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Japanese basketry weaves interest as fine art
TOKYO (CNN) -- In its raw form, bamboo has little financial value. So when it comes to crafts made from the woody, tropical plant, it's the skill of the artisan -- not the medium used -- that's most prized.
Now the work of Japanese basket makers is getting recognized worldwide as a fine art. But it is collectors from the West, not the Japanese, who are most fascinated with the centuries-old art, said Robert Coffland, whose gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, specializes in bamboo art.
"I felt a certain despair a few years ago," he said, "but again, the enthusiasm of museums and collectors in the West, I think, eventually feed back to Japan because sometimes things have to go out of Japan before they can be recognized and appreciated in Japan."
The price of a bamboo basket can range from $1,200 to $16,000 or more for major exhibition pieces, and they can take three to six months to complete.
The selection of the materials is extremely important, Coffland said.
"There's about 10 varieties of bamboo that people work with, and they will select from bamboo wholesalers or they'll go out in a bamboo forest and cut it themselves, and then the bamboo has to be treated and cured," he said. "The longer it cures, the harder it becomes."
Hard or supple, bamboo has a gentle quality. When it's woven, light passes through it, so it can be both transparent and solid at the same time. "You're only limited by your imagination in what you can make as an artist," Coffland said.
Some artists, he noted, don't have the immediate skills to produce a piece they envision. Because of this, they end up doing it years later, after they have become more familiar with the craft. Some projects have taken five, 10, even 20 years to accomplish, he said.
"I've heard this said by artists many times, that 'I thought about doing this 20 years ago, but I ... didn't know how to do it, and so I had to build gradually on my skills and then I could,'" Coffland said.
Coffland recalls a conversation with a prominent, 83-year-old Osaka artist, who told him: "I don't know if I've made my best piece yet, or whether my last piece will be my best piece."
Among the 25 artists Coffland works with is Yako Hodo, a caretaker for a temple who recently received the Order of Cultural Heritage. It's one of the greatest honors Japan can bestow on its artists.
Another is Higashi Takesonosai, who is 85.
"He's so healthy and so filled with artistic vitality that it just is so inspiring to be around people who have that kind of freedom of expression and that energy in their 70s and their 80s," Coffland said.
Young or old, basket makers fascinate Coffland.
"What they do with a stick of bamboo is amazing to me," he said. "Every time I come to Japan I see something that I never saw (before) in the bamboo arts, and this just fuels my curiosity."
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