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Break Down the Tradition, Create the New Art: A challenge for the future

Walking the narrow way between river and forests for a few minutes, we came upon two structures: this scenery gave us a mysterious feeling as if we were in a fairy tale. There is in the forest of Wajima City, in Ishikawa Prefecture. In this forest one woman lives. Her name is Suzanne Ross, who is a lacquer ware craftsman. Within two buildings, one is her workshop, the other is her home. In her garden around the workplace, there were several kinds of trees such as kiwi and peach, and in addition, there is a lacquer tree. This tree was planted 12 years ago and by this summer it grew by around 1.5m. Suddenly when I saw this tiny trunk, I felt a strong indication that it would lead the Wajima lacquer ware in the future.

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Natsumi Suzanne Ross_2
Ms. Suzanne Ross came to Japan to study Wajima Lacquer ware from England 25 years ago, just before the collapse of ‘bubble’ economy in Japan. After graduating from the Wajima lacquer ware training center, she started to work in this place. The thick pillars that were erected from the solid base made of soil and the thicker beams of the structure reminded us naturally that the workplace building had been used as a cattle-shed. Because of that, this workshop had little damage despite the earthquake in Noto peninsula eight years ago.

In her workshop there were lots of her works such as jewelry and kitchen-ware. Her desire is to combine the skills of Wajima lacquer ware and others like jewelry making, and then to pursue new ideas about Wajima lacquer ware. From the viewpoint as a non-Japanese, she wants to show lacquer wares to people from many other countries who have different cultural backgrounds.

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Natsumi Suzanne Ross_4
Through this visit, I admired her attempts to break down stereotypical ideas. The re-use of the cattle-shed of course should be noted, in addition, it can be seen in her works that many do not follow the traditional rules for example a person who has rocks between their ears, and it reminded us of the possibilities for the lacquer ware in the future, not only in Wajima but all over Japan. Among her works, her design of mortuary tablets, Ihai in Japanese, impressed me the most. Each tablet had a wing-shaped figure with different pale colors. We Japanese use them for the deceased and put them on Buddhist altars. In the Japanese common sense, the shape should always be a rectangle and the color should be black. I’ve never seen any other shaped or colored tablets in my life. For her, black and square tablets reminded her of ‘death’. She thought, however, tablets were the kinds of memorials which should fill us with the memories of that person. According to her idea, tablets should not be associated with death as they make us sad. I can agree with her point of view, because the tablets don’t have to incur thought of sadness one: it is only the Japanese that have instilled them with awful feelings during their history and culture. Japanese, including me, tend to think naturally that the mortuary tablets should be made in black-squared shape as this is the custom, however, I think actually there is no rule that should be in that way.

Now it might be the time that foreign cultures to revive Japanese traditional culture. Ms. Suzanne gave us important insights to break down the barriers around traditional culture for a sustainable future.