The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts October 14, 2005

Print master shares craft
Getting the hang of hanga
A delicate art: Keiji Shinohara demonstrates Japanese-style wood block printing.

Keiji Shinohara, guest artist at Oberlin this past week, is clearly a master of hanga, or Japanese style woodblock printing. Yet he is equally unassuming about it. Seeing him in action, as an eager audience at the Allen Memorial Art Museum did last Saturday, is a quiet yet spectacular event.

Shinohara speaks with a soft vivacity, his eyes darting and his hands precise. When it comes to making one good print, Shinohara explains, a printmaker may use 12 blocks, having to print the same paper over 15 times, a process that usually takes a good three hours.

For this reason, Shinohara quipped, he set up his demonstration, “like the Cooking Show style,” adding one color to many prints, each one in a various stage for emphasis.

“Say the project takes ten days,” Shinohara said, deftly dropping a fine piece of already delicately-printed paper onto an inked woodblock. “You would have to keep the same dampness of paper for the whole ten days. It takes five to six years to be able to feel and know the exact dampness of a sheet of paper.”

Shinohara paused, holding up a small, flexible disk of coiled rope wrapped in bamboo.

“This is my machine,” he said.

This instrument is known as a baren, and despite its flimsy appearance, it is an instrument that has been honed to perfection.

The handmade piece takes about half a year to produce and usually retails for $600.

Why the exactitude? The baren can apply the perfect pressure for the thickness of the printing paper.

Perfection, of course, does not come without dedication. Shinohara moved from Japan to the United States two decades ago.

He spent ten years in training as an apprentice at the Uesugi Studio in Kyoto. There he learned the printmaking aspect of the art, which excluded the actual designing and carving of the woodblocks.

When asked how the art world of Japan compares to that of America, Shinohara is quick to point out the differences.

“Japan is well-connected,” he said. “You can just knock on the doors of galleries, saying, ‘I have a portfolio.’”

This is not how Shinohara began his career, however. In fact, he had no portfolio to show and no resumé to speak of. Yet at the age of 20, Shinohara saw the work of a hanga master in a small gallery in Kyoto, and knew what he wanted.

“I saw his artwork there, and I fell in love,” Shinohara said. That same day he decided to knock on the artist’s door. “He came out, very suspicious. I said, ‘I would love to study with you.’ He slammed the door.”

Shinohara returned the next day, however, and the next, and the next “for three months with similar results.”

“Slowly, he let me in,” Shinohara recalls, his eyes sparkling with disbelief. “First, he said I was too old, but three months later, he said OK.” Next came the realization that Shinohara was left-handed, a taboo in hanga printmaking, because of the tools and specificities of the printing process.

“He said, ‘No, I take it back, you can’t study.’” Instead of giving up, Shinohara simply trained his right hand. All the sacrifices paid off, however, for Shinohara has a dazzling body of prints, richly colored landscapes and abstractions, as well as collaborative efforts with such artists as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Chuck Close.

Shinohara is currently a visiting artist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Again recalling his training, Shinohara said, “I thought my teacher would teach me how to print, but my job at first was to sweep the floors, make the teas. He would only say, ‘Watch me. Watch me again.’”

Watching Shinohara work last Saturday was more than just a revelation in technique. It is through observing Shinohara’s mastery, his small frame hovering almost trance-like above his work, that one begins to understand the absolute precision required for true delicacy in art. Each movement as he reaches for one material or another has found the balance of economy and grace.


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