We were so fortunate to visit the Bowers Museum in nearby Orange County on the last day of the exhibit of Contemporary Japanese Bamboo Art.
“Although bamboo is a prolific natural resource, it is a challenging artistic medium with less than 100 professional bamboo artists living in Japan today. Mastering the art form requires decades of meticulous practice while learning how to harvest, split, and plait the bamboo.”
In Japan, bamboo basketry and the art of flower arranging (ikebana) stem from interwoven cultural traditions. Ikebana evolved from Buddhist rituals in which blossoms were offered to deities out of bamboo containers. Flower arrangements became an enjoyable component of the Japanese tea ceremony, popularizing ikebana on a secular level.
One of the most beloved Japanese fairy tales is the 10th century Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. A hard-working old man, unable to have children, is harvesting bamboo when he decides to cut a mysteriously glowing stalk. Inside the hollow culm is a tiny baby girl, who he names Kaguya and raises as his own.
After discovering the ethereal beauty, every bamboo stalk he cuts contains a gold nugget, quickly making him a wealthy man. The girl grows into a woman of renowned allure and is courted by five princes. Even the Emperor of Japan desires to marry her, although Kaguya rebuffs all romantic advances, and reveals she is a Princess of the Moon. A celestial procession descends, and transports the moon maiden to her true home.
There are over 1,400 different varieties of bamboo in Asia, of which more than 600 species grow in Japan. From this abundance of options, bamboo artists only use a dozen bamboo species in creating their art works.
Pieces are usually formed from one or two species of bamboo per work. Color, pliability, density, thickness, circumference, and age comprise the key selection criteria. In addition to bamboo, rattan, a palm imported to Japan, is often used for decorative knotting or wrapping of the bamboo.
The bamboo might be smoked, leached, or dyed. Lacquer can be applied as a protective coating that also enhances the beauty of a piece, making it more impermeable to damage.
Over the past century, the creativity and talent of bamboo basket makers has elevated their status from artisan to artist. These artists have redefined aesthetic conventions as their creations have evolved from functional vessels to sculptural objects.