Yoshitoshi “Takes a Line for a Walk.”

“Taking a line for a walk”, is from Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook used in his classes at the Bauhaus School. The lessons taught at that school, Dessau, Germany (1919-1933) became the standard for Mid-Century art instruction in Europe and the US. Probably, still are. They were good lessons. I was a happy recipient of several of those lessons under the instruction of Bert Schmutzhardt, of the Corcoran School, who had attended the Bauhaus.

Of all the great woodblock print-makers in that long tradition in Japan, Yoshitoshi leaps out as the one who set the bar highest. His line quality alone has such verve and sensation. In beginning drawing class we were instructed to roll the pencil or charcoal block as we drew to get lines that had feeling, to create new edges as the line spilled out. “Find the edge,” we were told, and that is true of any tool, like finding the working edge of a chisel. Yoshitoshi’s lines alone feel alive at the edges of expression. Regard the border of this print edged as it is with a ragged line. It denotes to me, a separate reality, and I’ve used that convention in my own work.

From 36 Ghosts – the Cherry Blossom Spirit Thwarts an evil lord. The lines of her kimono alone hold true power.
Even Yoshitoshi’s signature exhibits a special energy.

It was my good fortune to have as a friend, Roger Keyes, and for a couple of months I shared his house. It was a terrible time for him having lost his wife Keiko and for me as well, going through a divorce. We were, I believe some solace for one another. He allowed me to use Keiko’s paper restoration studio for painting as I had left the studio I’d occupied for 16 years. I always returned to watercolor painting when life stresses had thrown me off base, and I painted the red snapdragons below at that time. Roger was the formidable curator of Japanese prints for the Achenbach Collection of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. In the evenings we would share a meal and I could ask about a specific print. “How about that flute player in the marsh about to get killed by a thief?” “Oh you mean Yoshitoshi’s most famous work, Fujiwara no Yasumasa…” And Roger would go into his files and pull out that very print. My head swam with delight. He was great at unpacking the details, talking into the night…I felt graced by fortune to know that man…this was in 1991.

Fujiwara no Yasumasa playing the flute by moonlight 1883. Here emblazoned on a beach towel. You can pick one up for $31 USD. “What a world…” says the Wicked Witch of the West as she melts away, needing a beach towel to dry off..

The watercolor painting I was working on was of red snapdragons, as I said, and it was just one of those things that could calm my restless spirit. The story of this print is of the flute player playing on a windy, misty, full-moon night. A thief is poised to kill, but is so struck by the music, he sheathes his sword and becomes Yasumasa’s servant for life.

I made the watercolor of the flute player in 1994. The snapdragons as I said, in 1991. These two pieces sat in their drawers until now when they are joined in this picture. I think of the flute player, as dominated by the red rage of the thief who backs off at the discovery of deep beauty. My own red rage, calmed by doing the watercolor now comes out, sifted by the years and finds a visual solution in telling this story. The whole ensemble, now framed by pear leaves, comes into its fullness. These things take time…

I hadn’t a conscious clue of what I was doing, only that I was following the whisper of what I found I was compelled to do. Compelled by what? It goes all the way back to my MFA exhibit when I found working by “Doing the next thing”; allowing the next move to evolve without pre-thought or agenda brought me to tap into what I think of as the well humans have been drinking from since humans have been on the planet. Thanks are due in great part to the Art Spirit of Japan, I’ve found it to be a vital Pole Star since a visit to the Japanese Tea Garden in 1958 as a 10-year-old. “Do the next thing,” comes from Jasper Johns, whose art instruction was…”Take an object, do something to it, do something else to it.”

The pear leaves come from a tree outside my studio. It was planted as an ornamental tree by the previous owners, the DeMartinis well before I moved in. It gives only white blossoms and scanty 2-inch fruit but very perfumy tasting. Doing the next thing, I thought of the pear leaves as the ground for the figure. Pear leaves? I’d become an itinerant art teacher finding myself at UCSC teaching watercolor. One of the students brought me a digital print to look at. It had all the markings of excellence I’d been striving for in my hand-pulled lithos. Depth of color with smooth transitions was a benchmark. I’d been basing my litho editions on watercolors I thought had a wide appeal as a way to make a living. It was very expen$$ive to print an edition ’cause you had to print an entire run to make the edition. It was a risky business because of the 1000’s of dollars in up-front expenses. A digital print meant “on demand” printing, meaning the up-front costs were much less, thus democratizing a way for artists to make a living. Printmaking was dominated by blue-chip galleries where entry was a very hit-or-miss proposal. Seeing that first digital print sent a ball of an idea rolling. It was as though the fortune teller had laid out the cards of my next twenty years.

Pear leaves? First, I would have to gain computer skills. I’d never touched a computer. This is 1994 when I made the drawing of Yasumasa. I set up a computer in my studio just at the beginning of the digital revolution, (if you can imagine such a time—primitive cell phones the size of a cement block, no laptops, just the whisper of the Internet). I began my study of how to operate & manipulate software when the pear tree was in blossom. Then the fruit began to form in the summer, then the leaves changed color and fell, bare twigs like ghost writing in winter, then back to blossom. I had my nose to the screen but found relief looking at the pear tree. Gaining the skills I’d need, took a year. The pear leaves became a mnemonic of time passing and my entry and progenitor of the fine-art digital print world making a partnership with my son Noah and Master Lithographer David Salgado. As David often said, “We want to bring this new baby of digital printing into a very traditional setting, or this new baby would be raised by wolves.” Digital printing gave great ooomph to our business and allowed an expansion to make our motto, The Land of Yes, a reality. So, pear leaves? I hope, dear reader, you can deal with my winding path as the search continues for the Higgs Particle of Art. We’ll let ole’ TS Eliot sing us out of this meander…” Time present and time past are both, perhaps contained in time future…” Talk about taking a line for a walk…sheesh!

Yasumasa Thwarts the Red Rage by Moonlight on a Bed of Patience, watercolor, colored pencil, silver leaf, pear leaves, 2022.

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