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THE SPIRIT OF PAPER : Artist Hopes to Transplant Japanese Craft in America

June 23, 1988|STEPHANIE O'NEILL | Times Staff Writer

In the back yard shed of his modest Eagle Rock home, Yoshio Ikezaki dumps a clear, gooey solution into a wooden vat filled with a cloudy mixture of water and plant fibers. He swirls the mixture with his hands and pulls up a glob for inspection. Ikezaki is hoping the runny substance in his palm will revive a fading page of Japanese history.

For the past year, the soft-spoken artist has committed himself to promoting and teaching the disappearing art of making washi, or special Japanese fibrous paper.

"I believe that knowing paper is essential for everything," Ikezaki, 35, says. "It is strange, but in Japanese kami is paper, and kami is God. It is pronounced differently, but it is the same spirit."

'Not Glamorous Work'

At the same time, he says, his dedication to the craft hasn't blinded him to its less appealing points: "It is not glamorous work," he says.

Indeed not. The method of making handmade Japanese paper requires labor that over time can cause back problems and other ailments. Moreover, the process is time-consuming. From start to finish, about three weeks are required to harvest a batch of paper.

At the moment, Ikezaki earns no money from product sales. But his rewards, he says, are sturdy and beautiful papers that provide the foundation for his sculptures and, more importantly, the chance to revive the 400-year-old craft in the United States.

Washi, better known by Westerners as "rice paper,"--although it has no rice in it--has traditionally been used by Japanese for stationery, wallpaper, sliding screens, medical plasters, carpeting and even clothing.

"It's washable," Ikezaki laughs.

Today, however, washi is quickly becoming lost in Japan's high-tech society. Less-expensive Western products have stolen much of the market from costly handmade Japanese paper items.

"Nowadays, synthetic materials have taken over the place of this handmade paper and kind of squeezed it into a corner," Ikezaki says.

For instance, in 1960, about 20,000 men, women and children made paper in Japan, he says. Today, that number has shrunk to about 500, most of them elderly, Ikezaki says. "And it is said to be getting smaller year by year," he adds.

Papermaking, which began in China during the 2nd Century, was introduced in Japan early in the 7th Century, Ikezaki says.

"By the 16th Century paper was used considerably for art itself, and they started making more decorative paper," Ikezaki says. "Today, we consider the paper itself a piece of art."

Ikezaki, a seasoned artist who creates sculptures with his handmade paper and also teaches Japanese watercolor painting and flower arranging, studied the philosophy and technique of washi for six years with an elderly paper-maker in Japan. A year later, he decided to bring washi to the United States, where he hopes to find a market for his paper.

Ikezaki has taught papermaking classes through the UCLA Extension, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco as well as in back yard private lessons.

"A lot of paper-makers are watching me from Japan," he says. "I am hoping that maybe there will be growth in this country because there are still a lot of Western papermaking people interested in doing this."

A purist who insists on primitive methods and natural materials, Ikezaki imported from Japan two tons of kozo, or mulberry bark that he stores in a metal toolshed in his back yard. The bark, which looks and feels more like grassy reeds, is from a family of mulberry trees native to Japan and grown by farmers for papermaking, Ikezaki says.

Unlike Western paper, the washi contains no wood pulp and is more durable and decorative as a result.

About three times a week, Ikezaki makes paper for himself using a labor-intensive technique called nagashizuki.

He soaks the bark in water for up to a day, then boils it with soda ash for two to three hours and inspects it for flaws, which he removes by hand. Next, he puts it in a stone bowl and beats it for 30 to 40 minutes with a wooden stick. The longer the beating, the finer the texture.

The pounded fiber, looking like a ball of wet rags, goes into the wooden vat of water. There Ikezaki mixes in three bowls of the gooey synthetic solution called "formation aid." In Japanese tradition, the material is called tororoaoi for the native plant from which it comes. But Ikezaki says he has to use a synthetic product because U.S. agricultural officials won't let him import the real thing.

That is his only compromise. After mixing by hand, he "slashes" the mixture, rapidly churning it with a wooden tool that has seven thin spikes.

Each sheet of paper is then formed on a screen of thin bamboo reeds in a 12-by-18-inch frame. Ikezaki dips the screen into the mixture and rocks it back and forth to spread it evenly. When done, he unpeels the soggy sheet of paper and stacks it with others under weights.

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