Saturday, February 28, 2009

Kotee (鏝絵) House Art in Relief

This afternoon, I went to a presentation about a kind of artwork called kotee (the "ee" is pronounced like a long "ay") , held at the local history museum. 

Traditional Japanese houses are built with a long beam that runs inside the length of the roof and juts out on either end of the outer walls. Exposed to the elements, the wood quickly blackens and can begin to rot, so to cover the wood and beautify the building, this art of sculpted plaster was fixed over the beam. It could be painted like a fresco, or the wet material could be dyed before sculpting. 

About two years ago, the local history preservation club decided to save a crane-themed  kotee when its house was scheduled to be destroyed, and the first part of the presentation was a slide show of the group carefully chipping around the image from the inside and outside of the wall, covering it with protective material, gently lowering it onto a cushioned board, and hauling it down off the roof. After bringing it to the museum, a period of two years went by before anything else was done with it, but eventually they cleaned up the rough edges of the cut-out kotee, built a wooden house-shaped frame for it, and filled in the spaces with clean white plaster. It is now in a place of honor. 

For the rest of the presentation, a kotee expert talked about the history of this art and showed many examples of it, both indoors and on the outer walls of homes. The first kotee artist was a man named Irie Chouhachi (1815-1889), and his detailed and elegant works have become valuable collector's items. 

Later artists focused largely on seasonal and cultural themes, particularly the Shinto gods Ebisu (sea) and Daikoku (darkness) placed on the east and west ends of the house, respectively. 

The making of a kotee was lengthy and expensive, so they signify a certain amount of luxury. The expert noted that until relatively recently, the people of this area 'battled with the fierce forces of nature to survive,' so the existence of this kotee is rather remarkable. 

To conclude, he showed several examples of field and boathouse photos he had taken of the area about 15 years ago, and compared them with photos taken earlier this week of the same places. Without a doubt, however "country" this town is now, it was much more so then. 

After the presentation, I was able to see a collection of dolls one of my friends had been working on for about six months. She and a group of other ladies had taken strips of kimono and traditional cotton cloth, and made quite a few miniature scenes with 50 uniquely dressed dolls and traditional tools from the age before electricity. 

Before I left, I made sure to sign up for that local history preservation club. It's hard to remember, sometimes, but this area is changing due to the greying population phenomenon and modernization. I think the club is a wonderful opportunity to see things and places that would otherwise be invisible, and to talk to people with a lively interest in their land and its history. 

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