Giving an Ancient Craft a Modern Feel

SUSAN WRAIGHT'S card describes her as ``a carver of netsuke and other miniatures.'' Her subjects - usually carved in boxwood - have included such things as a goose, an octopus, a monkey, a starfish opening a clam, three shells with seaweed over them, a running dog, a mandarin duck. All these are perfectly in line with the kinds of subject favored by some of the netsuke carvers in Japan during the Edo period. The quality of Wraight's carving is extraordinary; her imagination, stimulated by natural life and form, is acute and serious. Emphatically - as she herself puts it with a laugh - she is ``not a fluffy-bunny person!''

Her octopus is certainly not a cuddly toy. To her ``octopi are fascinating: their form, the way they move, the way they slither.'' A netsuke - because, historically, it was an article of dress - is not a sculpture designed to sit on a table. ``That,'' says Wraight in an interview, ``is one of the reasons I make seven or eight models'' (in plasticine or clay) ``before I even start carving into the wood - because it's important that it works from all angles.''

A contemporary netsuke is made, she reckons, ``to be picked up and held and turned over and over, so there's no underside, no front, no back .... I also like the fact that if it is standing on a flat table ... there is that automatic assumption that the faces you can't see are less important, so I deliberately sometimes ... make them more important on the sides you naturally consider inferior.''

With the octopus, ``when you pick it up and turn it over there's that great writhing mass of tentacles and a fish - the narrative is immediately apparent - you can see that the octopus has caught a fish and is in the process of devouring it. I enjoy that. I made a toad sitting on a broken flowerpot at one time. And it wasn't until you picked it up and turned it over that you saw the beetle cowering under the flowerpot.'' She adds: ``It can, if you're not careful, become cutesy. I abhor cutesiness or anthropomorphism in the carvings and I strive to get an unsentimental view of nature.''

There is unquestionably a tendency in some antique netsuke toward the macabre and grotesque. Wraight, however, differentiates between the macabre and the unsentimental. She is not interested in the macabre. ``I view my carvings very much as a celebration of the creation, if you like, and yet at the same time I do feel it's important for me not to be sentimental.''

She finds crustaceans fascinating (as one might expect an incisive, crisp carver to do) ``with all those wonderful joints and articulation - and things with claws and scales and feathers.... As well as being intellectually satisfying and challenging technically to carve, it also means that ... they don't have a welter of sentimental associations.'' If someone, on the other hand, ``picks up a fluffy-bunny, they go `Aaah!' and they don't see what I'm trying to say about a rabbit, they see all the associations they have had with a bunny when they were little, and Walt Disney, and everything that Western society says about fluffy bunnies. This can happen a great deal with mammals. It's very hard not to give them big melting eyes and make them look flirtatious.''

Born in Britain but living now in Victoria, Australia, Wraight says that netsuke became her ``big love'' at art college - where she went, in 1980, to do jewelry. By the time she left she had already started carving netsuke. ``But because I thought it was an anachronism and that nobody was interested in contemporary work,'' she instead made miniature carvings that were netsuke but without the himotoshi - without the cord holes that were an essential part of the traditional netsuke worn in 18th and 19th century Japan.

Later Wraight discovered that fully fledged modern netsuke - the whole works even, with inro, himo, himotoshi, ojime and netsuke - were acceptable (and saleable) collectors' items, and that they were being made today by non-Japanese carvers like herself as much, if not more, than Japanese ones. ``I've been carving for ten years now, and making netsuke for about four.''

Collectors do not collect modern or antique netsuke to wear, but modern carvers still make them ``so that they could be worn.... I think,'' says Wraight, ``that any serious collector would look at the function as being a very important part of it. I think that's what intrigues me most about netsuke: the fact that the carvers had to juggle those two requirements'' (that is, the functional and the aesthetic).

Netsuke are ``miniature sculptures'' on the one hand - and their intimacy appeals to Wraight, as well as the capacity she admires in some of the great netsuke carvers of the past to invest such a small object with gigantic sculptural power. On the other hand, traditionally, a netsuke had to be ``compact so that there are no little protruding pieces to catch in a busy theater or in a street. They had to be comfortable when you wore them so that there are no sharp little edges to stick into you as you lean back into a seat. They couldn't be too heavy. The little himotoshi had to be positioned in such a place that it didn't mar the visual aspect of the carving, but it held the thing well, it held the cord, it balanced properly: all sorts of functional requirement.''

What Wraight is trying to do is add her own contribution, as a Western carver, to the Japanese tradition. ``From the cultural standpoint,'' she feels, ``it would be meaningless for me to imitate what's gone before, so I am taking that as a starting point.''

While she is clearly challenged by the peculiar requirements of an old craft or art form, and derives obvious satisfaction from the skills involved, what she has to say about the minute details in her work is significant: ``The detail I use can be quite elaborate at times, but it's very carefully placed to draw the eye around the carving. It's not there purely for the sake of saying `Wow! Look at my technique!' I do try to resist that. No amount of carefully worked detail is going to hide a badly conceived form. If I just indulge in technique for its own sake, it's a form of conceit, and I think it renders the piece sterile .... I want people to look at what I'm saying and not how I've said it.''

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