This past Friday, Japanese calligraphy artist Shoko Kazama made her New York debut at Resobox, a simple yet elegant art gallery dedicated to the promotion of Japanese culture. Nestled in the heart of Long Island City amidst tall, new condominiums and the hustle and bustle of trains and traffic, the gallery brings a taste of Japan to the Big Apple.
And with her exhibition, “Bokusai,” Kazama brings to Queens a bit of medieval Japan in particular. The exhibit aims to tell the tales known as Otogizoshi — stories passed down verbally from the Muromachi era, 1392 through 1573 — and bring awareness of both the well-known Japanese tales and the art of calligraphy to New Yorkers.
But Kazama, whose works were previously shown in California, did not explicitly explain what her art was representing at first.
“I didn’t want to talk about the work with the guests,” she said during Friday’s artist’s reception, speaking via a translator, Resobox President and founder Takashi Ikezawa. “I want them to interpret it for themselves.”
Guests mingled and roamed freely while jazz played in the background and a young woman poured complementary glasses of wine at the bar. Paintings representing Japanese characters such as “wisdom” lined the white and black walls of the gallery. Some of the paintings, including “The Cosmos Tree,” looked very much like their titles.
“She’s playing with the written word,” said folklorist and cultural scholar Charles Dunbar. “Not a lot of artists can really do that.” Dunbar, who has lectured at anime and comic book conventions and some universities, was curious to see how she would interpret the story of Issun-boshi, or “One-Inch Boy,” through her calligraphy.
The tale is of a 1-inch-tall boy who defeats an oni, or demon. Interestingly enough, the calligraphy resembles two giant monsters towering over a little boy.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the two-hour opening reception was that Kazama set up a station in the middle of the gallery where guests could mix up the boku (ink) and charcoal and experiment with different brushes to create their own work.
Kazama held up the authentic brushes she uses, made from lamb’s wool, bamboo, bird feathers and even rabbit whiskers, and demonstrated how each one can completely alter a given painting. Testing each brush on several different papers, of varying thickness, she explained that these variables allow her to manipulate every angle and shape.
Then, she let guests try everything out on their own, encouraging them to freely write or draw whatever they desired. Kazama, who now teaches calligraphy to Zen priests, says it is rewarding to teach and observe her students’ calligraphy.
“One of the interesting things about calligraphy is I can now feel how people feel, physically and mentally, from the characters or works that they wrote,” she said.
About 100 people attended the event, a turnout that pleased both Kazama and Ikezawa.
“I was very nervous to show my work in New York,” she said. “But now after seeing all these people, I am very, very happy.”
Kazama and Ikezawa chose to begin the exhibition with a simple reception and art viewing in order for people to get an idea of what the Otogizoshi are. “Bokusai” will be at Resobox through Aug. 7, and will include performances and lectures to further teach people about Otogizoshi. See resobox.com for details on those events.
“I hope more and more people in the U.S. know the stories,” Ikezawa said. “We’d like them to find connections between Otogizoshi and fairy tales and old stories in the U.S., and then discover the lessons and truths of what both stories are telling us.”