INTERVIEW - August 10, 2019

Interview with OGAWA Izan: My goal is still ahead. I want to make a new era as Hokusai did.

On the second interview with PURE SHODO, we meet OGAWA Izan, who is a calligrapher, artist, and expression educator. He has just finished his solo exhibition in July though, he is creating his works at a high pace to hold his next exhibition in October. This year 2019 is the big milestone as the 50th anniversary since he started his career of calligraphy. After we observed his class, listened about his sophisticated philosophy about calligraphy which made through over a half-century, and looked back his life. (The title of this interview, “Gukou Izan 愚公移山” is a quote from Liezi 列子 (Daoism text), which means persevering effort leads to success in the end, and it is originated of OGAWA's pen name Izan 移山.)



OGAWA Izan Iizan Izan workroom
Born in Nasu Karasuyama, Tochigi in 1946. Lives in Iruma, Saitama, Japan. Calligrapher, artist, expression educator. Hosting a private school of calligraphy since 1969. He leaved his calligraphy society, and is an independent calligrapher since 1987. Proposing “calligraphy utilized in daily life” and developed original guidance. Since 1997, he has held solo exhibitions and calligraphy workshops in the Czech Republic to promote cultural exchange. In 2005, he met painter Yoshitaka Tanaka and aimed at contemporary art. In 2015, broke new ground of calligraphy through encounter with a synthetic paper “Repel Paper”. His works are exhibited in Japan’s first-class hotel such as Peninsula Hotel and Chinzan-so. Currently, he organizes several private exhibitions to ask the world about his work “Imaginary” works while running “Shoshin Gakusha (school of beginner’s mind)” for expression education through calligraphy, modeling, etc. intending release of the mind of the participants of all ages, from children to adult.

-- In your classroom, it was impressive that a pupil in the second grade of elementary school made a wonderful work among other adult participants. Also, you have repeatedly said them to “utilize your works in life” in the class.

Art with Sumi ink

In my classroom, I don't want everyone to go in a same direction, so I am trying to make sure that each person can do what they want. Skill is not important. A great thing is that, everyone is different. And the important thing is each person feels “good” or “I like” in the one’s own sense. Even if you don't understand at first, as you continue writing, you will realize that you feel good when you write and that the writing fits your current situation.
We learn from classics, but there is no “objectively good classic”. Takuhon (rubbing) becomes apart from the original when it is carved into stone, and it goes further being weathered and scratched over time. Therefore, it is important that each people feel “I look like this” and “I like this”. The way they feel should be all different. It is also important for teachers to find a classic that suits the learner.
Regardless of what classic you learn, letters are created by twisting and unfolding the brush, so the basics of calligraphy and mastering it, in other words, learning how to use the brush, remain the same. Whatever else the type of sports, move of waist is important before any other body movements.
I always say to myself, “Let me write my own character, a character that I can write only at that time”. It doesn't make sense if your works are like the other person. I want the students to learn calligraphy for their own lives; in order to make use of it in the life. Here, life means activities of living. Through calligraphy, I want you to find yourself by feeling the dynamism of life, sophisticating the sense of balance necessary to live and understanding your preferences. For example, there is a word “Bunkanfuhaku (dividing spaces on a canvas)”. This is a word used to mean that the space in a character should be balanced when writing. In "calligraphy", this is usually taught as patterns of beautiful looks, but it should not be decided by others. How do you take a comfortable spaces for yourself? This can be said when you write, as well as when you keep distance from people. The way of taking the space comes out as a habit of the person. It is polished and becomes the personality of that person.
There is an another quote, “An ink represents five colors”. Polishing ink leads to knowing your favorite color and bleeding. Find out why you want to write in dark or light ink, finding a color that matches your heart. Of course, if you dilute the ink with water, if it makes sense to do so, that's fine. But the color of the ink you have polished for yourself reflects your feelings, and it makes difference in lines and light. The feeling comes in and the person of that time comes out. A great works is natural, open, and envelops people. There is a difference between good characters and skillful characters. Dexterity and skilled works doesn't always mean to impress people.


In the atelier
In the atelier

-- I think it is a wonderful philosophy. By the way, you said that you opened a private school when you were an university student. Is it the philosophy since the time of the opening?

I was born in Tochigi and my parents were doing commerce. I chose the Faculty of Economics of the university to convince parents. In fact, anything was fine as long as I could leave my home. I rarely com back to the home town, but it is still a quiet country town. The strongest thought was that I didn't want to end my life there. Although it was a student movement era, I gave my priority to finding oneself. While doing various part-time jobs, I was seriously thinking about how to live. I couldn't imagine myself getting a job after graduation. At that time, my friend introduced me to a master of calligraphy. In my mid-twenties, I became independent with one room for my classroom and another for my living. As the number of students did not increase quickly, I also worked for tutors, ramen stands, factories of lens, etc.
I needed something that I was 100% satisfied with. That happened to be calligraphy. When I look back, I liked calligraphy and music even in high school, and thought that my time had come. But I also like books, so if there was a connection there, I think the life would be different.
At that time, socially, it was natural to go to calligraphy schools. Among the schools, I instructed to write energetic and cheerful characters for the exhibition. The strict and enthusiastic teaching method was appreciated. The students improved their skills, and I showed talent of teaching, letting the students winning grand prizes in contests. I enjoy hiking every month, and more students joined my school. There were about 300 people at the most. Until becoming 41 years old, I directed to increasing classes of writing and improving the students’ performance. However, as time went by and I gradually felt strangeness in that direction.

-- What kind of strangeness did you have?

Until then, the guidance that was delighted by most people has been appreciated by some limited people. Strict and enthusiastic teaching will increase the number of children who cannot withstand the strictness, and parents will be in sync with them. Value I valued the most were no longer valid. When I realized that, I couldn't catch up with the changes. I didn’t think I ’m doing this job for anything, I was not really serious, and I was struggling. It was an experience that changed my way. It was a bubble time (Japan’s buoyant economy of 1980s). And the collapse of the bubble and collapse of my mind were the same time.

-- Looking at the profile, in 1987, you become as a freelance. Is there anything related to the collapse? How did you overcome?

It's all about staring at an immature myself. I also felt physically sick. My life which I thought as beautiful crumbled. I am not the type of person who lives well in an organization. I became alone. I was willing to go forward from there. It was like grouping in the dark. It took time.

-- That lead to the current teaching method.

It is a reconfirmation that instruction for each person in front of me is very important. I used to do it with such strength as to pull it towards me. As a result, the students gets skillful. The goal was to be as close as a model. As a result, a pupil of 4th grade in elementary school once became a teacher in a bibliography.
Now I often talk about absoluteness and relativeness. The usage of brush is fundamental. So many people, including teachers, misunderstand it as how to write characters. The writing method is not a way of writing characters, but a way of using brushes. One way to apply that training is to write characters. This is the important point. Learning to use the brush is a critical requirement. Application and development varies depending on individual preferences, so it is a relative condition. Once you know the basics of use of the brush, you understand enjoyment and value of the calligraphy. Therefore, it is better to follow the fundamental issues. It's not a matter of preference.
The writing is not for winning a prize at the exhibition, though I never mean to deny the exhibition. That's not the deep enjoyment and flavor of the calligraphy. If you feel the value of learning a calligraphy in your life, you will have joy that leads to the activity of your life. Most of our members are hobbyists who enjoy writing, so we can achieve the original way of enjoying the richness of ourselves without removing the basics of the brush. For those who wish to participate in the exhibition, I also provide guidance for that purpose.
As for the exhibition, I have continued a company exhibition called “Shoshin Exhibition” once in every three years at the Kyukyodo Gallery in Ginza, Tokyo. The visitors often say that it was the first time he/she had seen such a fun calligraphy exhibition while people usually say that the exhibition of calligraphy is boring. There flowers of individuality becomes full bloom.
Likewise Miyamoto Musashi, a famous swordsman preached the normality that does not waver in Kendo, strength, suppleness, and gentleness are important for calligraphy as well. In other words, being alive, how you want to live is important. Calligraphy allows you to feel free and free to expand your human potential and live richly. Tools are brushes and characters. Use it to represent yourself. Write a lively and sharp line where life is alive to the end and blood will come out if it is cut. Express your feelings with your breath. The brush walks on the paper as if you walk step by step. Expresses feelings of loneliness and fun not as meanings of letters but as rhythms of letters. To live is to write. Calligraphy is writing, but it's not just the world of letters, but the world of the human mind.

Sectional Images S-1 Flux 2016
Sectional Images "S-1 Flux" 2016

-- It's a really deep story. In recent years, you have published contemporary art instead of calligraphy. What has made you changed?

I was trying to create a new expression in the character expression before. However, gradually it seemed that there was no need to stick to it, and my idea changed that it can be expressed as art. I often talk about the character of the calligraphy, but denying either the letter or the non-letter makes the world narrower. Talking about calligraphy without thinking about what to write for, is like talking about means without a purpose. If you want to express what you want to express using text, just say "It's a calligraphy". If not, say it is abstract expression or art. By staring at the characters thoroughly, you can see the abstraction behind the characters. When the character itself is pierced, the way the writing itself should be dismantled.

-- You have just finished your solo exhibition last month. What are your future prospects?

I want to create a new era. Yes, from now on. Like Katsushika Hokusai (a Japanese famous woodblock artist) 's words (*), I feel like it's time to go to the real stage. In steps of hop-step-jumping, now is the beginning of the step. Just 4 years have passed since I met Ripel Paper. I did 9 solo exhibitions in 4 years. I did 4 times last year. It is often said that I am changing with tremendous momentum, but that is certainly true when viewed objectively. That is an inevitable consequence for me. I'm still going to have various experiences and develop them.

( * ) “The works I drew by the age of 70 are really insignificant. At the age of 73, I knew how many creatures and plants were born and made. So my skills improve in the age of 86 and become esoteric when I reach the age of 90, and I will reach the mysterious territory when I reach the age of 100. A dot drawn beyond the age of 100 lives will as if it had gained a single life. (Quotation from Wikipedia) " 



 Interview Note:
I met OGAWA-san by chance at the exhibition this spring, and we came to work together, so I feel that this is a fate. The story of a calligrapher having been active for 50 years is very deep, and each word is a learning. In addition, I was really excited about his words like “making epoch” and “this is the beginning”. This time, I summarized his thoughts on calligraphy this time, but the content that I couldn't write down all will be included in other articles. Thank you for sparing a long time for the interview!

Interviewer / Composition / Photo: Mayumi Yoshisue