Noah’s Ark, 20th century
Sadao Watanabe 1913-1996
On View in Reardon Rectory – Second Floor
Sadao Watanabe (1913-96) was a Tokyo printmaker who portrayed Christian themes in the unique folk art idiom of Japan. His prints have hung in the White House and the Vatican, and in many museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; but he was happiest when his work was displayed in the places where ordinary people lived and worked. The story of Noah’s ark was one of Watanabe’s three favorite subjects, along with the Last Supper and the Nativity.
At age 24, Watanabe was working as a textile dyer, designing patterns and dyeing cloth for kimonos. He was drawing in his spare time and reading the writings of Yanagi about the mingei, or folk arts movement. In 1937, he came into contact with the textile dye artist Keisuke Serizawa, who taught more about the mingei ideals and instructed him in the art of katazome, Okinawan stencil dyeing which Watanabe made his own. Watanabe sometimes made 200 prints from one stencil.
Yanagi’s approach to the mingei movement was a subjective one based on aesthetics and Buddhist philosophy, believing that an object’s beauty came not from the efforts of the craftsman, but through reliance on the greater power of Buddha. Watanabe interpreted Yanagi’s philosophy in the light of his own faith. He believed that if his work resulted in beauty and usefulness, it was because of the grace of God shining through the natural materials he used. Through this succession of events, Watanabe’s artistic career came to be a unique combination of Japanese folk art and Christian affirmation.
Watanabe’s prints use the colors of the Okinawan bingata, stencil-dyed cloths that traditionally appeared in yellow, blue, green, and always red. For his prints he always used crumpled paper (momigami) handmade from the the inner bark of the paper mulberry (kōzo) tree by farmers who had specialized in the craft for centuries.
For Watanabe the imaginative spark for his prints came from his daily immersion in the Bible. He read the text of his print subject over and over again, pondered its words and prayed, and finally executed it.
Watanabe’s method of stencil dyeing
First he executed his drawing on tracing paper, pasted this to the stencil, then with a fine knife cut out the design. He put the cut paper stencil on a light box and laid the printing paper on top of it. Using the stencil as a guide, (the stencil form could easily be seen through the paper), he painted on the colors. Like those used in Okinawan bingata, they were traditional organic and mineral pigments in a medium of soybean milk. The protein in the milk bound the colors to the paper’s surface.
When the colors dried, he put the cut stencil design on top of the printing paper, adjusted the colored areas, then overlaid a fine silk screen. Placing a small amount of paste (a recipe of sweet rice flour, rice bran, salt and lime) in one corner of the silk screen and using a wooden spatula, he drew the paste over the entire design, then lifted away both the silk screen and stencil.
After the paste dried, he brushed black paint over the entire design, the paint only touching the areas of the paper left by the stencil impression. He allowed the paper and ink to dry and “rest” for a day or two. In the final stage, he submerged the paper in water, and as the paste softened, gently brushed it away, revealing the protected colored areas and the blackened stencil form. The final step was exciting for each new print laid out to dry was unique and there was always an element of surprise.
Dimension: 31”w x 23”h
Rights: © Sadao Watanabe
Classification: stencil print