~ INTRO ~
After calling Aoi and three text messages later we’d decided to meet up at the Lake Merritt area of Oakland because it’s a fairly easy landmark to locate. Originally built in 1953, the lake is described as “a focal point, it stands as the jewel of Oakland, even crowned with lights” by oaklandnet.com. Sun setting behind the lake provided a spectacular backdrop to capture some photos of Aoi’s calligraphy work. Tons of people were jogging by and we even had to ask a couple people for help to hold some of her larger work.
Following the ‘photo shoot,’ we headed towards a nearby area to escape the encroaching dark cold air. At first thought the local Starbucks appeared a solid location to conduct an interview. Closer inspection revealed it rank with chatter. Across the street, Colonial Donuts proved a more hospitable interview environment. After ogling the pastry selections we both settled on apple turnovers, with she an Earl Grey tea and I a ‘Milk Chug’ to wash it down. We sat down in the middle of the shop snacking on the goodies while discussing what calligraphy entails for her.
~ BACKGROUND ~
Moments Of Truth ~ Today is Thursday, October 18TH, 2007 and I’m here with Aoi Yamaguchi. Please describe your main mode or medium of creative expression.
Aoi Yamaguchi ~ Primarily, I do Japanese calligraphy. I’ve been doing this since I was six years old.
MOT ~ Are there specific differences for Japanese calligraphy in comparison to say Chinese or Western forms?
AY ~ The Japanese form is really unique, based on traditional culture. I use special brushes and papers. Like if I was just to draw the alphabet, it’s very simple lines, while there’s a lot of curves and three different styles of characters [in Japan], hiragana, katakana and kanji. Kanji is the most complicated one and consists of [a] bunch of strokes. It’s really hard to write, but that’s what really makes me want to do it and learn it because it’s hard. If it’s easy, I can be more creative, it takes time to learn it but we need patience to develop the skill.
Any of the three characters can be used, but we don’t use katakana that much. It’s more for foreign words, like English, to describe the sounds. The kanji has the meaning itself. Each character has it’s own meaning, different from the English alphabet, A, O, Y don’t really mean anything on their own. The kanji character itself has different kinds of meaning depending on how we combine them with others. I think it’s really interesting.
MOT ~ Are there any other mediums that you also like to work in?
AY ~ Music, yea, I spent ten years learning piano and I love singing. I took jazz singing course before. Even when I was little I loved singing, was in choir. Also the music industry interested me, so I learned how to make beats, how to set up the microphone, pressing CD’s from the recording studio, using the console and stuff.
MOT ~ If you had that ideal life where you could focus entirely on whatever you wanted what do you think that would be?
AY ~ I think I would do calligraphy, but if I can play some music that I made, that is if I could write calligraphy while listening to music that I made would be great.
MOT ~ Where exactly did you grow up?
AY ~ In Sapporo. My fathers job as a teacher had us move around to so many places, only in the northern island, Hokkaido. I went to so many different places, but mostly grew up in the suburbs, like a little town. There was lots of beautiful nature like trees, flowers, the sky’s so beautiful, great mountains. So I was in touch with nature when I was little. That’s maybe why I got more creative about how we see nature. Then I moved to Sapporo, the largest city on Hokkaido when I was fourteen. Since then, I’ve lived in the city and learned different stuff. I experienced two different worlds.
MOT ~ So your father is a teacher, did your mother do any art, or anyone else in your family?
AY ~ My mom would draw a little bit. My father is more creative with words. He was a Japanese literature teacher, kind of a writer of books and poems. He is like a philosopher, loves to think, wonder about things, and bunches of books to read. Also, he was very interested in psychology too. I was kind of a difficult kid when I was little (laughs at the thought of it), I didn’t like to fit into society. How do I say…. I didn’t like the strict rules I wanted to be free all the time, like a little bird, flying around everywhere. Needless to say my parents had a hard time with me. This may be part of my interest in philosophy, psychology, those abstract areas, same as with art.
MOT ~ Have you had mentors, teachers, especially in calligraphy that have helped guide you?
AY ~ When I started my mom took me to one of those places to learn calligraphy and he was an old master. His wife and he were both teachers, it was like private lessons with other students like me; starting out in elementary school to high school as well as adult level too. There’s a bunch of different levels, so for like a year span, every year – I was pretty good at it I guess – I’d get to the top. The next year we would start from scratch and I would get prizes and trophies; this encouraged me.
When I started, I lived in that town only two years. Generally my mom would drive me, maybe one or two hours back to the town after school, once a week. When we finally moved too far away to drive, I would write calligraphy at home and send it to the teacher so he could do the corrections with red ink. He would write where I needed it to be thicker or stronger, send it back, and I’d fix it.
MOT ~ So you did have to do it on your own for awhile?
AY ~ Well, yes and no. My mom does calligraphy too and she would teach me things as well.
~ INSPIRATION ~
MOT ~ What do you think is your main source of inspiration for creating your work? I notice some of the words or phrasing used in your work reflects a kind of global and peaceful perspective. Could you elaborate on the ideas you work to create and express?
AY ~ Well, I work to have a message to tell people. If I was just a stupid person, not thinking about anything, with nothing to say and not conscious, then I would not have found fun in calligraphy.
For example, growing up in the countryside among nature inspired me. Today, many of those same towns have become more modern with buildings, so it’s kind of like people destroying nature for their own profit. It’s just that money mind, not caring to appreciate nature. That’s how we can breath you know, oxygen, the trees produce it and we forget such a little thing. I think that people should remember the important things, not just focusing on how to get A’s in school or something, which also has its importance, but just stop and think about some of these basic things for a moment. Why do you live in this world?
When I feel like people are forgetting about these things, or am angered by something, I am motivated to put those feelings and thoughts into words. People then can see it and hopefully influenced enough to change their actions. My hope is that through my efforts I am making some little change in this world.
What I envision that I’m trying to do is challenge the limit of words. Take emotion for example. It’s really difficult to describe, right? We can’t say I’m happy but a little sad. It has to be a bold statement. There are some little feelings that can’t necessarily be put into words. So I’m trying to challenge those possibilities using my vocabulary to describe them.
MOT ~ Are there specific creative goals you’ve set? Some kind of five to ten year plan, things you’d like to learn more, or anything like that?
AY ~ Just simply I want to keep performing, in more places if possible. I’m also planning to travel around the world, maybe some three to five years from now. I’d like to bring my brush and paper with me and demonstrate in front of people in other countries and see their reaction.
You know, Japanese calligraphy is a really traditional culture we learn in school, but there are fewer people who carry on afterward. Most students just do it for class, not on their own. I don’t want people to forget this beautiful traditional element of Japanese culture. With computers, text messages on cell phones, you don’t really even need a pen to write anymore.
I think I’m pretty young, and do have a few friends still doing calligraphy who also do some teaching at the calligraphy school, but I’ve chosen not to focus solely on calligraphy like them. With my broad interests I’m working to explore my limits in all of them.
MOT ~ These elements can overlap, yea? So when you were training, moving in Japan, working on your own, how do you and did you keep yourself energized? What keeps you motivated?
AY ~ I think I just love words. If I’m just living a daily life, I feel like I’m lacking something. It’s this feeling that I’m not doing something important, something’s being forgotten. We all have thoughts, and think everyday, if we don’t write it down we’ll forget. I personally don’t want to forget little moments like that. To save them, I like to keep them on paper, or even on computer, keeping a journal. Sometimes I draw, or random words, even glue movie tickets or other elements of my life.
Imagine driving a car. If you don’t drive it for a while, you forget elements of it and are not as fluid anymore. To keep from having my skill level atrophy like an unused muscle, I have to keep doing it.
MOT ~ When you write regularly do you write in a calligraphic way? Like while you’re journaling do you consider or naturally consider layout and positioning or words and letters?
AY ~ Yea, yea yea, I do.
MOT ~ Do you work out ideas for future projects in that book?
AY ~ Sure, but it’s mostly just random ideas. When I come up with some kind of cool expression or a random order of words that hits I’ll think “Oo, that’s cool!” and write it down. Then if an art show’s coming up, I have to write something, I’ll go back to my notebook and “oh, this is cool!” and start working with that. It’s useful for me to keep a journal like that.
MOT ~ Do you think dreams or memories come out in your work? For example, some people might look back at a dream and try to paint that.
AY ~ Aaah. . . I have a bunch of weird dreams but no, I’ve never tried to express them. For example, I imagine something, set up a story in my head and try to draw a picture of it in my head. Then describe that picture with words, not dreams, but yea, I can see that.
~ TECHNICAL ~
MOT ~ Could you describe the main tools you work with?
AY ~ Brushes of course. For calligraphy brushes there’s certain kinds of animal hairs used. The hard ones are generally made out of horse tail. There’s also brushes out of monkey hair, sheep which is really soft. That’s what I often use because I can get more creative about the line. Beyond that, there’s soooooo many different kinds of sizes HUGE to tiny, and the price can be extreme as well. Some little ones can cost 8000 yen like about $80 USD. The low quality ones are still about $30 USD.
MOT ~ Is there a noticeable difference?
AY ~ Oh yea! A really good brush will allow for a really smooth line as well as listen to my direction. If it’s a bad brush (she starts illustrating with her hands just what happens) and you go in one direction the brush won’t return to a natural position but remain in the previous direction. It keeps the shape and I have to fix it before each new stroke. Also bad brushes hair come out and “beep” stay in the work. I hate writing with poor quality brushes for those reasons.
MOT ~ Well, you take it to another level though too. I’ve seen you use a mop and other things.
AY ~ Oh yea (laughing at my mention of it or something), I’ve used a mop, plants. They make interesting strokes. I don’t mind trying new things. It’s fun to use those things. I’ve even thought about using my own hair.
MOT ~ Really. Still attached or detached from your scalp?
AY ~ (she just laughs at me) that’d be kinda cool though. I don’t know, it’d be hard to wash it off. I’d like to try it with braids, which may make it easier.
MOT ~ Maybe somebody could hold you as a brush and write. The living brush.
AY ~ Hahaha… yea some strong person, that’d be cool.
MOT ~ Are there any books or stories on calligraphy, novels, philosophy or anything that you may go back to, that may inspire you or keep you motivated?
AY ~ I like a lot of philosophers, psychologists. . . I love Freud, he’s weird, but I love him. I love reading poem books. I especially love reading the Japanese poet Iyumu Takahashi. Tokio actually got to meet him. Sometimes he lives in New York but he basically lives in Okinawa. He traveled around the world with his fiancée for two years, taking a bunch of pictures, and kept a journal along with poems that he later turned into a book. There were several series of it and I found it extremely inspirational. Sometimes I’ll write the words from the book. It just really makes me want to think about the meaning of life, making me really creative.
MOT ~ Do you think you could explain your overall process, in general that goes from idea to real world?
AY ~ For example if there’s an art show, and a theme for the show, I’ll first think about that and have to go to some place by myself. I can’t be with a friend or anything. It’ll be some place quiet, alone, and think; developing the idea. During that process I’ll write down what comes out. Then I’ll go home, put on some really abstract music – say Jazz or experimental, absolutely no words just music – and try to write with brush and paper. This is practice.
I generally have to do a lot of practice to figure out the layout of the words. I’ll try several times, and unfortunately dump lots of papers even though papers are so expensive… because they’re special hand made ones, but “aaahhhh, no not this one,” until I reach the right one. Calligraphy paper should be dry completely so I leave it out for a day or two. Once it’s dry I’ll put another thicker paper behind it, which is hard but regardless. Sometimes I’ll frame it, or use different colored paper, adding those finished details.
MOT ~ Do you think you use techniques that are particular to you, that may distinguish your still from others?
AY ~ Other peoples styles? I guess so, but you know, calligraphy is originally unique depending on who writes. Sometimes if I write the really fine lines, really beautiful, perfect and neat I have to keep myself calm. On the other hand, if I’m writing a big one, than I have to maybe dance for a little bit, exercise, or move around to get excited and then I will “yeah” be ready. So I just let it go, let things flow. If it looks cool, then it looks cool to me.
MOT ~ When you’re working on something, preparing for the work, what is it that tells you that’s where you want it, that it’s complete? What’s the message from your brain to your stomach to your hand that shouts “yea, that’s how I want it to look!”
AY ~ Calligraphy basically uses the white paper and black ink. So on that basic level, the important esthetic element is how we use the space. How should the white be out and the density of the black should cover the paper. If there are a lot of words, like in a long poem, I’ll have to look at it from a distance to get the perspective. I have to see if it’s too black or too white. The balance is really important. It shouldn’t be 50/50. It can be 30/70 or 1 to 99, but the placement of the letters is extremely important. The order of the words, it’s kind of hard for me to say. For example if I’m writing “art is beautiful” I can think about it, it’s more we can do this in Japanese, and break down the word and chance the line for balance purposes.
When I’m writing a long poem, I’ll first dip the brush into the ink and start writing, eventually it will run out. Where to start the next section is important. At the start it’s thicker and rich in ink going to more vague and thinner. In the middle I will start the black. That way it flows darker to lighter to darker, so it doesn’t look like the top part is all black and the bottom all white. That’s the traditional technique. I have to think about the timing and adjust the use of the brush and ink.
MOT ~ How do you acquire the funds to purchase brushes and paper? It sounds like an expensive medium to work in.
AY ~ It’s super expensive. Well for me, because my mom does calligraphy too, she buys a lot of the equipment and ink. If I ask her, she often helps out because she appreciates that I keep doing calligraphy. I don’t have to worry about it unless I want the super good product. I just do a part time job and pay for what I can, but I’ll generally need to ask her. I feel sorry about it sometimes, but she’s actually happy that I’m keeping at it. My teacher is also happy about it too. He’s sick now, and can’t really teach any more. The last time I went back to Japan, I showed him pictures and he was like “wow, that’s good, you can do it in America.” Maybe that’s part of what makes me still want to keep doing it. I’ve received something important, that’s what I’ve learned from my master, my teacher, my parent, and if I stop, what’s the point? To make them happy is probably also one of the purposes.
It’s also great to sell some work. Sometimes I can sell them. Right now the Japanese restaurant Ozumo near the Embarcadero center (a very high class Japanese dining experience) has some of my work up. And also, the last time I had show in New York, one guy who just happened to know the artists in the show sent me a message via myspace interested in buying my work. Randomly it can happen. Another opportunity grew out of my involvement in the music industry. A rapper in Oakland asked me to do calligraphy for his website, and people who go to his website see my work. From that I get messages from people about my work that really encourage me to do more and better work. I’m not really too worried about that element of it though.
MOT ~ Say you were to sit down with someone, Freud, whoever, someone you’re into and have the opportunity to ask them some questions. Would you have any questions for them?
AY ~ If it’s an artist, or even any of those philosophers, I’d ask them when you wake up in the morning, what is the first thing you think about? I want to know what the first thing they think about is.
MOT ~ Do you wake up thinking about calligraphy?
AY ~ Ahh, haha, no.
MOT ~ Do you ever do calligraphy in your dreams and wake up with your hands in painting position?
AY ~ No, no, it’s weird though? Hmm. Maybe I don’t remember. I often have a dream of flying in the air. Maybe that represents I want to be free.
MOT ~ You’re not free?
AY ~ I guess I am, but I’ve got things to do. I’m not like completely free.
MOT ~ I also have a question about creative freedom. Do you imagine that you have creative freedom?
AY ~ Yes, I think so. Since I’m doing this in America, most people don’t really know about calligraphy, leaving me to do whatever I want. Even though I’m not satisfied with work that I do, people still say “Wow, it’s beautiful!” I’m like “really, I think this is crap.” But that crap is so beautiful, I guess it all comes down to how people see it. And also, I don’t mind if somebody asks me to write for them, “I’ll pay for it, could you write something for me?” I don’t mind taking their requests. I want to write the art work to fit their needs.
I like my style, I don’t have to like my style but I like it. Sometimes I think I suck, that I’m no good anymore. It’s all about patience, a lot of people lack that, and sometimes I loose mine. I want to challenge my patience until I find the best, to reach the goal.
MOT ~ So to go back to Japan, do you think what you’ve been doing here would not be as accepted as here? Maybe because they’re more knowledgeable there?
AY ~ Maybe? But there’s so many masters over there, 60 or 70 years old who know so much about calligraphy. They can judge me based on those traditional elements, or style, but they can’t judge me when I write creative writing, more modern work. So it’s not about judging or that.
When I took the class in high school, thinking I could get an easy score, the teacher was a totally different style then the master I originally learned from. My master was very traditional. Good at writing beautiful letters in a perfect way. I’ve never seen any work better than his. My high-school teacher was much more modern. He’d say “do whatever you want, just think about the words and if that’s favorite words, just write it.” Even though I may think it’s not good, he’d say, “look at this, so awesome.” He would find the good part from the bad. If I’m a teacher, I’ll be like that. Kids may say they’re no good, but I’ll find that positive elements of the work and we raise it from that point.
MOT ~ Do you imagine teaching in the future?
AY ~ Yes, I will. Well, I kind of am already. Not like on a continuous basis but people have asked me to show them things. I’ve gone over to there house or them to mine. One time, a graphic designer was learning about typography and thought it would be helpful to learn a little about calligraphy so he asked me. I think every thing is related.
A tool of some sort will always be required to communicate via the visual form with some kind of character, but how much longer will it be standard practice to use pen and paper? Is it even standard practice any more? Even in countries that may not appear to have all the comforts of the ‘advanced’ nations cellular phones are affordable by the masses. More often then not, the least expensive way to communicate is to send text messages. Has the era of passing notes in class ended, or using ‘post-it’ notes to remember something? Many people may be relieved by the standardization of text. Some handwriting can be like trying to decipher ancient hieroglyphics. The development of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1430’s may have heightened the move toward a non-hand written form but block printing existed even prior to this. It has been mentioned that the use of film for photography is fading away. Could the use of paper and pencil to write ‘long hand’ be heading the same direction? It may depend on the political power of the paper and pencil lobbyists.
In all seriousness, what is called art today can be traced back to those original forms of communication like cave paintings. Much like modern letter forms can too. Eastern calligraphy is an element of traditional culture that displays character, patience, flow, and creativity. Handwriting analysis is based on practitioners abilities to read characteristics of an individual in the way they write. As far as I know, you can’t do the same by deciphering how they type. What’s my point? Maybe nothing more then observations. The written word has always been one of those things I’ve enjoyed viewing, especially calligraphy. I love the way lines can move and blend from thick to thin and take all different kinds of shapes. I’d just hate to see that fade away into something only read about in online textbooks.
* UPDATE *