An Artistic Approach to Bamboo

Shochiko Tanabe weaves Bamboo art
Originally broadcast May 17, 2009

Bamboo is the culinary delight of pandas . . . and the shoots are palate-pleasers for humans.

Bamboo can be sliced and molded so we can plank our floors with it, or make fabrics ready to wear . . . or just make soothing music.

All this from something that is really a big weed, once growing wild across Asia.

Trust the Japanese to make something ordinary into something extraordinary . . . taking the design of everyday bamboo items and turning it into an art form that is evolving still.

Designs so intricate they have no beginning or end, such as one by Shochiko Tanabe.

"The challenge is keeping traditional methods while making something that develops bamboo art for a new generation," he said through a translator.

Tanabe's story begins centuries ago . . . in Japanese history and his family's heritage.

The Chinese brought bamboo to Japan, and craftsmen here shaped vases, carrying cases and baskets. It was all very practical.

Tanabe's great-grandfather, born in the late 1800s, took traditional Chinese design to its peak by creating a weave so intricate it was prized then and treasured now.

But Tanabe's grandfather . . . went his own way, wanting to capture Japan's passion for delicacy.

And so began a family tradition of breaking with tradition.

At a recent exhibition, Tanabe's father showed off his work (left). It broke tradition because it was done just to please the eye.

And after an older generation abandoned the practical for the pretty, it encouraged the next generation to experiment with shapes and sizes.

Bamboo today is no longer about baskets.

So Tanabe's father was not exactly surprised when his son (who was playing with bamboo at age three) went his own way. "What my son designs is more like sculpture," he said.

They still work together every day.

Why do something different?

"If bamboo artists keep making the same things, people will feel bored and bamboo art will die out," Tanabe said. "But if I create something new, the world will realize bamboo can be used for different things."

But there can still be homage to the old. Around the top of one piece is the family's well-known weave. Then Tanabe added strips of different colors - some natural and some dyed.

And a few of his works are big. Tanabe showed Petersen one (left) he said represents connection. "This is the image of my father and my mother. My existence was connected with their love, energy and power, so I could be a bamboo artist."

And now there is a connection to the next generation . . . his daughter.

"Is she interested in bamboo yet?" Petersen asked.

"She is only nine months old!" Tanabe laughed, adding, "If she enjoys living with bamboo around her as I did, she will like bamboo."

Her name is Sarara, and if she wants to join the family business, her father says he will teach her to shape what is hers and hers alone.

With new images still to come from artists still to be trained, the Tanabes and others who love bamboo believe it is an art that will continue to survive . . . and to surprise.