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Strokes of Genius and Gratitude: The Calligraphy of Souun Takeda

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Souun Takeda applying ink to paper; Photo by Edward Hames; Courtesy of the artist and the Porch Gallery Ojai
Souun Takeda applying ink to paper; Photo by Edward Hames; Courtesy of the artist and the Porch Gallery Ojai

Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.

It was no ordinary exhibition opening reception at the Porch Gallery Ojai in late June. The gallery walls were hung with large sheets of exquisite handmade paper bearing black ink Japanese characters. A smiling young Japanese calligrapher wearing brown traditional samue (the work jacket and pants of Buddhist monks) greeted guests by painting characters onto their hands of their favorite word. Later in the evening, he unrolled a long sheet of paper and asked guests to provide words for him to write. He translated the requests into Japanese and transcribed them in bold brushstrokes onto the sheet. At the end of the live performance, it started to rain. This brought screams of excitement and joy to all who were witness. The artist's name is Souun Takeda and "Souun" means "twin clouds." On the label for his "Cloud" piece that hangs in the gallery window he wrote, "I love clouds and rain, and of course the beautiful blue sky in Ojai. My heart aches from the terrible drought California is experiencing. May the clouds bring a blessing of rain to all living things in California."

Takeda is one of Japan's foremost calligraphers. He has been visiting Ojai for the last three years and has fallen in love with the nature, energy and spirit of the town, so much that he chose to have his first U.S. exhibition here. Although Takeda lives and works in Japan and his art form and its materials are Japanese, he wanted the work for his exhibition to be emotionally connected to Ojai. So, in preparation for the exhibition, he laid out handmade Echizen washi paper that he brought from Japan on the gallery floor, readied his assortment of bamboo brushes and specially formulated ink and set to work. The dramatic characters that appeared on the sheets within seconds -- peace, love, gratitude and balance (amongst others) -- are expressions of his own emotions as an artist, and his feelings about the artistic and spiritual oasis that Ojai represents to him.

Souun Takeda at "Balance" exhibition opening reception, Ojai, June 27 2015. | Photo: Atma Cornelius; courtesy of the artist and Porch Gallery Ojai.
Souun Takeda at "Balance" exhibition opening reception, Ojai, June 27 2015. | Photo: Atma Cornelius; courtesy of the artist and Porch Gallery Ojai.

Gallery co-director Lisa Casoni said, "When we work with artists, Heather (Stobo) and I either see work that is in progress of an artist or completed pieces and we curate the show from that physical starting point. With Souun, we entered the process through his emotional state. It was very important for him to be in Ojai to create this body of work based around the feelings of balance, appreciation, and joy that he experiences in the valley. As a result, he painted every piece in the gallery the week before the exhibition opened. Without the finished works to discuss, we curated his feelings. The show literally starts with 'Love' and ends with 'Hope.'"

In East Asia, calligraphy is the most highly regarded of all art forms, the pinnacle of cultural, intellectual and spiritual expression. For centuries, nobles, scholars and priests in China, Japan, Korea and other nearby cultures have formed characters, words, phrases and poems in the brushstrokes most fitting to their message -- rigid, square strokes for official edicts, delicate and cursive lines for love poetry, and bold, spontaneous strokes for words intended to spark spiritual enlightenment. In these cultures, it is often said that the brush is an extension not only of the artist's arm but also of the spirit, and that the strokes formed reflect the artist's very essence. In Japanese calligraphy, the characters are Chinese in origin and are known as kanji or "Chinese characters." Since around the 7th century, many thousands of kanji have been used in both regular script and calligraphy, as well as a two separate syllabic scripts called kana, which represent Japanese sounds and grammatical elements. Ever since, being able to write beautifully in any of Japan's scripts and calligraphic styles has been considered a sign of both cultural and spiritual sophistication.

Installation of the works "Cloud" and "Present Present" by Souun Takeda at Porch Gallery, Ojai, 2015. | Photo: Edward Hames; courtesy of the artist and Porch Gallery.
Installation of the works "Cloud" and "Present Present" by Souun Takeda at Porch Gallery, Ojai, 2015. | Photo: Edward Hames; courtesy of the artist and Porch Gallery.

Although Japanese painting, printmaking, lacquer and ceramics have long been appreciated in the West, calligraphy may be the least appreciated of Japanese art forms. To truly understand it, a viewer needs to be able to read the language. Nevertheless, in Japan even today, in the age of computers, texting and the increasing use of English, the art form is still highly regarded. As children, all Japanese learn shuji, or writing characters with a brush at school. And many adults still take lessons in calligraphy to improve their handwriting and as a means of studying a traditional art form. Every year, calligraphy exhibitions are held all over the country, and there are many professional calligraphers in Japan who not only teach the skill but are hired by corporations and graphic design firms to create logos, posters and labels for their products. A bottle of sake, or rice wine, for example, might feature one or two characters in expressive calligraphy on its label to suggest the nature of the drink inside -- perhaps bold and lively, elegantly smooth or just reassuringly traditional.

Character "Kumo" ("Cloud") by Souun Takeda, 2015, "sumi" ink on "washi" paper. | Photo: Edward Hames; courtesy of Porch Gallery, Ojai.
Character "Kumo" ("Cloud") by Souun Takeda, 2015, "sumi"ink on "washi" paper. | Photo: Edward Hames; courtesy of Porch Gallery, Ojai.

Takeda is based in Kumamoto on the island of Kyushu in southwestern Japan. His mother Souyou Takeda is also a professional calligrapher and at age three he was already trying his hand with the brush and ink. After graduating from college, he worked for a telecom company but left corporate employment after three years to devote himself to art, and specifically calligraphy. To Takeda, calligraphy is the most spiritual of all art forms, since it requires a combination of skill and the creator's energy and spirit. As an artist, he hopes to "sow the seeds of joyful living and to create a cycle of gratitude for the whole human family." For almost 15 years, he has worked tirelessly in his medium, creating work for numerous solo and group exhibitions in Japan, writing many instructional books, and receiving regular commissions from companies as diverse as Nissan, Toshiba and Kleenex. His calligraphy is seen all over Japan on opera and theater posters, stone monuments, juice cartons, magazine and book covers and even bowls of instant ramen. A short film of his calligraphy entitled "Seed" was made for UNIQLO's Davos World Economic Forum "Future T-shirt" presentation in 2009. His work is held in such high regard by his country that at the age of 40, he has been hired by the Japanese government as a cultural envoy and sent to countries in Southeast Asia to promote Japanese culture.

"Kansha" ("Gratitude") by Souun Takeda, Hanoi, Vietnam, 2013. "Sumi" ink on canvas. | Photo: Souun Takeda's Facebook page.

There are many accomplished contemporary calligraphers working in Japan today, but what makes Takeda's calligraphy unique is the intense emotion that energizes his work. In some of his larger works, created using hefty bamboo brushes, his strokes are often so laden with ink and emotion that the ink actually drips down the paper. In others, he omits the brush entirely, eagerly applying ink to paper with his bare hands. He can also work with both hands, which is highly unusual in a country where left-handed people are generally forced to conform to the norm and write with their right hand. In fact, Takeda recently posted on Facebook, "I realized that if I don't try to use my right hand, I naturally use my left hand when I create my works." He also experiments with different types of ink to achieve textures that are not common in works of traditional or even contemporary calligraphy and works with paper makers in Echizen to create unique washi ("Japanese paper"). Included in his Ojai exhibition is a sheet that is so thin it appears ghostly, while another has Swiss cheese-like holes that playfully complement the lively characters he brushes onto the paper. In addition, unlike most calligraphers who remain in Japan with their work, Takeda has chosen to take his art to the U.S. where there is still very little appreciation of this art form, even though many of the American abstract expressionists of the 1960s such as Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline and David Smith were inspired by the dynamic strokes and energetic rhythms of this art form. Many artists since then have continued to emulate the form and energy of Japanese calligraphy but their images continue to be abstract, without the meaning of actual ideographic characters.

For Takeda the meaning and intention are the most critical aspects of his calligraphy. Through his work, he hopes to create a "wave of well-being and gratitude will spread exponentially through our global society, and eventually build a more peaceful, better world." To him, painting the character for peace WA ( å??) is not simply an artistic act but a spiritual one. By writing the character with a heart full of peace, he can create art that can help spread peace to others.

One of the works at the forefront of his exhibition is the two-character inscription meaning gratitude or appreciation painted on very fragile washi. In his early 40s, being able to make his art every day, live in his home town and also travel and work in Southern California in the unique environment of Ojai, Takeda is overwhelmed by a sense of appreciation, a feeling he hopes to spread worldwide. Judging by the enthusiastic response to his exhibition at the Porch Gallery Ojai, his brush has already begun to work its magic.

Sooun Takeda's exhibition "Balance" at the Porch Gallery Ojai runs from June 25 through August 2, 2015. More of Takeda's work can be found at the Porch Gallery website and at his website. He can be followed on Facebook here and here.

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