by Robert O. Kinsey
Featured in this article are netsuke of fallen leaves by five contemporary artists: Kodo Okuda of Japan; Akemi Sasaki of Japan, a woman carver; Gernot Schluifer of Austria; Guy Shaw of England; and Tom Sterling of the United States.
Of all the wonder of nature, the leaves of trees and shrubs perhaps are foremost in beauty, utility, symbolism, and mystique. Throughout history, both in the Far East and in countries around the world, they have inspired countless painters, poets and philosophers, including netsuke artists.
Most of us are so well acquainted with leaves that few reminders are needed of their very special qualities.Four nourishment, the giant panda spends 50 – 75 % of its day feeding on black bamboo foliage, satisfying 95% of its dietary needs.
After hatching, the diet of silkworms requires two hundred pounds of white mulberry leaves for each pound of silk eventually produced – a central factor in the establishment of the Silk Road that for almost two millennia was the main artery for commercial, cultural, and religious exchanges between China and the Mediterranean.
For humans, the dried and processed leaves of the tea plant provide one of the world's most important beverages. The flavor and fragrance of dried leaves greatly enhance our enjoyment of food – herbs and spices such as rosemary, thyme, basil, parsley, bay, oregano, sage and countless others.
For sheer sensory delight, the shade, cooling, and rustling sounds of leaves offer comfort, protection, and enjoyment. The drama of the changing autumn colors of leaves provides aesthetic wonders seldom equaled elsewhere in nature. In many important and unique ways, leaves have always appealed not only to our philosophical, religious, and artistic perceptions.
Kodo Okuda's fallen leaves have subtle and profound significance reaching far beyond the arts of painting and sculpture to the spiritual marvels of nature where nothing is permanent except change. There is exquisite beauty in the death of a fallen leaf, but death is not the end. It is the promise of new life. The new life will be ephemeral, and its beauty will be fragile.
Kodo’s first fallen leaf, Figure 1, was prize–winning, lacquered ivory carving created in 1975. Four years later Kodo and his lovely wife, Yukie, visited the United States for the first time. In Los Angels, Mexico City, and San Francisco they were interviewed on television, and the TV cameras were able to zoom in on his netsuke and his prize–winning fallen leaf. His leaf was an okimono rather than a netsuke and was meant for display and meditation in the tokonoma alcove. ( The japanese have two words for fallen leaf, often used interchangeably: ochiba meaning fallen leaf, and kareha meaning dead leaf.
1. Fallen Leaf, Kodo, lacquered ivory, okimono, 7.0 in.
Kodo and Yukie also attended the 1979 Netsuke Kenkyukai convention in Minneapolis where his netsuke and fallen leaf were greatly admired. At one of the convention sessions, Michael Birch expressed his “ Brief Appreciation of Kodo's Genius.” :
“ Kodo is primarily a painter, and his unique carvings are, in a sense, his canvas. With a carefully controlled palette of lacquer colors, of dyes, gold– leaf, platinum, and mother of pearl inlays – skillfully applied in a variety of techniques – together with meticulous carving, a true appreciation of form, and a microscopic knowledge of the anatomy of his subject, he sometimes creates a startling momentary of illusion of realism. but he consciously subtle element of subjective stylization that reveals his mastery of the medium.
“ His carved ivory hermit crab will not scurry away; his ivory flowers will not perish and drop their petals; his autumn leaf – an exquisite masterpiece – could not crumble into oblivion, because Kodo does not attempt to deceive the eye...he intrigues the intellect, delights the heart, and often enlightens spirit.”
Kodo and Yukie were astonished by the appreciation and intense interest of netsuke collectors in his fallen leaf. Two years later he completed his fabulous “Series of Fallen Leaves” lacquered ivory carvings portraying a set of ten fallen leaves. This set has been exhibited at major museums and galleries throughout the United States and Japan. ( It is included in The Shin’en Kan Foundation’s CD:ROM accompanying the China City Museum of Arts’s catalog for the joint exhibition of the contemporary netsuke collections of Robert and Miriam Kinsey and of His Imperial Highness Prince Norihito Takamado).
During the past two decades, Kodo has created a total of fifty fallen leaves, some of them now in the permanent collection of the British Museum. Kodo’s first fallen leaf, since it represents his soul and spirit, has been donated to Shinto Hitachi Izumo Shrine, in Ibaraki, Japan, where Kodo has been deeply involved for years in creating mural and ceiling paintings that rival in scope Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.
Kodo has also conveyed his interest in fallen leaves to a few of his netsuke. One favorite is a lacquered ivory netsuke titled “Hibernating Frog”. Figure 2. Once while tending his garden, Kodo's foot accidentally dislodged a mound of fallen leaves where a frog had hibernated. Kodo apologized to the frog for the intrusion, restored its shelter of leaves, and then proceeded to his studio to design and carve this netsuke.
2. Hibernating Frog, Kodo, lacquered ivory, netsuke, 2.1 in.
Akemi Sasaki’s “Fallen leaf” netsuke, Figure 3, is superb boxwood carving in the collection of H.I.H. Prince Takamado. Akemi lives in Fujisawa, originally an Edo period temple town and post–station of the Tokaido highway, located near Tokyo Bay, Kamakura, and Ensoshima island in Sagami Bay. It is an area that keeps her in close touch with the intimate beauties of nature.
3. Fallen Leaf, Akemi, boxwood netsuke, 1.8 in.
Two superb, landmark books have recently been published that offer a wealth of fascinating information about leaves. One is Merrily Baird’s “Symbols of Japan – Thematic Motifs in Art and Design” (reviewed in INSJ Vol. 21, No. 2). It contains extensive discussions of trees and related plants such as bamboo, bush clover, camellia, cherry, chestnut, cinnamon, clove, cryptomeria, gingko, holly, katsura, loquat, maple, mulberry, oak, palm, paulownia, peach, pear, pine, plantain, plum, pomegranate, sakaki, willow, and wisteria.
The second book is Alice Thoms Vitale’s “Leaves – In myth, Magic & Medicine”, published in the author’ 87th year by Stewart, tabori &Chang, New York, 1997. It is beautifully illustrated with the author’s own auto prints made from living leaves that she hand–gathered in many part of the world.
Throughout her exceptionally readable text, Alice Vitale has scattered thought–provoking quotations such as the following: “Every leaf a miracle”. – Walt Whitman; “Leaves are of more various forms than the alphabets of all languages put together”. – Thoreau; “It was with awe That I beheld Fresh leaves, green leaves Bright in the sun”. –haiku by Basho; “Envied by us all The leaves of maple turn so Beautiful, then fall”. – haiku by Shiko; “The silk tree blooms in daytime, and sleeps the love–sleep at night”. – lady ki, 8th century Manyoshu poet; “There is always somthing deeply exciting, not only in the sounds of winds in the woods...but in their varied waterlike flow as manifested by the movements of the trees, especially those of conifers...The waving of a forest of Sequoias is indescribably impressive and sublime”. – John Muir; “And though we never consciously appreciate that greatest of all treasures that leaves bestow, we take into our lungs with every breath the oxygen that they in their mysterious botanical function release into the air”. – Alice Vitale.
Gernot Schluifer is a world–famous Austrian crystal sculptor and engraver who has created a number of outstanding netsuke and ojime, even though the main focus of his multifaceted genius is centered on other art forms. an avid skier and outdoors–man, he lives in spectacularly beautiful area of austria’s Tyrolean Alps. While skiing one day, he found in the snow an intriguing mulberry leaf which he carried to his studio and used for designing his “Fallen Leaf” netsuke, Figure4. The leaf, with a colored beetle added to its surface, is engraved in optical crystal, and the crystal was then bonded to color–coordinated petrified wood. The size and shape of this masterpiece netsuke provide tactile appeal that rivals its visual charm. Figure 5 is another of the artist’s mood–setting crystal engraving, a tiny okimono rather than a netsuke, portraying two autumn leaves impaled by the wind on a desolate barbed–wire fence. It is an excellent example of Schluifer’s ability to create ten different shades of gray, ranging between pure white and jet black, by varying degrees of polishing in his engravings.
4. Fallen Leaf, Schluifer, crystal ⁄ petr.wood, netsuke, 3.2 in.
5. Fallen Leaves, Schluifer, engraved crystal, okimono, 1.5 in.
For many centuries prior to the recent giant strides of modern science, certain leaves and other plant materials were known (or believed) to have important medicinal values. The ancient pharmacopoeias of India and China and of native America were thought to contain remedies for virtually all ailments and disease. Much of this so–called knowledge was entangled with folklore superstitions, but a significant portion has scientifically been verified. The leaves and fruit of many trees are known to be the source of essential vitamins. For example, dried persimmon leaves are exceptionally high in Vitamin C, curiously more than ten times higher than in persimmon fruit. The leaves and fruit of the papaya tree are an excellent source of vitamins A and C and potassium, and they contain an important enzyme called papain, a digestive aid.
In addition to their visual appeal and their nutritive and medicinal values, the legendary and symbolic significance of leaves is an important area of interest. The Bible’s book of genesis relates the story of Noah having released a dove from the ark which returned with leaves of an olive twig in its beak, informing Noah that floodwaters were abating. Since then the olive branch has become a worldwide symbol of peace, with two leafy olive branches featured in the flag of the United Nations. Wreaths of laurel leaves were used in ancient times to crown poets, heroes, and victors in athletic contests, symbols of honor and glory won for achievement. For more than a thousand years, leaves of the paulownia tree have been a symbol of japan’s imperial family, featured in its crests (mon) and later in the crest of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a 16th century shogun. The red maple leaf is featured in the Canadian flag. The Buddha (Prince Siddhartha Gautama, 6th century BC Indian founder of Buddhism) experienced his great enlightenment while seated in the shade of a bo tree, a wild fig tree in the mulberry family. The leaves of the bo tree provide food for elephants and are also an acceptable alternate food for silkworms.
Guy Shaw’s home and studio are located in Forest Deer, Gillingham, a beautiful are of Dorset, England, where he lives in close affinity with fallen leaves and other wonders of nature. Throughout his distinguished career as top–ranking artist, Shaw has created 30–40 netsuke featuring leaves – specialization in this subject that is unmatched by any other carver. Some of them are tours de force, but all of them succeed in capturing intriguing insights into nature’s beauty and serenity – and also its harsh severity. Many of his carvings are allegories of modern life as he sees it. concerning his superb netsuke titled “Unsung hero”, Figure 6, Shaw commented:
“To my mind every fallen leaf is a hero. it lives to breathe and absorb for the tree, withstanding storm and drought, performing its specific role while needed and dies in the autumn in order that the tree might survive the Winter”.
“The human world too is filled with such heroes, unsung and unremembered yet vital. These are the foot soldiers who perform their duties with dignity and courage in order that our lives might be richer. I pick a single leaf from a pile blown into a corner and carve this in their honor...”.
6. Unsung Hero, Shaw, gum burrwood, netsuke, 2.6 in.
With reference to his masterpiece netsuke titled “The Dance of life”, Figure 7, Shaw offered these remarks:
“The model for this carving was a group of young rose leaves growing at the tip of a shoot in spring. The still closed leaves, such a compact hopeful group and full of promise were intriguing. However it was necessary to enfold such delicate structures with the more mature strength of the adult leaf in much the same way we protect our children.
“For the stings as well as the joy that life brings I decided to carve a thorn from the stalk piercing the enfolding leaf”.
7. The Dance of Life, Shaw, stained wood netsuke, 2.3 in.
Equally noteworthy are Shaw’s curled fern leaf with five ants foraging on and inside it, titled “This Busy Life” and carved in hippo tooth, Figure 8; his curled poinsettia leaf with spider, Figure 9, his last carving in boxwood because of a severe allergy he developed to the material; his fallen leaf netsuke and companion ojime, carved in stag antler, Figure 10; and his very tactile “Autumn leaves”, a kagamibuta–style netsuke carved in mastodon and snakewood, Figure 11.
8. This Busy Life, Shaw, hippo tooth netsuke, 5.0 in.
9. Spider in Leaf, Shaw, boxwood netsuke, 2.5 in.
10. Fallen leaf, Shaw, stag antler netsuke & ojime, 3.3 in.
11. Autumn Leaves, Shaw, mastodon ⁄ snakewood netsuke, 2.0 in.
Shaw’s concluding comments were: “I hope these carvings reflect my sense of awe not only at the sheer sculptural qualities of Nature but also the unfaltering heart–beat of life, a very real wonder.”
Tom Sterling retired from the Air Force about ten years ago after a career of flying F–111 fighter bombers. he had learned of the existence netsuke perhaps fifteen years earlier, and his fascination with them metamorphosed from collector to hobbyist carver to his current rank of outstanding professional artist. His masterpiece “Fallen leaf” netsuke and companion ojime, Figure 12, were carved in hippo tooth. A major article about Sterling and his innovative genius appeared in INSJ Vol. 18, No 2., and further elaboration is not required here. Sterling’s studio is in his home located on Pheasant Run, Coupeville, Whidbey Island, near Puget Sound and olympic national Park in Washington state. Sterling describes it as “an idyllic setting in one of the most beautiful area of our nation, close to nature and full of inspiring notions for netsuke subjects.”
12. Fallen Leaf, Sterling, hippo tooth netsuke & ojime, 2.5 in.
Several other outstanding contemporary netsuke artists have also created wonderful netsuke featuring leaves – unfortunately too numerous to present formally in this article, but well deserving of special mention. One of them is Meigyokusai’s Boar, sleeping in fall grasses on a bed of fallen leaves. Another is Kangyoku’s Autumn Poem, Featuring maple leaves and inspired by the 9th century poem of Sarumaru Dayu: “Treading through autumn maple leaves deep in the mountains I hear the belling of the lonely stag – Then it is that autumn is sad.” Susan Wraight, the English artist now living in australia, has created a number of entrancing netsuke featuring “Down Under” animals and leaves: a nocturnal gliding possum in his nest of gum leaves, peering shyly out at a potentially hostile world; a koala satisfying its hunger with a meal of gum leaves while vigorously scratching its ear; an ape surveying gloomy skies from under the temporary shelter of a rain forest leaf. Mercifully, the last leaf of this lengthy article finally has fallen.
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