Transforming mud into art is the lifework of Busen Take Kondo. She's a diminutive 93-year-old artist from Japan, who has earned a place of distinction in the cultural life of Los Angeles's Little Tokyo. Ms. Kondo is one of only five teachers of bankei (mud sculpture). In Japan, she once instructed nobility in this transitory art form, which evolved from a similar art form, bonkei, begun in 794 AD. Bankei differs from bonkei in that it doesn't have live miniature shrubbery.
Bankei takes several hours of sculpting with fine spatulas and forks to transform mud into miniature mountains, canyons, and crevices.
The result is tray art for decorating the foyers of affluent Japanese households.
``It is a work of the heart,'' says Kondo, who learned the art as a young woman in Sapporo, northern Japan.
``It is worth no money.''
Kondo's career didn't begin until she was 57, after her husband was killed in a fireworks explosion. Until that time, he had refused to allow her to continue her special form of art.
``He was a bad husband and wouldn't be tolerated now, but then there was no choice,'' she says. Following his death, she attended art school in Tokyo.
Kondo has no bitterness about her former marriage, however. She considers the struggles in her earlier life to be the foundation for the joy she has experienced in later years.
Her nearly wrinkle-free face and quiet energy testify to the calmness required by those few who practice bankei. A single small piece can take up to a day to complete. As the moisture evaporates, it crumbles within six weeks.
Kondo says this art form has become more popular in Japan in recent years with the upsurge of affluent families. But it's still rare in the United States.
Most of her students are Japanese-Americans. In the nearly 30 years she has been teaching in America, Kondo has accepted only about a dozen Americans - after careful screening. She teaches two days each week at the Japanese-American Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
``The Japanese appreciate it for its own sake,'' she says. Bankei, like the Japanese tea ceremony, is practiced to develop one's self.
``It is nonmaterialistic.''
The process is begun by placing a special mixture of mud (treated with disinfectant) on a damp tray. The sculptor uses a picture as a model.
Once it is complete, colorful grains of sand - made from ground white marble and dyed by Kondo - are sprinkled on the landscape, section by section, using a fine sifter.
After scraping away the damp newspaper that the sculpture rests on, blue and white sands are sprinkled thickly on the remaining peripheral area, forming the always-present sea. Final touches are miniature figurines.
It was during a worldwide art tour at age 65 that Kondo visited Little Tokyo at the urging of a cousin, and decided to stay in the US.
Busen Take Kondo receives no salary for her work, which keeps her busy at a studio in the cultural center six days a week.
The $30 membership fee to join the bankei club, plus $6 for lessons, pays for renting the studio.