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by SL Savarick

Click for a Larger View As a fine craft artisan working in a relatively new medium that has a very limited tradition from which to build a cohesive technique upon (as artisans in other fine craft mediums such as glass, fiber and ceramics have done), I find that I have taken to anchoring my craft work in the traditions of those other media. This is nothing new to polymer artisans, and in fact is one of the main things that draws me to working with polymer. But, unlike most polymer artisans currently looking to art glass (millefiore/ caning), metal work (mokume gane, loop in loop chaining), and the lapidary arts for their traditions, I have found mine in traditional asian lacquer work. The more I study the traditional lacquer arts of Japan and China the more I find parallels to my working in polymer.

When I speak of traditional asian lacquer, I am not speaking of varnish or shellac as we in the west think. The use of these terms comes from the use of the solvent based finishes that were employed by westerners to imitate traditional asian lacquer from about 1700 to about 1930. The difference between what we in the west call lacquer and what The Japanese developed is that the western product dries through evaporation and Japanese lacquer hardens or polymerizes.

I am very fortunate to have a friend who just happens to be an art Conservator and restorer whose specialty just happens to be Japanese woodblock prints and lacquer-ware, and, who just happens to own one of the largest privately held collections of 14th through 19th century Japanese Inro and netsuke in North America. He also just happens to live 30 minutes away! So, I have been very lucky to not only have full access to his extensive library, but have also been able to spend time studying and examining actual inro and other antique lacquer-ware up close. The first time I held one in my hand I was amazed at how light it was, very much like Polymer.

Click for a Larger View Actually, lacquer is a natural polymer. It is derived from the non-resinous sap of the rhus verniciflua tree and in Japanese is refereed to as urushi. A side note - the rhus verniciflua tree is a member of the genus that includes poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Touching raw lacquer, or sometimes just inhaling its fumes, will often result in a toxic reaction that causes an external and/or internal rash for those who are sensitive to it. Since I am one of those people that only has to look at a poison ivy, oak or sumac plant to become a red blistery itching mess, the likelihood that I would ever work with true urushi is pretty low. But in using modern polymer, and employing similar techniques and other materials, I find that I can create works that are in many ways similar to traditional Asian lacquer, not only visually, but in construction as well. And, since polymer and traditional Asian lacquer are similar in chemical make up, it is not a stretch to call my work modern lacquer-ware©. I have done a lot of studying of traditional Japanese inro and lacquer arts in the past 9 months, and have found the parallels between polymer clay and traditional lacquer to be a perfect fit.

Click for a Larger View Polymer artisans Gwen Gibson, Jacqueline Lee, and Dan Cormier are the three artist that have influenced me the most, and have led me to my study of traditional Asian lacquer. When I was exploring what I wanted to do with polymer, I was drawn to their work. This in turn led me to my friend the Asian art curator and the rest is history.

While I currently make boxes of all shapes and sizes inspired by forms found in traditional asian lacquer-ware, it is the inro that I am most drawn to. What is an inro? It's a device for carrying small objects by a people who had no pockets. It's a small nest of boxes skillfully fitted into one another and suspended by silk cords that pass through a sliding bead called the ojime, then, under the sash {obi), at the top edge, held in place by a toggle called a netsuke. The ojime could be moved up the cords to allow the boxes of the inro to open, or down to insure that the boxes stayed tightly closed.

We call the inro a "medicine box", but the literal translation of the word is "seal basket," suggesting that originally the inro was used for carrying personal seals and the accompanying ink pad. However, it is generally agreed that the main function of the inro as we know it became that of holding the patent medicines and drugs beloved of the Japanese. The earlier seal and ink boxes are referred to as proto inro by art historians, and I like that distinction as well.

One of my goals for my current work is to create inro that are as functional for our needs today as they were for their users 250 years ago - kind of like the new "fanny pack". At first the inro was worn only by men of the upper classes, but as the nineteenth century advanced it was worn by anyone who could afford to buy so expensive an item - becoming, in effect, a kind of jewelry for people denied any personal adornment by Japan's strict sumptuary laws. Probably only rarely would it have been worn by women; for a time the many layers of the fashionable female costume would hardly allow it, and later the style of the very wide, tightly fitted female obi made its use impossible.

Click Here for More About the Inro

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