types of fiber, including Kozo fiber, to make the paper that is soft and super strong. Hisashi Kano’s father, Toshiharu Kano is a very well-known artist who has exhibited around the world. I was very fortunate to visit Toshiharu Kano and his family at their home studio. Toshiharu’s teacher is Fujii Tatsukichi, one of the most important figure in the contemporary arts and crafts in Japan.

Artists Hisashi Kano and Tomomi Kano’s installation at International Art Festival at Toyota Civic Center
Mr. Kano holding up a bundle of Hibiscus root that has been soaked in water at his home studio
Mr. Kano held up a bundle of Hibiscus roots that had been soaked in water for a year at his family studio
Mrs. Kano holding up sheets of Washi paper that are hand made at the family studio.
Mrs. Kano displayed sheets of Washi paper that were hand made at the family studio
Details of hand-made Washi paper, The texture was created by spraying the water on the wet paper during paper making
Details of hand-made Washi paper. The texture was created by sprinkling the water on the wet paper during paper making process

Artist and professor Koji Shibazaki and his student Suzuki Mikako created a serene lighted spatial installation. Professor Shibazaki teaches art and design at Aichi Prefecture University of Fine Arts and Music, a state funded public university in Aichi. Professor Shibazaki’s lighted work is also made of Washi paper, some of them were hand-made in his studio. His intention is to “rekindle the aesthetic sense” found in traditional Japanese houses with fusuma and shoji. Professor Shibazaki’s said that Escher inspired the patterns and illusions found in his lighted work. Suzuki Mikako used silkscreen method to create her intricate wall mural pieces. The simple geometric forms are silkscreened onto hand-made Washi paper in either gold and silver, creating an interesting shimmering under Shibazaki lamps.

Professor Koji Shibazaki and his student Suzuki Mikako’s installation at the International Art Festival at Toyota Civic Center
Detail of Professor Shibazaki's lighted art
Detail of Professor Shibazaki’s lighted art
Professor Shibazaki at his paper making studio
Professor Shibazaki at his paper making studio
Professor Shibazaki's paper is made from the plants found in his farm and outside of his studio on Aichi University of the Arts campus. The paper showed here is made of Mirabilis Jalapa flower and Kozo
Professor Shibazaki’s paper is made from the plants found on his farm and outside of his studio on Aichi University of the Arts campus. The paper showed here is made of Mirabilis Jalapa flower and Kozo