Bamboo Brush Pot
Across Asia, bamboo is a commonly used material. Kids will learn about the material of bamboo, wabi-sabi Japanese aesthetics, and organic forms and naturally occurring imperfections. Expanding beyond the realm of bamboo, students will also consider the artist’s relationship with the land through material usage and working with natural elements.
We interact with our environment in myriad ways. We are part of an intricate ecosystem that is inextricably linked together. We understand those links in a cross-disciplinary manner. We identify our impact, limit damage, conserve, and restore our world.
- This how-to facilitation guide (includes information on theme and individual artworks, links for background research, and video demonstrating the art project)
- Links to high-resolution images of the artwork
- Teaching slides with condensed information and discussion questions: Elementary and Middle/High School
- Artists' Relationship With the Environment
- Beauty, the Bamboo Brush Pot, and Japanese Aesthetics
- What is Beauty?
- Slide 4
- About the Material: Bamboo
- Slide 6
- Slide 7
- Activity Extension
- Your Turn
Artists' Relationship With the Environment
Artists have been depicting our natural environment for centuries. The landscape’s appearance in art was meant either to evoke awe for our natural world or to be a background subject for the documentation of human narratives. In the 21st century, art admirers and artists have noted rising global concerns surrounding the state of the environment’s health and the impact humans have on it. While many artists have started creating works in collaboration with the physical world to draw attention to ecological issues, we, as viewers, can use the lens of environmental consciousness to look at all works of art regardless of a artist’s original intention.
We can investigate human relationships with the environment by noticing artists’ appreciation for nature, looking for documentation of our impact on the ecosystem, identifying processes when artists seem to work in harmony with the natural environment or to disrupt it, and discussing artists’ desires to respond to environmental challenges.
In this lesson, we consider how beauty and the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi highlights an appreciation of organic forms and naturally occurring imperfections.
Wabi-sabi is a subtle and complex idea encompassing a peacefulness and beauty that comes with age, the impermanence of things, rustic simplicity, and the quietness that can be found in nature, people, and objects. The term wabi-sabi is used to describe things that are pleasingly imperfect; however, the term is not applied to just any imperfect thing.
Introduce the terms wabi-sabi and kawaii (the culture of cuteness); then watch Denver Art Museum Through a Different Lens: Horticulturalist Discusses Bamboo Brush Pot Discuss the Bamboo Brush Pot using the guide below.
Beauty, the Bamboo Brush Pot, and Japanese Aesthetics
Bamboo Brush Pot is made from two stalks of bamboo that have been fused together. This could have been a completely natural mutation, or the growth of the plant could have been manipulated by humans as it grew. Regardless, while this plant is seemingly “imperfect,” the artist saw value in its organic form and purposefully selected it for this brush pot/artwork. The balance between organic, imperfect forms and carefully calculated human intervention is a key part of the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi. Another example of this aesthetic can be seen in the Japanese garden in the video. Ebi Kondo, curator of the Japanese garden, and his team intentionally balance nature and human intervention. The gardens are inspired by nature but are deliberately planned and manipulated to appear the way they do.
What is Beauty?
The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but our perception of beauty is often guided by cultural influences. Standards for aesthetics (how something looks) change from one region to the next; what one community admires might be repulsive to another group of people. Beauty is a personal preference, but it is also connected to our various cultures.
Many traditional Japanese styles and art forms fall under the aesthetic category of wabi-sabi and embrace both imperfection and impermanence in different ways.
- Ikebana: the Japanese art of floral arrangement shaped by ideas of preservation and nature
- Kintsugi: the practice of highlighting the repairs of broken pottery using gold. What do we know about how beauty is viewed within the wabi-sabi and kawaii concepts?
- Raku ceramics: a firing process by which the clay is rapidly heated, then removed from the kiln and placed into a cold chamber, such as a vat of sawdust or cold water. The shock to the ceramic creates cracks in the glazed surface, which are later accentuated.
- Kawaii: a style of cuteness which often includes characteristics such as giant eyes, rounded shapes, and simplistic features.
About the Material: Bamboo
Bamboo grows abundantly in Asia, and the native plant is admired for its beauty and usefulness. In addition to its availability, bamboo is a resilient plant—a grove can last for over a hundred years. A single stalk may live up to 15 years depending on the species. Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on the planet; in fact, one species of bamboo can actually grow 35 inches per day (or 1.5 inches per hour). Bamboo’s resiliency, abundance, and growth rate contribute to its sustainable nature, but it also has incredible versatility. It is lightweight yet strong and is used in weaving, floors, scaffolding, bridges, furniture, art, and so much more.
In China, Japan, and Korea, bamboo is regarded as a symbol of virtue and friendship (humble because it is hollow, and flexible because of its versatility). Historically, scholars considered bamboo’s upright, resilient character a symbol of virtue as well.
Bamboo objects are enjoyed by people of all ages and every status. It is used to make items for a scholar’s study, containers for flower arrangements, implements used in the tea ceremony, sculptures, and countless everyday objects. Many contemporary artists continue traditional techniques for carving and weaving bamboo, while others explore new ways to use this adaptable material so that the art of bamboo remains a defining element across all of Asia today.
The culm, or hollow stalk, is frequently used for containers, with its exterior surface carved in relief.
The texture of the culm’s inner skin is suitable for inscribing fine imagery and writing, while strips of bamboo are skillfully prepared and woven into intricate patterns.
The underground portion of the stalk, the rhizome (sometimes mistakenly called the root), is frequently used for carving three-dimensional sculptures.
Take time to explore these other bamboo artworks at the Denver Art Museum:
- The plant's anatomy is often taken advantage of in bamboo carvings. Can you see how the natural shape of the plant itself has dictated the form in these other bamboo objects?
- What parts of the bamboo plant do you think they were made from?
- Artists can use all parts of the bamboo plant to create with. Can you think of any other practices that also use all parts of a natural resource?
- What might be an advantage to using many parts of a natural material?
Contemporary Bamboo Practice
Contemporary bamboo artists have developed new styles and forms of expression challenging earlier conventions in bamboo craftsmanship. Often these artist’s artworks take on dynamic modern forms, while some are created simply to explore the limits of bamboo as a medium. An example of this can be seen in Basket Chair by Isamu Noguchi and Isamu Kenmochi. The traditional weaving of bamboo, inspired by the form of the Japanese fish basket, is combined with a modern aesthetic.
Fujinuma Noboru is another contemporary artist working with bamboo. Basket is an example of his work at the Denver Art Museum. In 2012 he was named a Living National Treasure (Ningen Kokuhō) for his bamboo art. Noboru seeks something essentially Japanese in bamboo art. He sources bamboo from the forests near his home in Ōtawara, Tochigi Prefecture, about a hundred miles north of Tokyo, and utilizes its delicacy and strength in his pieces. He says that ki (energy) is “the underlying theme” in his works, which he believes “come alive” through actual use. They often feature twisted clusters of bamboo strips, a technique he pioneered.
Much like other artists working with nature’s imperfections, Noboru says that artwork made with this bamboo not only has expressions of its creator but also the unique expression of the material. He says that each single bamboo material has its own unique character, and, in the end, is what drives the creator. That is why every single artwork is unique in its own right.
Inspired by the aesthetic of wabi-sabi and these bamboo artworks, we will inspect and celebrate our own relationships with the environment by responding to nature/natural elements in art. In this creative challenge, students will create an artwork inspired by a natural phenomenon or oddity.
- Go outside—this could be a city block, a school yard, a back yard, or even a park. Print or reference this journal page to guide your exploration and search for interesting natural imperfections (e.g., a knot in a tree, a funny-shaped rock, a butterfly missing part of its wing, etc.). Capture the beauty on your walk by sketching and/or photographing. Make sure you jot down why you were drawn to this imperfection so that you remember.
- It’s time to transform your nature walk notes into a work of art. Choose one or two “perfect imperfections” as inspiration. Why do you think this caught your eye during your nature walk?
- Create a work of art that celebrates the imperfections in a unique way and, at the same time, tells a story about you or your relationship with nature. (This can be done in many forms—collage, painting, drawing, mixed media. Think about how your choice of material conveys your message.)
- Display and share your works of art!
The DAM established Creativity Resource thanks to a generous grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Featured activities are supported by funding from the Tuchman Family Foundation, The Freeman Foundation, The Virginia W. Hill Foundation, Sidney E. Frank Foundation – Colorado Fund, Colorado Creative Industries, Margulf Foundation, Riverfront Park Community Foundation, Lorraine and Harley Higbie, an anonymous donor, and the residents who support the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD). Special thanks to our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education. The Free for Kids program at the Denver Art Museum is made possible by Scott Reiman with support from Bellco Credit Union.