Yes, bug me

February 26, 2013

I read in a New Yorker magazine last year about the number of cultures on the planet which ate insects. It was a surprisingly large number. And just yesterday on TED I watched a talk about the same thing, but the speaker said that 80% of the present world population eats bugs. 

When you think about it, primates, of whom we homo sapiens are members, eat insects all the time, in the air, in the trees, on the ground, and underground by digging the little creatures up. For sure, very early humans ate insects. Much easier to catch and more nutritious than other mammals. 

A lot of insects are nearly pure protein. One of my print students, Ken Sallitt, who is a bee keeper, told me a few days ago about his experiences in Canada, where he lives when not wintering in Japan. He has to keep away the bears who like to eat the bees in his hives. I and the others present assumed that this was because the bears loved the sweet honey. Wrong, said Ken. The bears are after the grubs, the pupa in the hives, because these are 100% protein. The honey is simply an extra bonus, not strictly what the animal is after. Quite eye opening. 

Here are photos of, first, the adult grasshopper, 
 and its young.

Here in Japan, insect eating is not an unknown habit. Another student's girlfriend comes from Nagano Pref, up in the Japan Alps. There, eating grasshoppers and their pupa is common. When Miss Aya returns to Kyoto from a visit to her hometown, she brings a jar or a sack of prepared grasshoppers and the young, as you can see above. Not raw and kicking. The Japanese are not that close to our primate stage now. These insects are prepared in a sauce made of some sweetener and soy. Perhaps they are first cooked, or boiled, then cooled and eaten. The pupa taste like shrimp; the adults have their own, delicious taste, and the added crunch of the legs. 

I don't know about other insects, but I will begin investigating this. With a projected global population of 5 billion by the year 2050, we had better begin following the wisdom of the ancients and look to the bugs for our protein and minerals. 

Earthworms, anyone?


Wooden me

February 10, 2013

The wood of choice for printmakers in Japan is a basswood or linden from Hokkaido. It comes in as plywood, 4mm, 6mm, 8mm and thicker. Basswood is a relatively soft sort, easy to carve and to print, weak grain impression, fairly inexpensive. Not available in solid blocks.

For making prints with large areas, it is the best choice. If you want to have lots of fine-line carving, lettering, for example, then you have to go to a cherry or a magnolia. Cherry is the most expensive and the hardest. But the blocks last for centuries. I have only carved cherry once, and broke my knife doing it. Magnolia is readily available and not all that expensive. If you are going to print a large batch of prints, say 100 or more, then for any of your fine carving blocks, you have to use a hard wood. 

Michigan, where I was born and raised, grows basswood. A dear friend, Clifton Monteith, also from MI, gave me two tiny blocks of solid linden last year. I had never worked on a solid block before, so was quiet excited to give it a try. I gave one block to my printer, Konomi, to test, and I worked with the other. Given the small size, I designed a two-color work with both broad and line areas, one color on the front, the other on the back. The carving went quickly, mostly because of the small block size. However, I found that it carved almost the same as a plywood. That was a nice surprise. Printing it, too, went quickly and easily.The color registration was one that is off the block, not carved on it as is usual. 

I can't seem to play much with this image on this Blogger program, sorry. Nevertheless, you can get an idea of the piece. In the background is Michigan's silhouette. The boy doesn't look like me; my ears are smaller, and I have a mustache. Otherwise... 

The Linnean name for this wood is  Tillia americana. In Japan, it would be Tillia japanica, of course.


At the museum

February 6, 2013
  There are in Japan two very large, nation-wide print organizations. The older one is Japan Print Association (Nihon Hanga Kyokai).  It was organized about 80 years ago and is quite large with a membership of several hundred. It displays the whole range of prints, including digital and photography. They hold their exhibitions in the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum in Ueno Part, central Tokyo. 

The other one is the Japan Print Society (Nihon Hanga Kai; <www.nipponhanga.jp>). They held their 51st exhibition last year, also in the same Ueno Part museum. It was started by Shiko Munakata and his friends. He is perhaps the most famous Japanese printmaker in contemporary history. (See his Wikipedia entry for details.) My own teacher, Masahiko Tokumitsu, was a friend of Munakata's and an early member of the Society. 

I am also a member. At first, when I was still a student of Tokumitsu's, I displayed my prints in the annual shows. After I won a prize in one of them, I was up-graded to Junior Membership. When Tokumitsu quit the society for health reasons, I quit also. A few years after he passed away, I rejoined and was given Full Membership status. 

The difference between the two print organizations is that the older one accepts any print medium, whereas ours is 95% woodblock. When there was talk several years ago, during one of the annual executive meetings, of opening up the society to other print mediums, I denounced this motion with heated passion, even banging the table for special effect. It had a special effect, and we continue to display mostly woodblock prints. (The current president, Kogure Shimpo, is a silkscreen printmaker, so we display silkscreen prints every year. This cannot be helped.) Our group was started by woodblock printmakers, and I want to keep it that way. All the other print mediums have amply opportunities to display their artworks. But in these exhibitions there are few woodblock prints. 

Last November we held our 53rd show in the newly renovated Tokyo Metropolitan Museum. It was a huge exhibition. We had four very large and long galleries with probably over 300 prints on the walls. I went there on the day before the show opened to help hang the works. 

The next day, a Sunday, I sat at the entrance to help sell the catalog, and guide visitors to the prints of their friends. Museums want to know how many guests an exhibition has, so they loan the organizers those hand-held clickers. They fit neatly in the palm of one's hand and the clicker is just below the thumb. While I took care of sales, the woman sitting next to me at the desk did the clicking. I know that it is not unusual for organizers to add a few numbers to the total, to give a better impression to the museum. A group which has very few visitors will have a difficult time reserving the venue in later years. 

This woman, a very nice and intelligent, middle-aged individual, would add some extra clicks for every visitor who entered. After a while, however, her thumb took off and was clicking 6 or 8 or 9 for each visitor. She was banging away on the counter 100 clicks to the second, seemingly. I wanted to say something, but kept my mouth shut. It was unbelievable. One or two extra clicks is normal, but she was fanatic. I had to get up, go to the toilet and laugh. I witnessed this for only part of one day; if she was on board other days, or every day, then I would guess we had several million visitors. Everyone in Tokyo would have had to come for us to reach that number. 

But museums are not dummies. I am sure they know this trick, and reduce total visitor numbers by half at least. Even then, our 53rd exhibition must seemingly have broken some records. I wonder if she could use her thumb well for the following few days.