NIHONGA, the Japanese style of painting that is the lineage of my approach to art, is very hard to teach outside of Japan.
It involves an ecosystem of trained craft folks of multiple generations, from paper makers to brush artisans, and that ecosystem is built on trust and relationships.
Nihonga, to me, is to “play with sand” — very beautiful, pulverised, valuable sand. I am often asked to do workshops on Nihonga, but I rarely can. People assume that Nihonga is about the materials and tools — that we can learn it by taking lessons and sharing recipes. But a recipe or a formula alone cannot make art.
I have come to believe that Nihonga is part of the historical ecosystem of care and nurture of culture that the Japanese have cultivated for more than a thousand years, an integrated way of making that affirms the beauty of nature. Nihonga is impossible to teach outside of that ecosystem.
We can learn from Nihonga, however, that the process of creating provides an organic, hands-on, and communal approach to knowing. The body of Christ provides the Christian ecosystem for teaching the New Creation, and this can happen if the Church once again becomes a place of making, the heart of beauty in the world, and a witness to mercy.
As hard as it is to do a workshop representing a millennium of wisdom and the ecosystem of Nihonga, it is harder to communicate the gospel in the fullest sense.
The book of Psalms, God’s poetry, gives us an ecosystem of metaphors and a garden of words to describe the thriving offered to us in the New Creation.
The scholar Ellen Davis observes that reading passages of biblical poetry gives us access into the Bible’s multiple layers in a “surplus of meaning”: “It [the Bible] may mean more than one thing at any given time. Further, it can speak to different audiences in varying ways through the centuries. In that sense, all of scripture is poetry, and surely its inexhaustible potential to say something new and stunningly apt is a large part of what we mean when we call the Bible the word of the living God.”
In other words, God created the world through poetry and incomprehensible beauty. Our plumbing theology has narrowed our field of vision: instead of perceiving this extravagant act of Creation, we persist in our “fixing” mentality.
OF COURSE, we have to contend with the fact that our fallen nature has had a disastrous effect on Creation and ourselves. What the Bible calls “sin” is to act aberrantly to the true identity that we have in Christ.
What is beautiful is that even in such brokenness, God reveals grace.
Alyson LeCroy Artist Makoto Fujimura at work
As part of a collaboration with Ellen Davis, I will spend a decade or more creating a journey into the Psalms. My part in this collaboration is to paint 150 paintings, one based on each of the psalms, one psalm per month, each 48 by 48 inches square.
These images will not be “illuminations” but meditations; and, having begun to paint, I have learned that the project is a good discipline for me to slow down and spend time with the poems of God’s heart.
I am using materials that require me to slow down: sumi ink (sticks made from pine shoots that I must rub against a stone for more than an hour), and oyster-shell whites (pulverised oyster shells that require more than three years to create and that take me a day and a half to reconstitute).
I also am using platinum and gold powders — two Nihonga materials that are considered the most difficult to use.
The word “authority” has become an allergen to youth culture, or even in the culture at large. Our bristle against this word stems from the abuses of institutions, including Churches. But I want to suggest a new lens through which to see even this word.
We can think of authority as author-ity. The discipline of Making involves author-ity. Mastering Nihonga materials, or any other medium, requires an “author” master who can provide author-ity to the expression. As I journey with the Psalms and other scriptures, I am convinced that God, the ultimate Maker, is the only Author of our lives and our world.
The Theology of Making restores the author-ity to the rightful author and sees all things under this light of goodness. Such an Author can make new all things, and in doing so can make brokenness shine in new ways.
It’s extraordinary to me that God, with this authority, would give authority to us, just as God gave Adam full author-ity to name the animals in Genesis 2.
This understanding of the connection of sacrifice, brokenness, and redemptive purposes has a surprising parallel in Japanese culture — the extraordinary cultural parable of Kintsugi.
KINTSUGI, the ancient Japanese art form of repairing broken tea ware by reassembling ceramic pieces, creates anew the valuable pottery, which now becomes more beautiful and more valuable than the original, unbroken vessel.
AlamyBlack tea ceremony bowl, an example of the Kintsugi craft
Kintsugi is likely to have been refined out of the tea culture of the 16th century and the aesthetics of Sen no Rikyu, the most important tea master of Japanese history. The historical tale speaks of Yusai Hosokawa, one of the key tea masters of Rikyu’s era.
When he was to prepare tea for the warlord Hideyoshi, Hideyoshi’s young attendant dropped an invaluable piece of tea ware, one of Hideyoshi’s favourites, breaking it into five pieces. Hideyoshi raised his hand to punish the servant, but Hosokawa intervened, singing a poem that echoed a ninth-century waka.
The improvised version used a romance poem between two childhood friends courting each other as adults, but a turn of phrase transformed that romance into a sacrificial mercy toward the young servant. Hosokawa, by singing this poem, basically atoned for the young servant and took responsibility, saying, “I will be the one to be blamed for his mistake.” Artfully done, this clever turn of phrase spared the servant.
Later, Hosokawa arranged for the five pieces of pottery to be reconnected using the Urushi Japan lacquer technique with gold gilding and presented it to Hideyoshi. The warlord was moved by the beauty of Kintsugi tea ware, and the story became renowned.
This act of compassion became the basis of Kintsugi, which added gold in the Urushi-filled cracks, creating a work of beauty through brokenness.
Another anecdote tells of an earlier story of Kintsugi. When Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga (1436-1490) sent broken fragments of tea ware to China, the bowl was “fixed” with metallic staples and returned.
Dismayed by the effort, the warlord instructed a potter to find a better way to restore broken bowls using gold. In both of these anecdotes, what is important is that the aesthetic of Rikyu refined the Kintsugi technique and aesthetic as part of Rikyu’s effort to elevate the value of tea ware, many of it Korean, in a country that was intent on invading neighbouring countries, including Korea.
Many of the tea masters, including Rikyu and Furuta Oribe, were forced to commit ritualistic suicide because of their opposition to the dictatorial powers of invading countries. Kintsugi, as well as the art of the tea ceremony, was always part of the aesthetic of peacemaking.
The Japanese kin stands for “gold” and tsugi means “to reconnect,” but tsugi also has, significantly, connotations of “connecting to the next generation.” A Kintsugi master mends the broken tea ware with Japanese lacquer and then covers that with gold.
Tea master designer Hon’ami Koetsu (1558-1637) saw the broken shapes of valuable tea ware as invoking landscapes, and is known to have contemplated them before applying Kintsugi.
KINTSUGI does not just “fix” or repair a broken vessel; rather, the technique makes the broken pottery even more beautiful than the original, as the Kintsugi master will take the broken work and create a restored piece that makes the broken parts even more visually sophisticated. No two works, done with such mastery, will look the same or break in the same way.
Alyson LeCroy Artist Makoto Fujimura at work
So, too, the biblical passages of restoration. Seeing the redemptive act of God, the ultimate act of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross of Calvary, through the lens of Creation and the Holy Spirit’s work, awakens in us the potential of the New Creation.
The example of Kintsugi captures, and enlarges, this promise. The Christian gospel, or the Good News, begins with the awareness of our brokenness.
The Fall created a schism between humanity and God caused by our desire to become like gods.
Christ came not to “fix” us, not just to restore, but to make us a new creation. Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary means he died to take our place in receiving the death we deserve; he took on the cross for our sakes and became the sacrificial lamb for us.
Christ’s “substitutional atonement” will restore Creation and us into the right order of God. The biblical vision of the new world accompanies the reminders of the wounds of Christ. The resurrected Christ still bears the wounds of the crucifixion.
Through these sacred wounds a new world is born; through the revealing of the wounds still embedded in the new body of Christ, our faith is given (see John 20:24-29 for the resurrected Christ’s encounter with Thomas). The Theology of Making captures in part this paradox of destruction and of New Creation.
This is an edited extract from Art and Faith: A theology of making by Makoto Fujimura, published this month by Yale University Press at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18); 978-0-300-25414-3.