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JIRo Okura


When Kyoto-based “minimalist” sculptor Jiro Okura saw reproductions of the works in the exhibition catalogue, he was deeply moved. He already had been influenced by Cage’s ideas about chance and indeterminacy, ideas that derived, in part, from Japanese Zen philosophy. Because the ideas in his own work shared an affinity with those of the Mountain Lake programs, after much discussion and planning, he was invited to be a guest artist in a collaborative workshop project. His “chance” viewing of the catalogue JOHN CAGE/NEW RIVER WATERCOLORS, led to Mountain Lake and eventually Okura conducted workshops in 1990, in 1992 and 1993. 

Okura began to use wood as a sculpture material after a momentous visit to the United States in 1969, several years after he had completed a post-graduate course at Kyoto Kyoiku University. As he recently recalled, he studied and trained in a Zen temple trying to attain what Zen Buddhism calls a “pure emptiness” of spirit. The “pure emptiness” of spirit that he had tried and failed to attain in his youth in Japan, came years later while driving across the vast, empty expanses of desert in Arizona and New Mexico. Soon after his return to Japan, a carpenter in his neighborhood unexpectedly gave him a piece of wood, camphor laurel. He hadn’t been thinking of making anything out of wood and moreover, he didn’t know the first thing about wood carving or carpentry. As he began to work with this piece of wood, all this changed: “I was hooked on wood. By working with wood, I discovered a way to confirm not only my own existence, but also the vast presence of nature, of the entire cosmos, surrounding me.” In this piece of wood his experience of vast, empty space was fused with material substance into a powerful metaphor for a consciousness of existence.

The focus of Okura’s workshops developed out of his own deep respect for natural materials, especially wood. This respect is based on an understanding of the relationship between nature as an environment of material substance with physical location, and as a concept of pure space. For Okura, substance and space acquire a sense of plenitude when the self grasps this relationship, which wood (or any other natural material) can symbolize if treated properly. Okura’s ideas, which are expressed by his treatment of wood, are manifested in Eastern belief systems through ritual practices that allow for chance and indeterminacy in the processing of materials. Obviously, such ideas paralleled the Mountain Lake conception of the self and locale as related manifestations of both natural and psychic forces.

Because Okura’s Zen-like “discovery” of the symbolic importance of wood came after his fortuitous visit to America, it is hardly surprising that he would want to continue working with wood when he came to Mountain Lake. During the first week of January, 1990, eight black walnut trees from the Jefferson National Forest at Little Stone Mountain in Wise County, Virginia were selected to be cut for the workshop. This was done in cooperation with members of the local community, including the National Forest Service, Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, and the Brooks Wood Products Research Center at Virginia Tech. Black walnut was chosen because it is a wood very like Zelkova, Japanese gray-bark elm, which is traditionally used for sacred objects in Japan.

Before the trees were cut, however, it was arranged by special permission from the Ujigami Shrine near Okura’s home in Uji City, Kyoto, Japan to perform a traditional Shinto ceremony. According to Shinto beliefs, trees in nature are understood as a part of the “universe outside;” once they are cut for the artist to use, they become part of the artist’s “universe within.” A blessing honors the living spirit of the trees and releases this spirit to the artist to make something beautiful.

In accordance with these beliefs, Mountain Lake Director Ray Kass, in the role of a Kanushi (a Shinto monk), donned full Shinto ceremonial robes and, with participants in attendance, recited prayers in Japanese that had been especially prepared by the Shinto priests at Uji for the ceremony. Using a large, flat rock as an altar, he offered natural foods, sake, and water in a traditional Shinto

ceremony of blessing.

The trees were cut only following this ceremony emphasizing the sacredness of all nature and the interconnectedness of the living spirit inside of all things. They were then hauled to the Brooks Forest Products Center where they were sawn into boards and left to cure until mid-summer when Okura would come back to Mountain Lake for the actual creation of the piece.

From the ceremony used to bless and cut the trees, it became immediately clear that the workshop project would entail a cross-cultural orientation. A central consideration for the project would be the relationships between ecological responsibility and Eastern belief systems, traditional and contemporary sculpture methods, and prescribed practices and indeterminism of both materials and process.

Upon returning from Japan in late July, Okura began working with about 60 members of the local community over what would turn out to be a seven-week period to complete the project. While intentionally exerting some control over them, he gave the participants a specific number of physical operations to perform on the boards after they had been glued; these operations, which each participant could perform in a manner and location he or she judged appropriate, included planing, chiseling, gouging, drilling, and sanding. Carrying out these repetitive operations using both modern power tools and ancient Japanese hand tools, the participants slowly gained an appreciation for Okura’s own working methods and his acceptance of indeterminacy and accidental effects. The length of time involved in laboriously working the wood with hand tools and small power tools also gave the participants a feel for the wood’s natural aspects, its randomness, and its material substance.


Okura believes that the repetitiveness of the work was a way to get beyond pre-conceptions into a more random mode of working, a mode that could be done “without mind,” (i.e., without total conscious control and planning). Doing something over and over was, for Okura, a kind of bodily (rather than verbal) “chanting” that induces a meditative state and clears the mind so that one can find the universe that’s inside oneself, the artistic spirit that will create the work.45


As the participants worked on the project, they came to understand how the creation of a work of art entailed a dialogue among many forces; their individual and combined actions could be seen as a kind of dialogue at the personal and communal levels. The desire for control through the use of tools and the resistance of the physical properties of the material could be seen as a dialogue between the “self within” and the “world outside.” As part of the creative process, acceptance of this dialogue between the “universe within” and the “universe outside” is to acknowledge the existence of an individual self and a collaborative self that are fundamental concepts for any sense of community.After the participants carried out these repetitive, physically taxing operations, these “bodily chants,” as it were, they worked with Okura painting spontaneous calligraphic brush strokes in black and orange-red pigment on the boards. Having completed this, gold leaf was loosely glued to the boards. Covered with this gilding and colors traditionally associated with Japanese temples, the boards were then hinged and assembled as four-board sections into 16 separate units; these units, which stand independently with space between them, form a large folding screen approximately 10 ft. high and 120 ft. long that Okura titled the MOUNTAIN LAKE SCREEN TACHI.


The traditional Oriental screen is understood by Okura as an elemental architectonic form that creates distinct physical spaces by defining and dividing space into discreet, controllable areas. SCREEN TACHI, however, with its drill holes, loose unit construction, and separations articulates space, making the idea of vast, empty space comprehensible. And, because its units can be relocated and repositioned into new configurations at will, SCREEN TACHI conceptually transcends the limits of actual physical space “plotted” by the traditional, architectonic screen; it thereby symbolically opens up the vast and potent “space” of consciousness of the self in relation to nature.

Glittering and shimmering in response to the least change in light or movement of air, SCREEN TACHI connects traditional Japanese art to modern Western sculpture in its acceptance of indeterminacy, randomness of appearance, and accidental effects. It also connects traditional Shinto beliefs to the modern ecology movement in the way the ritual and sacred aspects of its construction exhibit a reverence and respect for nature. In these ways, SCREEN TACHI spans the gap between tradition and modernity, becoming what Okura calls “the moveable wall between Eastern and Western cultures.” The collaborative efforts which brought it into existence—underscore the need for a concept of communal and social action based on a philosophical understanding of our relationship to nature and place.


In May of 1990, just a few weeks before Okura was to return to Mountain Lake from Japan to begin working on the boards that would eventually become SCREEN TACHI, Cage was completing his second workshop. Cage took an avid interest in the Mountain Lake projects of both Finster and Okura. The Shinto ceremony held in preparation for cutting the walnut trees for Okura’s workshop was particularly meaningful to Cage. The workshop participants encouraged Cage to make a special painting for Okura as a symbolic gift to welcome him to Mountain Lake. On fired/smoked paper, Cage painted around the very same rock used as an altar for Okura’s Shinto ceremony in early January. SHINTO CEREMONIAL ROCK, FOR JIRO OKURA is an extraordinarily haunting and poetic painting containing, in its lower half, a broadly painted “outline” of the altar rock floating within a smokey field. This painting, with its “after image” of the altar, represents a tangible connection between the aesthetic and philosophical beliefs of Cage and Okura and was officially presented to Okura at the completion of the “moveable wall.” As much as anything else, this painting expresses the spirit of collaboration and friendship that has surrounded the projects; it also demonstrates the intimate linkage—at the personal, artistic and philosophical levels—among the various workshops.

In August of 1992, Okura returned to Mountain Lake to do a second workshop on ink-drawing.46 The previous year, inspired by Cage’s Mountain Lake paintings, Okura had done a series of drawings using a technique he had developed based on traditional Japanese Zen sumi-e (monochrome) ink painting. Echoing Cage’s process of painting around stones, he painted undulating lines interrupted by leaves, twigs, or pebbles that had been placed on the paper. He called these works SHISHENDO TEMPLE DRAWINGS after the small garden in the Shishendo Temple in Kyoto. Like the more famous garden at Ryoanji, this garden is also a Zen-style rock garden; it was designed and built by Ishi Kawa Jozan in the 17th century as a personal retreat in which to meditate upon nature. Frequently visited by the poet and haiku master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), it is a dry-landscape garden with its simple, open space visible from a small room especially designed so that visitors could gather in the autumn to watch the leaves from a lone tree fall onto the undulating pattern of carefully raked gravel.


To adopt Okura’s sumi-e-derived technique to the collaborative workshop process, the notion that “it didn’t matter who held the brush” was adapted for this workshop.47 Members of the community, after rehearsal, painted with Okura using various inks and traditional Japanese brushes on paper. “Imitating” the artist’s initial vertical brushstroke, that changes width in a predictable rhythmic pattern of thick and thin, participants followed each other in painting a “matching” parallel stroke that fits into the pattern of the previous stroke. Concentrating on this repetitive action was again a kind of “bodily chanting” that cleared the mind, opening it up to a meditative state. As this painting process was unfolding, objects such as branches and stones were randomly placed on the paper by participants. These objects—chosen to symbolize nature—left their ghostly “traces,” their “after images” as negative shapes among the linear brushstrokes they interrupted. In the larger works, as the paper was being painted, it was slowly unrolled from one end and rolled up at the other so that the final patterning of landscape “traces” could not be dictated by personal taste, but would be a result of chance.


While the workshop was underway, word arrived that John Cage had died suddenly. As a memorial to him, a piece of fired/ smoked paper remaining from Cage’s previous workshop was painted in white tempera, gold and sumi ink, and gold pigment.48 The painting, the UNTITLED, SHISHENDO GARDEN SERIES (FOR JOHN CAGE), remains as a special gesture to his spirit. Its autumnal quality of shimmering silver light is an acknowledgment that Cage’s spirit infused the workshops with a sense of generosity and sharing.

After the death of John Cage in 1992, Okura developed a Zen-painting workshop that introduced participants to the discipline-centered activity of Asian single-brush painting and his adaptation of the "breathing line" in a series of group-painting exercises.


The Nisso Screen is the result of a special Mountain Lake Workshop directed by Jiro Okura and Ray Kass in Kyoto, Japan in June, 1997. The folding screen is comprised of eight three-paneled units that were produced by Virginia and Japanese university students in a special workshop conducted during the 1997 Summer Study Abroad in Kyoto. The style of sumi-e (ink) brush painting and the meditative collaborative activity are intended to demonstrate concepts of Zen painting and Eastern aesthetic philosophy. This workshop was sponsored by Nisso Industries, a Tokyo engineering firm.


The Nisso Screen had its premiere exhibition at Virginia Tech's Perspective Gallery between July 7 - Sept. 10, 1998.

“Souls on Garbage”, a special week-long Mountain Lake Workshop, conceived by Jiro Okura and co-directed by Ray Kass and visiting artist Michael Hofmann, engaged students and community members in meditational, discipline-centered activities focussed on Zen painting and an awareness of social issues regarding waste-remediation. Scheduled workshop events occurred at intervals between June 26 and July 4, 1998.

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