Naoki Kusumi is a third generation traditional plaster artisan or “Sakan” in Japanese. His work ranges from projects at commercial buildings, residences, and educational facilities to restoration of Japanese treasures including Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto. Naoki is not only acclaimed in Japan but also in many foreign countries and his recent work includes an event at the United Nations in celebration of the 60th anniversary of Japan’s membership in the UN.
Interview with Naoki Kusumi
– Please tell us about Sakan professionals.
Simply speaking, Sakan professionals are plaster artisans who make walls for buildings and houses by taking ordinary clay and making it look textured - sometimes like wood or stone.
I was born and grew up on Awaji Island. In such a rural area, after carpenters make a body structure for a house, we, Sakan professionals, then weave bamboo and paste clays in many layers to make the walls. This is part of our work as Sakan professionals.
workshop with Tama Art University (2015, Tokyo)
This profession can be traced back to around the 7th century, Asuka era. It is believed when they started to work for aristocrats during that time, they were given a rank called “Sakan”, as people who served the palace needed some title.
– You decided to become a Sakan professional after looking at a work of architecture by Antoni Gaudi when you were 18 years old. What part of the work of Sakan professionals attracts you the most?
I’m the third generation of a traditional Sakan family. My father wanted me to learn this special skills, and he gave me intensive training ever since I was little. It was a daily routine that my younger brother and I practiced plastering a wall the size of one tatami mat (approximately 6 feet long and 3 feet wide) under our father’s instructions before dinner. When our schools were closed for long breaks, we were taken to our father’s workplace to get on-the-job-training.
Nevertheless, we got tired of thinking of becoming Sakan masters, and always looked for another career that we really wanted to pursue. During summer vacation in my last year at high school, I asked my father to let me go to a cooking school to become a patissier. My father did not believe that I would study hard at school, so instead he offered to give me $2,000 and told me to travel all over Europe to broaden my horizons. My first stop on this trip was The Sagrada Familia, based on my father’s recommendation. Although I did not know much about that type of architecture, I was deeply impressed by its techniques. It may have had nothing to do with Sakan masters, but I believed that the wave of that architecture might have been created by plaster artisans. This is the moment that made me start to have an interest in being a Sakan master.
However, I resisted giving up pursuing my career as a patisserie and I continued to work for a cake shop after my trip. A half year after the trip, when I graduated from high school, I told my father that I still wanted to become a patisserie. Then he told me that cakes are gone once they are eaten, but artworks made by Sakan professionals last forever. At that moment, my memory of visiting the Sagrada Familia came back to me, and I realized I wanted to impress people as much as Gaudi impressed me more than 100 years after he made that masterpiece. That’s the ultimate reason that I became a Sakan master.
– Please share your most memorable episode in your career.
I moved my main work location from Awaji Island where I grew up to Tokyo about 10 years ago. Things that I took for granted at Awaji Island were not in Tokyo, a concrete jungle, and I often came up with ideas to make this city look better. Since Tokyo is a big city more money was spent on buildings compared to my hometown, but none of them stuck my mind as they didn’t look as if they had been made by hands. Especially many buildings for senior homes, hospitals, schools and places for children seemed artificial and I rarely saw places different from this.Then I started to worry that Japanese people might gradually lose a real sense of Japanese beauty as young people tend to grow up without actually experiencing things made by craftsmen.
So I told people working at architecture offices that I was eager to build handmade walls at schools. But unfortunately, in the beginning, no one listened to me. But about 7 years ago, I was finally able to have an opportunity to make a clay wall in a public school in Tokyo. An architecture office supported me but initially not all the people were happy about this idea. Some parents and educational committee members worried and complained that children might be hurt when they hit the wall or the surface of the wall looked too rough or might be easily broken.
Nowadays buildings are strong and even if they are damaged they can be fixed easily so that architects receive fewer claims. However, strong buildings do not necessarily mean they last for a long time and on the other hand soft stuff may not be broken if you use it carefully. I strongly wanted to send a message to children that there are sensitive items and things that they need to take great care of. In the middle of the project, I went to the school and told what I was thinking to the educational committee members. They ultimately understood and accepted my idea and helped us to make a clay wall 49 feet tall.
Shibaura kindergarten/primary school (2010, Tokyo)
We worked hard on this project, hoping that my passion that encouraged me to make the wall at this school would be passed down and my wall would be treated by the kids with great care. A principal of the school and other teachers were impressed by seeing scenes that we worked on and they talked about it to their students and shared their interest and enthusiasm with parents through newsletters which also asked the students to take care of the wall carefully. Although 4 years have passed since then, when I visited the school a few months ago, the wall stood as it was 7 years ago without even having a scratch. Children paid attention to the wall while they were playing nearby. When I saw it I felt we achieved something by helping others, and it is, therefore, the most memorable story in my recent work.
– You do research on the culture and life of the people living in a place where you work. What do you normally look for and how it is reflected in your art piece?
I started to do research after I had projects outside of Japan. While I was working at Awaji Island, when I ran out of soil for a wall I just went to a mountain nearby to obtain additional soil. Also, when I needed more bamboo, I just cut a bamboo tree nearby, and when I wanted more sand, I looked for it around me.
My family lived in Awaji Island for a few generations, and I, therefore, had an unconscious sense about where I could get what I needed for my work. Not all people move to various places, and this is especially true on Awaji Island which has people who are used to the scenery of where they grew up. So probably no one feels uncomfortable if you use clays from where they are from. For example, the bright colors of Luis Barragan House and Studio match with the sunshine in Mexico, but the same building may not look beautiful in Japan. Also, Italian buildings look good in Italy. I am not sure whether Japanese buildings would fit into places outside of Japan without being customized. I think using resources from a place where I work is the best way to fit my wall to that place, so I use clays from original places as much as possible. You can also use clays from a hall that you dig to make the main stand of a house.
Recently there has been a trend to make a thin wall look thick. But buildings usually require thick walls, which means you need a lot of clay. Then you have to make less of an effort to use clays that exist where you work as you do not need to carry it from far away. Also, if you need more clay to fix a wall, it is just there. As such, the idea is very simple. When you follow it, it may take more time but it costs less. We just want to do such a simple thing. Also, wouldn’t you think it might be interesting for me to look around to see what natural resources I can use for my walls?
– Your walls are highly acclaimed not only in Japan but also in other countries. What do you think has led to such a good reputation in foreign countries?
What I am doing is making a wall inspired by nature or to fix cultural properties or preserve beautiful things in rural houses that have been passed down for centuries. I look at these beautiful things and just create what I have seen. People all over the world like things made in Japan. The Japanese have continued to make elaborate beautiful crafts by dedicating their time to the effort. When it comes to religion, people outside of Japan have also made many subtle types of architecture just as Japanese has done. But I think it is unique to Japanese culture that people spend the same amount of energy even for the houses of middle class families. There are many Japanese craftsmen who are serious about making quality things, which I think attracts people outside of Japan. I am one of these craftsmen, and also incorporate what I feel from nature to my work. Crafts can be subjective because they are made by humans. But I make walls by using clay that I like, so many of these artworks look good without my making any effort to make them look good.
Thanks to clay, my artwork can impress people as no one feels uncomfortable looking at things made by natural materials. I want people to enjoy the beauty of things made by using natural ingredients. Overseas, people are fascinated not only by the final products that we make but also by our work in process. I once went to a university in France where craftsmen, artists and researchers from all over the world went. Work done by Japanese craftsmen was quick but elaborate. Clay sticks once it gets dry so our work needs to be done quickly. But at the same time, it requires attention to details. Japanese craftsmen use tools called kote compared to those from other countries but due to hard daily training, they work in a quick manner. In addition, good craftsmen keep their workspace neat and their work clothes clean. We are often surprised because we look as if we are dancing while we work.
– Please tell us about your future plans or dreams.
Recently the image of craftsmen has been getting better but when I started this career, it was one of the most unpopular jobs as it had an image of being dirty, tough and dangerous. Craftsmen have not been treated well in Japan. At construction sites, we are treated better but other craftsmen are often badly treated as they are considered easily replaceable anytime. In such a situation, the number of craftsmen will go down although they work hard to make quality things. We are at a crisis now because most skilled Sakan professionals are getting old. Once they all retire, we will run out of people who can fix cultural properties. So we need to take action.
There used to be non-verbal pressure that professionals cannot leave their names to their works. It was considered to be shameful for professionals to speak in public or be on media. This idea has pros and cons. We need to make more efforts to let more people know about our profession. Perhaps people from other countries will understand us more and better. Our mission is to do more things for people living outside of Japan. For example, Japanese traditional culture such as Ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement, and Kabuki, are highly acclaimed overseas. So I want not only traditional artwork but also works done by ordinary professionals to be popular like these. I think it will help to motivate young people to become craftsmen. In the past we were joking that it would be great if people were to say “Sakan is cool.” in the same manner as they say “Mt. Fuji is cool.” or “Sushi is cool.” I want to introduce more works overseas so that I can help to raise the reputation of ordinary Japanese craftsmen.
Naoki Kusumi is a traditional plaster artisan called a “Sakan” in Japanese. He was born on Awaji Island in Japan, and represents the third generation of his family’s traditional business. Naoki started to learn plastering at the age of 3 under his father, and decided to pursue this career upon graduation from high school. His artistic techniques and ideas are not only highly acclaimed in Japan but also in other countries, especially in Europe and Asia. Naoki has been involved in various projects ranging from work at an elementary school to restoration of Japanese national treasures such as Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto and traditional Japanese tea houses. In December 2016, at an event to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Japan’s membership in the United Nations in New York, he performed demonstration, which was later engraved by hand with messages wishing for peace by foreign ambassadors and UN officers.