About 90 Ojime

OJIME ARE BEADS USED AS A CLOSURE FOR JAPANESE MEDICINE BOXES FROM THE TIME OF THE SHOGUNS. THEY ARE ELABORATE, MADE OF IVORY, OR WOOD, CLOISENNÉ OR METAL AND ARE USUALLY THEMATICALLY DERIVED FROM THE NATURAL WORLD AND STORIES HELD IN COMMON. I FIRST ENCOUNTERED THEM STRUNG TOGETHER AS A CINCTURE OF 90. IT WAS THE EARLY 70’S WHEN I WAS JUST OUT OF ART SCHOOL. THEIR PERFECTION AND TINY SIZE GAVE ME THE OOMPH TO CONTINUE TO MAKE ART. WHEN I BEGAN WRITING IN 2001 I ENVISIONED 90 STORIES AS AN HOMAGE TO THE INSPIRATION OF OJIME. THIS IS A THANK-YOU NOTE PUT-OFF FOR FIFTY YEARS….

Ojime beads are one of three parts of Japanese objects called Sagemono, strung and hanging from the obi, the waist belt, worn with kimono. Kimono have no pockets, so carried objects like writing kits, tobacco paraphernalia, medicine pouches, identification seals were strung from the waist. The object itself; the writing kit for example, hung on a silk chord with the more familiar netsuke used as a hook, to hold the ensemble from slipping through the waistband. The ojime tightened the whole gizmo together. The most exemplary are from the time of the Shoguns, 1603 to 1868 — The Edo Period. In a series of sumptuary laws, the Shogunate, ordering class identity via dress, forbade ostentatious clothes. If you were a farmer you dressed as a farmer. A Samurai, as such. But as a money class developed outside the rigor of the Shogun Overlords, wanting to signal taste and success, the Sagemono became some the most highly developed art objects the world has ever known. The Inro, the multi-tiered medicine and seal box is my favorite. It’s part of an art form that includes the box, the netsuke and a bead to draw the ensemble together. Maki-e, lacquerware with dusted-on precious metals that float into the wet lacquer, dry into a storm of glitter, the most usual material. The materials also include cloisonné, inlay of ivory, wood, mother of pearl and more.

And what did they look like? An ivory egg Ojime carved from the tusk of a Walrus crawling with black ants swarming toward a dead yellow jacket—the ants are carved, slightly 3D and lacquered to a shiny black—all the tiny legs gives them a look of scurrying—as ants do—sounds a bit creepy but when you think of it, when was the last time you peered at ants busy at work and were fascinated by them? How do they know what to do? Reverence for nature was the core, Shinto wabi sabi—the thing you glimpse out of the corner of your eye and suddenly take notice, is the core of the Japanese Aesthetic. The world becomes a bit wider; looking at something so tiny referencing not only that bit of natural history but, say a story out of the folk tale repertoire. Telling a story, like from the Western cannon everyone knows like the Ant and the Grasshopper. As the money class rose, there was a typical show of ostentation and the Sagemono became the vehicle for announcing wealth and position. “Social Peacocking” the Wall Street journal calls it, as $100,000 wrist watches poke out from under a dark suit sleve these days. In the Edo Period, Sagemono accomplished the same thing. But as money-culture took over in the Mejii Restoration of 1868, Japan, a late bloomer on the global money scene, the Sagemono went the way of the powdered wig, were broken up and collected into things like the string of 90 Ojime I saw at the Met, seen in a drift spread out in a glass case.

Ojime made from Walrus tusk

I first saw these objects at the Met Museum in NYC in January of 1974.  I was just nine months out of graduate studio-art studies and with few prospects, working bagging sand in a lumber yard in the Bronx. We were finally out of Vietnam but horrible inflation was just one price being paid. Gasoline prices doubled overnight. We were cheering Nixon’s impending demise but it really was an economically awful time. Taking the train down to the Met, I hoped for some relief from the dread, nausea, depression…I was feeling pretty worthless. Such a looser. I had left grad school…rushing my MFA through to follow my life as a communard, a back to the lander, a DIY hero. Self sufficiency, my dream of living outside the “grid” was one I shared with tons of other folks. Standing on the marble floor of the Met, filthy slush melting off my clunky work boots, themselves a signal of my cred as person who took the proletarian-nature-boy-life as an aspirational target, I looked at the Singer-Sargent masterpiece painting of Madam X as a weight, a burden carried, adding to my weary, exhausted version of Boy-Artist. It was all weight. All of my school years I could count on a museum visit as a lift, sparks striking. Today hissing smoke drifting up off my wrong-turn-rubble was all I could evoke. I had the blues so bad…

We all know drugs have side-effects. LSD’s main, most common, bad side-effect is hubris. Acid can open your eyes to a palpable sense of one-nesss with the Universe and it IS thrilling. You really feel the “ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE” refrain. Lately Psychedelics have proven to be useful for sufferers of depression, alcohol abuse and end-of-life struggles. But as Richard Alpert (Baba Ram Dass) writes in his hippie best seller BE HERE NOW, “there is always the problem of coming down.” With 1200 hits of prime blotter acid we set out to prove our universal love in a hippie commune on Cape Cod. We (five, sometimes nine and actively recruiting) would eat right, act right, do right, love right, in a counter-culture-Valhalla of our own loopy visions. I came down, way down. Of course it turned out to be the wrongest, wrong turn…coming down from a drug-induced high is fraught. What I gleaned from my first acid-trip should have been enough. One and done. What I learned was that the Acid trip is EXACTLY how it feels to be making art…only a lot faster, less trustworthy, and way harder to keep track of…but the same species of thought process as making Art. I’d been in receipt of this lovely vocation of making art…why be so greedy with more trippin’ around? Ram Dass was right, you always come down, but making art lasts a whole lifetime.

Collected Ojime Beads

I returned to Cape Cod, after a 2 week stint in New York. I was really there just to earn some bucks. Cape Cod is a bad place to earn a living in the winter. Though I was not conscious of it, and though I didn’t really know what I was seeing in that string of beads, I had received the slightest boost, what felt like a very dim a spark of enthusiasm for making artwork. It turned out it was just enough. I’d been fresh from academic art school at a big university, where I had been drilled with the literary theory that was dominating “high art” practice. Post-modernism was about to strut onto the scene with it’s “Art about Art” stance. Nothing was real anymore. We were at the “Art degree zero” moment when all that was left were DaDa jokes about art. (Sherrie Levine, who was in my graduate seminar would gain fame and fortune for showing famous photographs and signing her own name as “After so-and-so”—a demonstration of authorship fetish—har dee har…) Art that talked about art or teased the conventional as anti-art was IT, baby. I had proposed in my conceptual-art senior seminar, that “I will move to Cape Cod, and make touristy watercolors and show them at the MOMA.” I had set my self up to make a kind of intellectual “art joke”. I would learn watercolor, often derided as low-value, and make “Sunday Painter” landscapes and have an exhibition. A very art school gesture; challenging the signifiers of art. I had been copying famous watercolor paintings from Wyeth and Sargent, and done several lessons from the Watson-Guptal how-to books. In school I had disdaned painting “pictures” as old and musty—sculpture and installations were possible. My watercolor paintings would turn the idea of making a picture on its head. The “paintings” I was attempting were, petty, pale attempts, but I was learning how to handle a brush and color. But before I went to down to New York, I had been down-right listless in my efforts.

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Working the masonry job the Cape, I had had a particularly brutal morning of carrying cement block and mixing mortar, I had collapsed for a break to eat lunch. I looked up into a ravine at the construction site into the dense complexity of leaves and branches and rocks. A shift happened. I saw exactly how to render in paint what I was seeing. The scene was broken into layers appearing as a chart of procedures in my mind. Like a scrim in front of my vision. I know it was a function of real exhaustion; my normal way of seeing had been knocked off base. But when I returned to the Cape from NYC, I picked up where I’d left off in school. I began, step-by-step to make a painting of what I’d seen. This weren’t no DaDa art joke, because after two weeks of intermittent work I had a real thing that moved me. No joke. Staring at the painting on my wall, I realized that seeing that string of beads, had planted a new idea for me; that maybe an artist’s life is possible and that “art about art” is no art at all. Making art itself is a good place to start when making art.

Now in the fall 1974, having traveled across the country, in an an eight-month journey, from that moment, seeming like years, I’m finished with Cape Cod. I’m where I feel I belong, in California. I have made exactly one painting. I’m looking for a job. I want to teach art. When looking for work it had been my habit to look up all the people doing what I want to do and just cold-call. I looked up college level art departments and called—I’m an artist with an MFA in hand—It turned out the College of Marin was looking for someone to teach watercolor. Do I have any work with me? I had exactly one watercolor, I brought it to the interview—I got the job. Thank you, 90 Ojime.

My First Watercolor, 1974, 22″ x 15″

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