Hiroshi Wada: The Modern Master of an Ancient Art of Calligraphy

The artist believes in the importance of modernizing the practice and aspires to create calligraphy that is modern and even avant-garde as well as rooted in traditional shodo.

Japanese artist Hiroshi Wada is a master of the ancient tradition of shodo. Shodo is the art of calligraphy, or writing characters with brush and ink drawing on rice paper. Hiroshi studied calligraphy with some of the great virtuosos of this art form and on his own, because mastering this art form takes years of rigorous training. But the artist’s aim is not solely to carve out a niche within an existing tradition. Hiroshi believes in the importance of modernizing the practice and aspires to create calligraphy that is modern and even avant-garde as well as rooted in traditional shodo. When Hiroshi writes characters, he forgets what he has learned and starts with a “clean slate”, drawing with childlike spontaneity and playfulness. Believing that art has the capacity to empower, heal, and create peace, this artist brings joy and playfulness through the art of shodo.

What is the art of shodo and how did you begin to practice it? What attracted you to it in the first place?

Shodo is the art of assembled lines. The more I could draw fine lines, and when those lines are assembled as characters, then the more I could make them exceptional and appealing to the eye (with magnetic expressions) – I think I could call it as the art of shodo. And those lines are not something we could acquire to draw within a few years. It takes more than a few decades until we could draw lines at long last.

I was told that when I was around five years old, I loved writing hiragana (Japanese alphabet), which I had just learned at that time, and kept writing them on a paper. That was why my parents made me attend a local shodo school. I must have been born to write.

Could we give our Western readers some background on the art of calligraphy? Is it true that in traditional shodo characters are written according to a specific model, and that usually this is a much older prototype that the artists carefully study and imitate? What is the purpose of repeating something that has been done so many times before? Is the original so revered that to copy it is to gain special insight into its magic, or is it something else?

It is called rinsho (writing and observing fine examples), which is essential when we learn shodo. Kanji (Chinese character) artists like us mainly write and observe ancient Chinese scripts (Chinese classics) which were written a few hundred to thousand years ago in China. Those Chinese classics are something that every one copies throughout the ages for a long time. They are amazing writings. To copy those Chinese classics continuously makes lines trainable. However, copying the Chinese classics cannot be original art. It is just a mimic. We create our art with our own original expressions through the lines we acquire from rinsho. However, in the world of shodo, it is true that there are some artists who create works through obtaining the examples from their teachers and just mimic them. I don’t think it can be called art.

You write about your teachers with great respect. How long did you study with Mr. Ryosetsu Imai? What were some of the most important lessons they taught you?

I became Mr. Ryosetsu Imai’s disciple when I was thirty years old and studied with him for fifteen years until he passed away.

Mr. Imai’s teaching that I value most is that we think about shodo in a many different ways in our mind then be creative in order to create works. However, if people who appreciate works could see into it, that won’t work. Remarkable piece of work should be fresh which looks being created miraculously and incidentally.

You emphasize that your approach to shodo is not traditional. You studied calligraphy for many years, but prefer to work spontaneously, forgetting all that you have learned. Could you please describe why spontaneity is important for you?

Certainly, I forget everything that I have learned and work spontaneously. However, although I create lines spontaneously, they exist within my body and spirit, and come out on their own. When I say forget everything that I have learned, that means the shape of characters. As previously mentioned, if I mimic the shape of characters in Chinese classics, that makes no point as my work. Therefore, in regard to a shape, I forget about Chinese classics once and try to create completely fresh work, which I could only make.

The artist in his studio

By not basing your work on a prototype, are you breaking away from the tradition in general? Do you think your work might one day become a prototype others imitate?

It appears that I am defecting from tradition. For instance, if we take an example of music, if classical music is traditional, rock is defecting from tradition, isn’t it? It’s the same as this example. I think that within a common sense of tradition, how we could create revolutionary works.

I don’t know about it. Chinese classics that we rinsho are not remained as works but as written documents. Then we copy those documents. I create works to pass on; therefore, there is no point to mimic my works.

You also point out that it is important for you that your characters are readable. Is this not always the case for calligraphers? In calligraphy in general and in your calligraphy in particular, what is the relationship between characters, what they signify, and the way they look?

I think a good number of avant-garde calligraphies are hard to read. I don’t completely deny those unreadable calligraphies. However, I think that since characters have meanings, it would be wasteful to make them unreadable purposely. If it can be readable and interesting, it couldn’t be better than that. Nevertheless, some works that I damaged have become hard to read (laugh).

Do you focus solely on calligraphy or do you practice other types of visual art?

I practice shodo only. However, I practice with my eyes for some other genres. For instance, I appreciate paintings at art galleries or museums on a constant basis. Although I actually don’t practice, I could obtain wonderful element into my works through practicing with my eyes.

It is not only calligraphy that interests me. Of course I would love to try painting, printing or sculpting. However, currently, it’s only practice with eyes. It is a race with time to try other stuff.

Calligraphy seems to be a very physical activity, because the artist has to be able to move the brush as an extension of the body and breath. The three elements have to be in complete agreement for the characters to flow. You were a track-and-field athlete for thirteen years and mention that the explosive energy of your characters largely comes from your experience in this sport. Could you please elaborate? For you, what is the relationship between the mind, body, breath and drawing?

In track-and-field competition, I was specialized in a 100m run. 100m is a competition which can be set to be decided within 10 seconds. Within this 10 seconds, the energy should be burst at absolute maximum. It takes only a few min to create one work for me (see the note). Compare to painting, it takes a lot of less time.

Then within a few minutes to draw lines, within a few seconds in that time, I draw lines at absolute maximum. That is to say within a few minutes to create works, if I write with the same mind, body and breathing, the works would become dull.

The works I am striving for is that within a few minutes, there are some lines that I draw in a listless way with a relaxed mode, or some lines are drawn very strongly with an explosive energy. Those lines are profoundly created on top of another various lines. And when I draw a strong line, explosive instantaneous force that I acquired through a 100m run became useful.

Shodo is a game which can be set within a short period of time the same as a 100m run. For that reason, each moment could be precious.

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(Note: For shodo, creating one work takes a short period of time; however, the same work is written numerous times and the best work is chosen as “the” work. Thus, the total amount of time to create one work can be equal to paintings.)

Hiroshi Wada’s works will be on view at Agora Gallery from May 11 through May 31, 2019 for his first New York exhibition. You can view more of his works on ARTmine.


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