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Letting the (Wood) Chips Fall on the Island of Bali : As natural as breathing, woodcarving as an art is neither intellectual nor aristocratic.

February 02, 1992|RITA ARIYOSHI | Ariyoshi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer.

MAS, Indonesia — Ten flat wooden fish came home with us from our first trip to Bali six years ago. Each fish is an individual, carved with whimsy and painted with daring. My husband bargained hotly for them and we treasure them well beyond their price, which was somewhat under $5 apiece. I use the fish for place mats, and at least two sets of our dinner guests have decided on Bali as a vacation just so they can go fishing for their own dining room accouterments.

Such carvings are not difficult to find. There are 4,000 woodcarvers on the fabled Indonesian island of Bali. Our fish are modern swimmers in the Balinese tradition of woodcarving that goes back uncounted centuries.

Most of the chips fly in the small village of Mas, flourishing on the fringes of luminous rice fields, 17 miles from Bali's international airport. The streets of Mas are lined with studios whose wares spill into the seemingly chaotic maelstrom of Balinese daily life.

In their typical openness and generosity, villagers welcome tourists to the festivities. We usually combine a stay in the mountains with some time at one of the coastal resorts.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 9, 1992 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Column 1 Travel Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Bali shopping--Because of a typographical error, last Sunday's Travel Section story on woodcarving in Bali incorrectly listed the price of the Garuda Orient Holidays package that includes round-trip air fare from Los Angeles and five nights at Taman Harum Cottages in Mas. The cost is $1,197.

Some galleries in Mas are air-conditioned, geared for the tour vans. Villagers offer cold drinks to pale, hefty people. But outside in the streets, sculpted items of varying degrees of merit are peddled by children who, if they merely catch your eye, will slyly unfold a piece of cloth and reveal, perhaps, an exquisitely carved bird on a flowering branch. It will be available just to you at a special price, which may be twice the going rate and still a bargain.

Mas is home to master woodcarvers of international reputation. It's a place where the men who tend the nearby fields practice the woodworking skills that have been handed to them from generations uncounted, for in Bali, almost everyone is an artist. Art is as natural as breath and as common as rice. The uncommon skill and highly developed aesthetic sense of the Balinese people, whether they are indulged princes dwelling in marble pavilions or farmers living in haphazard homes is due primarily to their well-organized, cooperative agricultural system, which allows abundant leisure time. Also, the Balinese never permitted artistic knowledge to become specialized in an intellectual or aristocratic class. The arts are for all. Even for tourists.

At Taman Harum Cottages in Mas, visitors may book bed, breakfast and woodcarving classes. The artistic enclave is like a little village within the village. Guest cottages line flower-bowered lanes, and a communal dining pavilion presides over a lotus pond. There are family temples--even a swimming pool. The interiors of the 17 cottages are in the courtly Balinese style, richly ornamented, plumped with pillows and altogether beguiling.

The cottages were originally built to accommodate artists, mostly Europeans and Australians, who came to study with master woodcarver Nyana. Nyana's studio, school and his Tantra Gallery are on the premises.

Nyana's grandfather, Tantra, was a celebrated temple carver. His father was the internationally acclaimed carver Ida Bagus Nyana. And his brother, sculptor Ida Bagus Tilem, spent a year in New York doing commissioned wood sculptures, and now has his own Tilem Gallery in Mas specializing in both contemporary and antique carvings. Nyana himself has won many awards and has had exhibitions as far away as Singapore. His work is shown in galleries throughout Indonesia.

Like many galleries, Nyana's carries three grades of sculptures. Those made for export are the lowest. Most items of this grade are not even carved at the studio, but bought on the village street. "Most foreigners don't know quality yet. They like their statues big and cheap," Nyana said. (Indeed, our own carved banana tree stands chest high and cost $12.)

Nyana's own work exhibits a lyrical simplicity. "I combine modern ideas with classic Ramayana (the Hindu epic) themes. The idea comes from the wood itself, especially if it's wood from the roots," he said of his subject matter. His preferred woods are hibiscus, panggal buaya , commonly called stain wood, and young ebony from Sulawesi.

Nyana, the other master carvers of his studio and their apprentices work side by side outdoors on grass mats in an open pavilion. Sometimes there is gamelan music; always there are songbirds. They work quietly, without conversation, absorbed in the tap-tapping of chisel on wood.

A master woodcarver typically employs about 30 different knives, chisels and gouges, plus a wooden mallet. Unlike Western sculptors who rely on hand pressure, the Balinese artist employs a highly refined technique, which consists of chipping small bits of wood gradually with highly sharpened implements. The touch is delicate and the medium controlled. The statue is usually finished with paint or gilt, or is made smooth with pumice and rubbed with bamboo to obtain a high polish.

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