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June - July 2006


The Kenji story

- Priya Sundaravalli

Art is born when the boundaries between the creator and his material disappear and become one. It is this one feels seeing Kenji's works in wood.

One look is sufficient. These are the works of a master craftsman. Burnished wood surfaces radiating a soft honey-glow, showing grain and growth rings, knots and gnarls. One begins to perceive the tree behind the work as the wood comes alive.

Kenji working on an old tree root. Every Kenji creation is an heirloom piece.  Photo by Sebastian“I feel I can communicate with wood,” says Kenji almost shyly. This, obviously, is an understatement. His modesty also shows as he but rarely presents his works in Auroville, in Ikebana or pottery exhibitions. There they appear discretely as props or bases providing support to or accentuating other artists' creations. Only recently, in Valeria's Ikebana lecture, were a few works prominently displayed.

A majestic ‘Guardian of Gods', a traditional doorway piece that marks the entrance to sacred spaces in Japan, standing regally poised in front alongside a sunflower arrangement; and elsewhere, a low table, its dark wood like a swirl of molten chocolate, supports a frothy spray of dry flora.

The table  is created  with three different types of wood (work tree, transformation, and rosewood) sandwiched together to create a seamless unity.Photo by SebastianKenji's creations are complex and layered. Every piece is one-of-a-kind. “That's because every block of wood is different,” says Kenji. He uses varieties of local timber, like the work tree, neem, transformation, jack, and uses the more rare woods, like rosewood, for accents or highlights. But like for a true artist, for him the material no longer is a limitation. “I keep my eyes open for any unusual wood,” he says. “Once on a vacation in the Yercaud hills, I saw a beautiful piece of root discarded by the roadside.” He tied up to the roof of the taxi, brought it back to Auroville, and promptly incorporated it into a piece – it was from a coffee bush

Kenji who is originally from Japan , moved to Auroville in 2001 along with his Italian wife Valeria and their daughter Monica. His foray into woodcraft came through his association with the ocean and sailing. Growing up in the seaside town of Shikoku in Japan 's South Island , the ocean was a part of Kenji's everyday life. “I soon developed an interest in diving and underwater photography, and both these activities brought me even closer to the sea.”

But it was a trip to Australia by ship that led him to the adventure of a lifetime. “I wanted to sail around the world,” he says. He got himself a 38 foot yacht, Tradewind, and left Japan at the age of 32 on a trans-oceanic sailing adventure. Since circumnavigating the globe for fun on a sailboat is not the done-thing in Japan , Kenji's departure created quite a sensation. “There was a crowd of 500 to send me off; the media was there and even two helicopters,” he reminisces with a smile. “When I sailed out, a special ship with water displays and fountains lead me out of the harbour.”

The seven-year journey was, he says, his ‘adventure of consciousnesses,' the subject for another story. Several life-changing events took place including meeting and falling in love with a fellow seafarer, the Italian Valeria, who later returned with him to Japan . Equally significant was a sudden hurricane off the coast of Australia early in the journey that almost sank Tradewind. “My boat turned over, the bulwark was destroyed and it was only by the grace of the Divine that I came out alive,” says Kenji.

He docked in Australia to rebuild Tradewind. “It took almost a year; I remember it like yesterday,” says Kenji. “The boat was so exposed and naked. Working on it was like working in the open guts of a living creature. And all my spirit went into the repair.” It was then he discovered his love for wood.

Upon his return to Japan , Kenji joined a wood workshop to become a carpenter. “I wanted to learn professionally.” His teacher was an elder craftsman, highly skilled in making fine traditional furniture. “The standards of quality demanded was of the highest order,” says Kenji. “Every step has to be done by hand.” He explains how in traditional Japanese furniture making, there is almost no use of nails or screws, and the perfect finish is achieved through fine joint work and seamless fittings. “So the work is time consuming, and requires a lot of patience and aspiration for perfection”.

Kenji would spend the wintertime working and learning at the workshop, and in summer, together with Valeria, operate a charter boat taking tourists on excursions into the sea. But they soon realized that living as a Japanese-Italian couple in Japan was not easy. “Being in an interracial relationship, particularly when one partner is Japanese, was difficult socially.” Kenji and Valeria felt they needed to find a more ‘neutral' place to live in, and it could not be either Italy or Japan . One of their subsequent travels abroad brought them to India and to Auroville where they found their perfect niche.

The transition to the Indian setting as a Japanese carpenter has been challenging. “To maintain high standards of quality is difficult here,” he says. “Even if one item you work with is of low quality, like sand-paper for example, it pulls everything down.” The other adjustment Kenji had to make was to work with new and unfamiliar wood varieties.

“In Japan , it is mostly soft woods, and the trees grow more straight and regular.” In contrast, the trees from India he says are of the hard wood variety. “They also have more branches and grow quite unevenly.” But what surprises him most is the presence of foreign inclusions within the wood. “I come across stones very frequently,” he says. “It is as if when these trees grow, they always hold and keep something inside,” he adds with a laugh. Kenji has cleverly ‘borrowed' this idea and deliberately incorporates crystals or stones into some of his works, inlaying or embedding them into the wood surface.

Asked how, with all the difficulties here, he manages to bring the perfection and delicacy that seem to distinguish his works, he replies, “Little by little. When I work, I feel calm and so much joy comes from the hands.”

Now, after his five years in Auroville, Kenji has an impressive body of work that is ready to be shown. Besides the flat trays, there is an assortment of high and low tables (jadaku), a shoji (rice paper) room divider, a Tansu (chest), and even a grand Yofukudansu (a classic garment cupboard). The Indo-Japanese Association in Bangalore has offered to host an exhibition of Kenji's works in late summer. “It will be the first time I will show my works outside Auroville,” he says.
Hopefully this is just the beginning.

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