let the good times scroll...

I have always been fascinated by scrolls as art objects. I did not know how difficult and exacting the craft of mounting is until I decided to learn how to do it. I returned to Japan to study the technique with Okazaki Akira, master mounter in Kyoto. At every step, I learned to consider how to balance the paper, silk, and paste to make something strong enough to hold the tension of the disparate parts in the same plane, yet flexible enough to withstand rolling and unrolling many times without wrinkling or coming apart. Traditional scroll mounting as practiced in Kyoto is not only a technically demanding craft, but is also an art form with its own recognizable aesthetic format. While I admire Kyoto-style scrolls, I do not propose to make them. I am drawn to the challenge of mounting a piece of art to show it to advantage—according to my own lights. I am the costume designer of the art, so to speak. I choose the colors, patterns, and proportions that will frame the object in viewers’ eyes so they stop and look. I use the techniques of scroll mounting I learned in Japan but apply them to non-traditional fabrics, patterns, and colors.

   I like scrolls for their intimacy. They hang upfront before you, not squashed behind glass in a frame. They are vulnerable. Sensitive to humidity, dirt, sunlight, they silently ask to be taken care of, not left forever in the same place on the wall. They need to rest between periods of display. During the dry California summer, their edges curl; when the rains come, they relax. Sometimes scrolls seem to be living things, breathing in a slow rhythm with the environment, developing spots and wrinkles as they age. 

   Scrolls are made to be taken apart. Wheat-starch mounting paste dissolves when dampened, and the paper backing layers can be carefully peeled down one by one to the original artwork. Wrinkles can be smoothed, rips joined, spots bleached. Undressed and rejuvenated, a naked work can be reclothed with new backings and new mounting silks, taking on fresh life. This is a painstaking process. Whenever I take apart a scroll, I remember that the piece of art sprawled on my glass work table was once deemed fit to be ensconced in a mounting and displayed in a family’s place of honor—and make a statement about the family’s values. Often the patriarch chose the scroll, even though it was likely his wife who rolled up and stored the previous one, replacing it with the next. The choice of a seasonally appropriate scroll, coordinated with a flower arrangement, was a personal display of good taste to anyone invited to the home.

   Over decades in Japan, I have absorbed many aspects of traditional aesthetics, and these inform the way I design hanging scrolls. I don’t often fiddle with the proportions, for example, even though a scroll always makes the lower section beneath the artwork much shorter than the upper—the opposite of Western notions of framing proportions. I have studied the rules governing styles of mounting which are calibrated by the level of formality of fabrics and subjects being mounted—because I find these systems sociologically fascinating, not because I desire to follow them. I am attracted to old scrolls because they whisper the cultural and personal gestalt of their time. 

   Furukusai is an expression in Japanese that literally means stinking of age, a blunt metaphor for “old-fashioned.” But when I spray a fine mist onto the back of an old scroll to deconstruct it, word becomes literal smell. The odors released when the paper is dampened reek of tobacco, old storage rooms, even mouse urine. Sometimes not much is salvageable except the finials—even the wooden rods may have termite holes. Other times the silks and the backing papers themselves can be reused—even if the artwork itself is commonplace and not worth the considerable trouble of remounting. Using new Duppioni silk, Indian sari silk, vintage kimono, or western silk scarves of modern design, my bricolage of these various pieces becomes a new take on the traditional goal of scroll mounting. Once again, the artwork whispers, “Look at me—am I not beautiful?”