Kunc headed to Japan for International Mokuhanga Conference

Karen Kunc in Japan for the 1st International Mokuhanga Conference in 2011.
Karen Kunc in Japan for the 1st International Mokuhanga Conference in 2011.

Cather Professor of Art Karen Kunc will be traveling to Japan in September for the 2014 2nd International Mokuhanga Conference at Tokyo University of the Arts with support from a Hixson-Lied Faculty Presentation of Scholarly and Creative Activity Grant.

Kunc is the chair of the International Mokuhanga Conference International Board, which is organizing the conference.

Mokuhanga is the art technique of traditional Japanese woodblock. The art form became popular during the Edo period (1603-1867), when complex multi-color prints were made by publishing houses in Japan, designed by the leading artists of the time.

“This term has become more prevalent and used even in the West to indicate prints done in the Japanese water-based method,” Kunc said. “So the inks are watercolor and are applied by a brush and not with a roller. The printing is done by hand with the bamboo baren, instead of using a press for the transfer of oil-based ink typical in Western methods.”

Kunc said Mokuhanga almost has a “zen” approach.

“It’s inherent in the Japanese method that the process is a little bit slower, and there needs to be a bonding of the materials, where the ink and the water affect how the print is going to be,” she said. “There has to be a symbiotic relationship of how the colors and the water are all absorbed into the wood. There’s quite a mysticism about the relationship of all these parts.”

Kunc’s first experience with Mokuhanga was in 2001 when she completed a residency in Japan for six weeks that specialized in Mokuhanga and was run by Nagasawa Art Park.

“It was a wonderful residency to become immersed into the countryside village and small town on the island of Awaji,” Kunc said. “And yes, we were meant to adapt to all of these processes, working on our knees on the tatami mats, and also interacting with the small community that was there. It was an amazing experience.”

Since then she has engaged with the process off and on.

“I don’t do it constantly,” she said. “But I have done several interesting projects, and I’ve taught it a little bit.”

Kunc taught a Mokuhanga workshop at her new Constellation Studios in Lincoln in August.

Kunc said the Mokuhanga process creates a different look than her oil-based woodcuts.

“I think the Mokuhanga method has a softer quality,” she said. “The ink actually does look a little watery. It interacts with the wood differently. I like it because I can contrast those effects with the oil-based effects, and those two different print qualities and textures—inside and onto the paper—can speak to each other. It feels like I am speaking a greater range of vocabulary with the combination of both woodcut approaches.”

Another important quality in Japanese prints is the mysterious blending gradations called Bokashi.

“Even how to do that kind of Bokashi technique consistently is difficult, as it is meant to create a transitional sense of space that is really beautiful,” Kunc said. “It’s something I’ve admired in Japanese prints. I have figured out a way to do similar kinds of blends in my Western oil-based method and that is something that’s very distinctive about my prints, those color accents and blending illusions. But to do it in the original watercolor method that really relies on brushing out the ink, is a very interesting way to work. And it’s not easy.”

Kunc joined the International Board about a year before the first International Mokuhanga Conference in 2011.

“The Japanese organizers were interested in having a global presence on their international board to continue the network that had been started through their residency program for international artists. Artists from all over the world have been learning the Mokuhanga process for more than 15 years through the Nagasawa Art Park, and now at the new IM-Lab site based at the foot of Mt. Fuji,” Kunc said.

This year’s conference will have about 200 participants from more than 15 countries around the world, including Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Poland, Netherlands, China, Italy, the U.S. and Finland.

Exhibitions will include an open Mokuhanga Competition Exhibition, featuring more than 150 contemporary artists’ works. In addition, Tokyo University of the Arts is also organizing an historical exhibition from the collection of the Tokyo Museum of Art.

Kunc will have some of her work displayed in a juried International Print Book Exhibition, as well as an exhibition that the board was invited to participate in alongside the competition exhibition. She will also participate in an open portfolio session.

In addition, the conference will include demonstrations and panel discussions that include new research about the historical facets of the Mokuhanga printmaking and how to keep the process alive today.

“One interesting opportunity is for the printmakers to meet with the makers of the traditional papers and tools,” Kunc said. “Again, one of our interests is how do you preserve this craft that they have passed down in family businesses, father to son, very small, traditional craft cultures. It needs to be preserved, but they need people who want to use their materials for it to have a market. There’s a natural relationship between the two that doesn’t often have a chance to come together.”

Kunc said there is great value in preserving the Mokuhanga process.

“All hand printmaking is somewhat anachronistic. We’re still interested in making things by hand,” Kunc said. “There’s a really important value in that experience. There’s a mind-body flow with creative work that way, and in many ways, I want to be an advocate for that.”

She’s also interested in contributing to the woodcut aesthetic language.

“I’ve created woodcut prints all these years,” she said. “I’ve contributed already to how this print process is perceived, how it’s taught, along with the technical innovations that I’ve done. But there’s a vast vocabulary of how the printing made from wood looks. It’s a material that’s always present. So this always leads for me the questions of why make prints from wood and what does the wood mean?”

She views her work with the International Mokuhanga Conference as important in spreading the knowledge and awareness of this important printmaking process.

“The more we can expand our knowledge and bring awareness of the variety of visual effects and how we respond to these qualities, it increases our understanding and the value of this medium,” Kunc said. “Japanese prints are beloved around the world. Each month there is an international showing of Japanese prints somewhere in the world. They’re in collections everywhere. We have to keep it as a living art, not a museum artifact.”