Shinya Yamamura’s exquisitely lacquered tea utensils blend influences that would seem irreconcilable to most. But Yamamura creates harmony out of a craft vocabulary that is simultaneously contemporary and Western and traditional and Japanese. His mystically beautiful urushi takes the ancient Japanese tradition of urushi into the 21st-century.
Urushi, Japanese wood lacquer, dates back 9,000 years to the Jomon period. The lacquer is from the sap of the Japanese Rhus Vernicifera three. The lacquer technique is commonly used to finish wooden and earthen vessels. Lacquer also serves as a strong adhesive when it is wet, and artisans can apply either maki-e (gold powder); chinkin (gold foil) or raden (mother of pearl inlays) to create decorative designs of flowers and animals. Other traditional materials include eggshell and abalone.
Yamamura, who has a strong following in the United States (his pieces have been collected by Florence and Herbert Irving, and will be part of the Asian lacquer collection at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art) became interested in urushi when he was still a graduate student in industrial design. While attending an arts and crafts exhibit, he discovered a jet black lacquered box with a delicate eggshell inlay of a white heron— which turned out to be the catalyst of his attraction to lacquered work.
His fascination led him to Kanazawa, known worldwide for its handicrafts, to study and master the art of urushi. Between his traditional studies, and his perusal of American crafts magazines, Yamamura began to shape his signature style. He says, "I found so many ideas through these magazines, and I thought that they were so fresh and exciting. I guess I was inspired a lot from American culture."
After learning the basic process—which has at least fifty painting and lacquering stages—Yamamura learned to push the boundaries of urushi, to take tradition and layer upon it his own personal style. The process he has invented for himself is an arduous one that involves more than one hundred steps to achieve a finished piece. He starts with a prototype, and from there he moves onto making the container from Hinoki cypress. Multiple steps of sanding, grinding, painting follow – culminating in the addition of numerous materials to decorate the wet lacquered surface.
Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand, Yamamura's recent urushi vessel collection, was named by a colleague who was inspired by a line in William Blake's poem, Auguries of Innocence:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
The poem's essence, according to Yamamura, is similar to the formal Japanese tea ceremony in that it acknowledges the complete microcosm presented in every object or event that enters an aware, enlightened consciousness. Yamamura has created a multitude of tiny universes in his tea containers and incense boxes – all which have a place in the traditional tea ceremony – thus creating an infinity within an infinity.
Currently, Yamamura is finishing a collection of small decorative boxes that back at ancient Inro—a traditional artisan-made Japanese case for holding small objects popular during the Edo and Meiji periods. For future projects, Yamamura plans to focus on the concept of prayer, using urushi as his medium. He will create objects that can be used in prayers by groups of people or individuals.
By applying ancient craft techniques along with his vision of spirituality and aesthetics, Yamamura's definitive goal is to create art that "lifts people's spirits and that can go beyond any point in time and space."
Shinya Yamamura is represented in NYC and Tokyo by Ippodo Gallery; see www.ippodogallery.com.
Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand
Shinya Yamamura’s ancient (and contemporary) lacquer