Dancing

Anyone who knows me long enough knows I love to dance.

The first bit of advice I ever received from my master Asahara Yuzo was  imparted to me with decided seriousness through a huge smile.  It was maybe our first time ever meeting, in the hallway of Kyoto’s plaster academy.  He said this:  If you plaster while imagining Japanese Noh dancing, your wall will be beautiful.

Naito-san, the currently retired plasterer who is friends all over the world with Japanese-style carpenters that he has worked with over his many decades, lovingly recalls that people call him the Danshingu Purastaaman (aka “Dancing Plasterman”). See his smooth moves here.

Kyle Holzhueter, a serious practitioner of sakan work in Japan and teacher around the world, says this about this video of Kusumi Akira found online: “Notice his efficient movement and almost dance like quality.”

This craft is so hard.  I find myself really struggling every day to get to where I  need to be just to accomplish something better than the last time.  I know I’m so far from being anywhere near the skill level required to do even a basic “nakanuri” brown coat finish.  Word has it that opportunity is coming up here soon.  I’m nervous.

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It looks nice, right? But see that slickness at the bottom forward area? That will appear differently than the rest of the wall upon drying, and likely denotes a low (or high?!) area, or somewhere I compressed too much. It has to be even through and through.

I’m really nervous because last week I needed to do what I was doing better than I was doing it in less than half the time it was taking me.  My practice boards are varying sizes.  There’s one certain section that, according to my mentor, should be finished through two passes within half an hour, and even that is pushing time limits if you want to beat the moisture loss, your plaster’s water being sucked away by the substrate while simultaneously evaporating into thin air.

I am stoked to report that even with Golden Week giving me a break, yesterday I got two passes done on that frame in 35 minutes.  But it’s not pretty.  Still… It took me 55 minutes the time before.

How did I get there?

It took this wall to tell me:  Dance.

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6×6-ish.  The 30-minute wall in question is half this size.

Telling me Dance.  Telling me I’ll get there by letting the trowel tell me what’s going on with the wall, by letting my dance partner tell me what I need to do to make the right, sure, accurate moves that bring out the beauty.  Alternating pressure and grazes at just the right rhythm, moving quick and slick so we don’t wear each other out.  No tension.  Easing.

Give thanks I’ve still got lots of hours in the studio before I hit the dance floor.  I need all the practice I can get.

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A Shipwright and a Treasure

My last day of Golden Week vacation I surprised myself by going to Kobe.  I was drawn to visit Douglas Brooks, who has been stationed at the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum over the last month building a wooden boat based on a design that is native to the tsunami disaster zone.

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Douglas Brooks speaks with an 82 year old, 4th generation ship builder who was visiting the museum that day.  The rest of this man’s visit was spent in a wheelchair, but for this conversation he was upright and lit up! (By the way the back end of the boat has a bend that’s created through a firing process.)

There is only one man in the region who knows how to build these boats anymore, which have been used for harvesting abalone and sea urchins.  90% of these handmade wooden boats were completely destroyed five years ago.  Douglas has a passion for wooden boat crafting and deep commitment to preserving Japan’s rapidly disappearing, completely unique vernacular.  We began corresponding by email nearly a decade ago.  This was our first time meeting face-to-face, and I am greatly appreciative to know him and his wife now.  We traverse the same respect for the utterly unparalleled crafts of this land.

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We both wonder, how do you pass on these skills, earned from time consuming, painstaking labor, to an interested audience with an unshakable habit to want the results of their desires instantly?  Douglas says we have lost our ability to observe, and in his boatbuilding classes back in Vermont he is employing the art of “no-talking.”  It has been transforming the students’ lives.  You’re not aware that you lack the power of observation until you are faced with a need to observe, and realize you cannot remember what you just witnessed.  Then again, with craftsmanship formed over centuries, it is not so simple as that.  Each part of the body has a different job, and must perform the motions unconsciously and simultaneously.  It takes years to develop this muscle memory and ability to subconsciously draw from the knowledge database in the mind/body.  In my case, I want, no I need to convey that I may never teach Japanese plaster finishes, which is the only thing that most of the interested audience is concerned with.  Is that very unsatisfying to you?  I want to present it in a way that everyone walks away deeply satisfied, more skilled than ever.  But only rarities see the value in washing buckets.  Few want to spend months preparing the materials, recognizing the skill set that can only be developed with this tedious task.  But really, that is what it takes to know what you are supposed to do when it comes time to put plaster on the wall.  It really does take years to learn this stuff.  Anyone who says differently just doesn’t know.

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A display of the bones and the basics of a tea house.

To add to the treasure box that was this meeting is the box itself.  The museum.  Talk about tool porn (pardon me, how else to say?)!  Especially for carpenters that are into hand tools.  This museum has taken great effort to present the traditional building craft of Japan in a way that engages people of all learning styles, from children to elderly.  There are touchables and videos in each area of the displays, each part extremely well done (and in English too!).  There’s a hands-on lab where I could spend days making spoons, musical knickknacks, boat replicas…  And of course, the almighty classical earthen plaster craft display.  Set it in your calendar, they will have a special exhibit on plaster tools in September this year!

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This is a rammed earth wall by Kusumi Naoki, son of the man above. Opposing this is another one of these, two stories high.

And last but by no means least, the main floor’s exterior and interior were plastered with Japan’s shikkui lime (using seaweed paste) by none other than the crew that is training your truly, Shikkui Asahara.  My delight that they had a hand in this incredible museum came from a place of utter unastonishment.  Of course they did.  They are among the best, and this museum is all about displaying the best, at their best.  Come to this museum.

Good fortune like this

 

Infrequently, people come in and out of the warehouse while I’m practicing.  If I’m lucky, they stick around to tell me what I’m missing.  One of my first days in the practice den I got SUPER lucky.  Asahara Ichiro, my mentor, appeared just as I was getting ready to start another session.  When I saw what he was doing, though, I immediately asked if I could take a video.  To my utter delight, he said yes.  Here’s the trailer:

He is plastering the base coat, and currently (about a month later) the first application has dried and it is awaiting the next layer.  I’ve learned that some places do two “shitanuri” or base coats.  The second (brown) coat is always done with two passes on walls, so I presume the same is true of the rodan.  Then there is the super thin finish coat.  I would be so lucky to witness any of these being applied.  It is commonly said that those who plaster rodan are absolutely masterful.

The rodan is set into the floor, just above flush with the tatami mats.  This style is used only in the fall and winter months, I hear.  In spring and summer, charcoal beds above floor level are favored.  If a rodan like this one gets good use, it may be replastered after a year.  If use is infrequent, they can last a couple decades.  Only, in that case, the wood often rots out due to moisture, and the box needs replacing.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m in Kyoto, a hotbed for classical Japanese culture, but within just a few days of my fluttering at the rare encounter, I chanced on this specialty multiple times.  The first took place right around the corner from my home, the very next day.  A man was plastering the “nakanuri” brown coat of a rodan in his garage.  I peddled by at first, craning my neck, and then curiosity got the better of me and I turned around.  We chatted, and he confirmed it was rare to be plastering a rodan.  However, the following day at my plaster academy I was speaking with the only other current female student, and she informed me that her family specializes in fixing rodan.  When practitioners of tea in Kyoto need their rodan redone, they are frequently referred to the Kato’s.  Restoring rodan is their main bread and butter.  How cool.

And then, after all that work, only about 20 percent of the surface plaster remains visible.  It’s rather metaphorical for the “hidden” nature of this craft, in general.  It’s so much deeper than meets the eye…

If you are a plaster geek, you may enjoy the full version of the video, which can be found here:

 

(Featured image is an ukiyoe by Adachi Ginko, “Jyorei Shiki No Uchi”)

Make it happen:

I am being spoiled.  I feel a little enchanted by this, and at the same time keenly aware that it will not last.  At least, I hope not.  Because, being given free reign to do as I please, I am afraid I will miss something.

I know the world of Japanese plaster apprenticeships.  I expected I would be diving in a bit rough-and-tumble, like before. The day does not proceed at “my pace,” it proceeds at the pace that the demanding work at hand demands.  You have to keep up, or you trouble others.  You have to be quick, be clean, be on it,for the sake of others.  Me?  Right now, I’ve been handed the key to the warehouse and told I can practice whenever I want on the practice boards.  And so I am, and will continue to do so.  All day, every day, until I’m on site. This is highly unusual.

It is a visa issue.  The general contractor of the job that the Shikkui Asahara crew is presently working won’t let me on site.  It has to do wth Workers Accident Insurance, which can only be obtained by someone who is a laborer, i.e., paid.  I cannot be paid, because my visa explicitly prohibits me from earning wages.  Catch it, 22.  As soon as a job comes that I can join, they’ll have me on site.  Give thanks, one is in the works.

(This is new to me on this blog…toggle over the photos and “click” to see captions.)

But I could not be more thrilled.  Two days ago, my master’s son, Ichiro — who, from now on, I will refer to as my mentor, for simplicity’s sake — took me to the warehouse to remind me where it is, and to watch me plaster.  He and I never worked together on the same site during my previous months with the company, eight years ago, and he wanted to see what I can do.  I threw all my habits at the wall.  He observed.  When I was done, he took up the hawk and trowel.  He told me the trowel I had used was too big for me, and told me what size I aught to use.  He showed me how I aught to use it.  He told me that if I’m to imagine myself keeping up with the guys, I have to do a little at a time, and place every trowel-load perfectly, so I don’t have to take the time to go back over it.  10-4.

So all yesterday, and all today, I reacquainted myself with all the habits I was learning before my sudden departure from my Japanese training.  Eight years of habits formed without the benefit of a mentor — eight years of habits that do not produce perfectly flat walls, that do not demand clean backs of the trowel.  Honestly, I’m so surprised how quickly my speed and my form have improved in just two days.  Granted, my practice frames are not large.  That makes things easier.  So does having a trowel that suits my skill set and strength.

Oh, right, didn’t I tell you?  After months of preparation and visa-getting, I arrived in Kyoto on March 8, in time for the new moon.  It’s been, what, three weeks?  I got a phone, found an apartment, spent a few days in my old hometown Toyama, built my nest so that when training started I wouldn’t have to think about how to sleep others or feed myself.  Small miracles seem to occur each day, still.  Sure, there was a fair share of mishaps, near-meltdowns, all a result of being a bit too ambitious in this country that is not the United States, and actually quite unfamiliar to me in a number of ways.  (Ah, speaking of small miracles, I just had to get up because of a knock at the door.  My fairy god mother figure from Toyama just sent me two boxes of kitchen items.  Hooray dishes and nabe hot pot!)

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better each time.   still a far way to go.

“No Mud, No Lotus”

More than four months have gone by since my last blog post.  The campaign was very successful — just over $3,000 raised by 90 supporters.  I was back in Colorado by the time it ended.  Life had thrown a twist (again), and called me back to my old home to be with my dog Acha as her body deteriorated, and her spirit departed.  I learned so much.  Beyond this body something continues, more beautiful than we can imagine.  It should be a celebration!  But…getting there, and witnessing loved ones go there, is really hard.  We miss them, even before they go.  Though Acha died in my arms mid-June, I remained in Durango for more than a month after that.  It felt like home.  I had plaster work.  I am grateful for having been pulled back there, for an intimate experience with death (both Acha’s and, the day before, the 93 year old man I took on care-giving work for), and for reconnecting with people whose lives, stories, and perspectives are dear to me.

And then…

I returned to the Deer Park Monastery job with Rebecca Tasker, Mike Long, their employee Brian Daniels, and a new plastering friend, Stevan De La Rosa.  We applied finish plaster to Thich Nhat Hahn’s home, and another dormitory area.  The fluidity of the crew and the work, learning a new plaster and honing techniques, and the bliss of working and staying on temple grounds had two weeks going by in a flash.  It felt wonderful to be encompassed by the wet clay as it was applied to the straw bale structures.  We watched the plaster dry, then compressed and brushed it to reveal micacious sparkles (occurring naturally in the material used).  Thich Nhat Hahn’s hallway has a skylight that throws rainbows into the space.  Together with the plaster, the beauty makes for instantaneous deep relaxation and a sense of peace.  Sorry, the photo doesn’t nearly do it justice, so I will refrain from posting it.

Since leaving the monastery, I have met a string of new friends.  I learned the joy of Southern California beaches, the paradise that is Tassajara Zen Center, the wild proximity that is Big Sur.

Between those adventures, I stayed a number of days in L.A.  I had a three-hour lunch with the associate director of the Getty Conservation Institute, which still feels like an enormous gift.  It was a big deal.  The GCI is foremost in conservation research in the world?  I think that’s true.  Jeanne Marie Teutonico and I celebrated the same understanding; that, together, earthen architecture conservationists (with their vast knowledge of materials used in the past) and modern-day earthen architects (who have innovated over the last few decades without the benefit of training from a living culture of earthen buildings) have our best chance of achieving our shared goal — to foster a more beautiful, healthful world.  The hope is to get all of us together, working together and feeding off each others’ work to infiltrate the commercial industry.  That would be very cool.  After that, I connected with Japanese foundations.  I danced in Hollywood.  L.A. was very good to me.

Now I’ve landed in Berkeley, at Leslie Buck’s, a gardener friend who, like me, trained in Kyoto.  She has a generous and comfortable set up for those of us traveling through.  Her neighbor and good friend is Sayuri Suzuki, of Suzuki Tools, who is also becoming a fast friend.

I had come to the Bay Area to fix some plaster on San Francisco’s Green Gulch Zen Center.  Upon assessment last week, though, it is clear that the structure itself needs some carpentry attention before re-plastering.  I thought I would be plastering, but it does not serve the building, so I am not.  Yet.  I will go tomorrow to begin making plaster samples, so when the time is ripe, the materials will be ready.

Meanwhile, what do I do with myself?  After a rigorous and fast-paced number of weeks on the go, I find myself struggling with how to manage open time.  Play tourist in San Francisco?  (Perhaps…)  Learn to sail at Cal Sailing Club? (Yes, starting today : )  Read books!

I feel confident that I’m OK, that I’m not “missing” anything, that indeed dreams are progressing and goals are manifesting.  (If I am missing something, may it become apparent to me soon so I may address it.)  I admit to feeling some nervousness around fundraising for our team to be in Japan, to train with the traditional Japanese plasters.  The world of grants is still an unfamiliar one, yet I am relying on grant makers to see the value of my vision, and support the process.  What I want to achieve with the Japanese Earthen Plaster Exchange is important.  I won’t give up.  It will happen.

Give a Buck

I can’t believe I haven’t blogged about the most important thing that’s been happening for me in the last 24 days!

The Japanese Earthen Plaster Exchange needs your $1 vote of confidence!

Ending on Earth Day (Oh how I love that lovely coincidence!), this is a campaign to jump start a great service; to make the possibilities of earthen plasters known and attractive to all modern world dwellers.  I am now a negative ion pusher.  We need them for our optimal health.  Clays have them.  Paints do not, wall paper does not, cement stuccos do not.  With all the colorful and textural options that earthen plasters provide, it only makes sense to make them a regular option for all people.

Wall paper? Oh not.  Pigments are all a go for clay and lime finishes.  Each crane is a hand-made relief using tiny trowels.  Same goes for the stenciled pattern on the green plaster.  This room was completed in 1880.  You may ask about the longevity of earthen plasters?  Feast your eyes.

Wall paper? Oh no. Pigments are all a go for clay and lime finishes. Each crane is a hand-made relief using tiny trowels. Same goes for the stenciled pattern on the green plaster. This room was completed in 1880. You may ask about the longevity of earthen plasters? Feast your eyes.

According to the World Health Organization, in 2014 54% of global population lives in urban areas.  That means 54% live removed from natural surroundings.  That figure is expected only to rise.  So what happens to all of us when we aren’t getting the negative ions only found in nature?  We get sick.  We get sad.  We get a general sense of feeling unwell.  It’s science.  So, solution?  Earthen plasters is without a doubt, one solution.

The Japanese Earthen Plaster Exchange works to make that solution realistic.  The Japanese earthen plastering techniques have looked modern for centuries, so who better to learn from, and share around?

Our campaign has met its financial goal thanks to really wonderfully generous donations, but we are woefully low on the number of people backing us.  Generous donations are amazing, but when you have nearly $2,000 dollars in donations only from 22 people, it starts to feel lonesome.  There should be thousands of people on the boat to help make earthen plasters known to the world.  A dollar makes your presence known.  I personally that there are many tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, even millions, that are a part of the green and natural building scene.  All these people are invested in seeing an improvement in our personal and environmental health.  If we are to truly to make the difference we know we want to see in the world, we need to be supporting each other when opportunities arise, especially easy ones.

So please spread the word!  Back the JEPE up!! Click on that link and Give a Buck!!

And make sure to share it with your friends : )

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Compare:

Among the best and most creative that earthen building has to offer, this is a house at the Cob Cottage Company, in Oregon.  The movement in the US has favored alternatives, including more curvy (read: not flat) design.  It is beautiful, cozy and healthy.  Still, if this is the only popularized option, we run the risk alienating the vast majority of the world's population.  Everyone deserves to be attracted to health-giving earthen finishes.  Support the JEPE!!

Among the best and most creative that earthen building has to offer, this is a house at the Cob Cottage Company, in Oregon. The movement in the US has favored alternatives, including more curvy (read: not flat) design. It is beautiful, cozy and healthy. Still, if this is the only popularized option, we run the risk alienating the vast majority of the world’s population. Everyone deserves to be attracted to health-giving earthen finishes. Support the JEPE!!

At least 70 years old, this two-story house has solid earthen walls and clean, crisp, health-giving earthen finishes.  The principles for the construction and application of earthen finishes can easily be incorporated into modern architecture -- we just need to educate!  Support the JEPE!

At least 70 years old, this two-story house has solid earthen walls and clean, crisp, health-giving earthen finishes. The principles for the construction and application of earthen finishes can easily be incorporated into modern architecture — we just need to educate! Support the JEPE!

Plastering on Sunshine for Thich Nhat Hahn

And Don't it Feel Good!

And Don’t it Feel Good!

Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet

— Thich Nhat Hahn

Plaster as if you are kissing the walls with your trowel

— ummm…..how could I miss an opportunity to say that?!

I am finally back on the clay plasters, thanks to Rebecca Tasker and Mike Long of Simple Construct.  Based out of San Diego, they have been building straw bale homes for a number of years in this region, and are now designing the homes too — a huge plus for this unique and specialized built system.

Mike Long chinking (stashing cob into the spaces between bales) and feelin' the love.  Photo by Rebecca

Mike Long chinking (stashing cob into the spaces between bales) and feelin’ the love. Photo by Rebecca

For the last three months they have been building straw bale dormitories for the nuns of Deer Park Monastery, who practice in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hahn.  They have stacked 900 bales for four separate buildings that face each other across a court yard.  That’s a LOT of bales!  (See a gallery of photos here.)  I have arrived in time to apply what Rebecca calls the “shaping coat” (also known as brown coat, etc).  We are applying the clay plaster that changes the wall surface from thinly plastered, uneven bales, to earthen walls  prepared for an application of an even, beautiful finish coat.  We are currently working in the building that will house Thich Nhat Hahn when he arrives, though the Sisters, in all seriousness, say he is here already.

This is a very harmonious work site.  All manners of labor and crafts people are here, and whereas often there can be friction between conventional home builders and those who are practicing innovative earthen architecture, on this site everyone is smiling and respectful.  You sense a direct connection between the intention of the Sisters and Brothers of the monastery, and the results of those prayers, that we all live in kind relations with one another, and with our living, natural environments.

I am very thankful to be here.