This is Oxford Anagama in Wytham Woods…
A magnificent craft tradition
If you go down to the woods today you’re in for a big surprise!
You might not find a teddy bears’ picnic but you look out for the makings of a Japanese tea ceremony amongst the trees in Wytham Woods.
This is Oxford Anagama, one of Oxford University’s Art and Science research projects in which Wytham artists-in-residence, printmakers Robin Wilson and Rosie Cholmeley- Fairfax, are collaborating with acclaimed British potter Jim Keeling, from Whichford Pottery near Chipping Norton, and top Japanese potters from Bizen, a city that faces the sea on the southern coast of Japan and is renowned for its ancient tradition of pottery.
Together they are building two traditional Japanese kilns amongst the trees in an area of ancient semi-natural woodland to the west of Oxford
Anagama kilns are traditional singlechambered, wood-fired kilns constructed on a slope from clay or firebricks, and they are characteristic of this Japanese ceramics town, the home of unglazed tea ceremony ware.
The first of the Oxford Anagama Kilns in Wytham Woods is a re-creation of early Anagama kilns from the late twelfth century, based on archaeological research and adapted to Oxfordshire materials: an eight metre long woven willow tunnel has been covered in refractory clay and fired to burn out the willow interior structure leaving a baked clay shell, which can then be used as the kiln.
The second and larger of the two kilns is still under construction for an inaugural firing towards the end of the year. In contrast, it will be a sophisticated modern successor to the willow kiln, constructed of fire bricks by a team of specialist Japanese kiln builders.
For centuries, Japan was home to a magnificent craft tradition you’ll find celebrated in Oxford’s museums today. The Ashmolean houses Japanese paintings, woodblock prints, a collection of 17th and 18th-century Japanese porcelain and rugged tea ceremony wares, while in the Pitt Rivers Museum there’s a fascinating collection of ordinary and extraordinary artefacts, from decorated fans, a grass snow-cloak to a lacquered humming top, samurai armour and a stunning set of masks portraying demons, heroes, dragons and emperors made for theatrical performances centuries ago.
After the European ‘discovery’ of Japan in the mid-1800s, Japanese prints, ceramics, lacquerware and textiles became hugely fashionable in Europe, and Japonism is a term used to describe the influence of Japanese art, fashion and aesthetics on Western culture, and its influence on European art, particularly in Impressionism.
Woodcut prints by Japanese masters also transformed European art of the time by demonstrating that simple everyday subjects and common events could be presented in appealingly decorative ways, the qualities of the Japanese aesthetic including elongated pictorial formats, asymmetrical compositions, aerial perspectives and spaces emptied of all but abstract elements of colour and line, and decorative motifs. And Victorian homes filled with Japanese decorative arts and crafts as people aspired to live in beautiful surroundings.
Less known than the other art forms, spectacular ornamental textiles were made for western homes during the Meiji era (1868– 1912) with exquisite embroideries, tapestries and appliqué pieces created for interior decoration and as art objects, and using a freehand application of paste Yuzen silk was dyed to create incredible pictorial designs in which colours mingle as it from watercolor. The details with which petals and leaves, feathers and fish scales were depicted in these elaborate textiles appealed to the Victorian appreciation of technical skill. Birds, fish, flowers and landscapes were most common in the Japanese art enjoyed by the west, and the love of nature depicted a harmony with the natural world which was a welcome contrast to the harshness of the industrialised West.
More than a hundred years later, local fashion designer and textile artist Kate Turnbull, from Brill on the Oxfordshire/ Buckinghamshire border, is working on an exciting new collaboration with The Ashmolean Museum, inspired by textiles from the Meiji era, spellbound by the fragility and beauty of the ornamental silks from 19th Century Japan where every thread was lovingly hand-spun, hand-dyed and handstitched.
While studying for an MA in experimental textiles from St Martin’s School of Art, Kate fell in love with the alchemy of fabric manipulation; inventing and innovating surfaces using unusual chemicals combined with techniques both traditional and ancient. Working in at the cutting edge of couture, her avante garde fabrics graced the catwalks of London Fashion week as clothes designed by Alexander McQueen and worn by Kate Moss.
Now, given rare access to The Ashmoleans hidden archival treasures, Kate has been using her artistic talent to bring images from their Meiji collection to the public with a silk cushion range stocked by both The Ashmolean and Liberty, London.
Also inspired by traditional botanical illustrations and collections of herbaria, Kate Turnbull also prints a range of contemporary fabrics, depicting the form, colour and details of various plant species.
‘Surrounded by technology, we spend less time outdoors and hence our understanding of the importance of plants is dwindling.
My intention is to re-awaken our interest in all things botanical, through combining this ancient theme with cutting edge printing techniques,’ explains Kate. ‘I have used a mixed-media approach to the prints, combining heatreactive inks with more traditional silk-screen printing methods in an attempt to bring to life some of the most simple plant forms. The halo effect created by the heat-press process gives the botanicals an ethereal quality, aimed to entice the viewer while giving the plant a sense of mystery and importance. Some of the botanicals are overlaid on hand-painted grounds of silk.’
Oxford artist Takashi Sawano, uses flowers themselves to create art pieces, through ikebana, a disciplined art form steeped in the philosophy of developing a closeness with nature. Takashi’s monochrome ink painting (suiboku-ga) is characterized by bold and soft brush strokes and subtle graduations of tone, and his inspiration drawn from classical poems, the meaning and spirit of which he captures on white rice paper using black ink in time-honored tradition.
And overlaying images of Oxford and Oxfordshire with those from contemporary Japan, emerging artist Gena Johns uses her work to explore the dichotomy of these two geographically disparate worlds. Growing up in Banbury with Japanese heritage, Gena’s art highlights the contrasts of the more recent past and the present, as she takes photos of the locations of her childhood memories and uses these to create 3D hand-cut photographic collages & digital collages printed onto wood.
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