“Mastah piece, your mastah piece!” was the emphatic request coming from a modest and solitary presence amidst my wildlife art of wood. “Which one is your master piece!?!”
The sculptures of the elk and whales, of dolphins and the howling wolf, were all on display for this prime evening event of a week long business and cultural exchange. I had the role of the exhibiting artist representing the Coos Bay area, and my very good friend and expert winemaker, Phil Gale, manned the booth nearby showcasing Southern Oregon wines. We were the foreigners, along with the rest of our entourage, and all the local dignitaries in attendance seemed pleased with our offerings.
“So which of these pieces is the one you like,” I queried in a retailer’s drone, not really sure what this solitary gentleman had in mind. With all the art work around him, he looked neither right nor left as he reiterated, “I want your masterpiece.”
Now I understood. Although I did not have a designated masterpiece, I quickly sorted out which piece would qualify, by the quality of work and price tag, and directed him to a magnificent sperm whale mounted on my signature wave action driftwood. The large whale was fully carved in black myrtlewood, the most rare form of a very rare wood, and since his culture was known to include purveyors of fine woods, I thought he would be pleased.
But he balked at my offering, and backing up he explained, “ I will relay this news to my associate” and as he entered a hall through a nearby side door I wondered if I would ever see him again.
Things get even more interesting, however, as he soon sidled back up to me acting as though we were about to exchange state secrets, and urged me into a corner of my art display area. Having looked around and making sure our backs are to the busy traffic of the exhibit hall, he produces a roll, and with a maximum amount of concealment, quickly begins peeling off bills until he’s fully paid me for the whale sculpture. He had conferred with the buyer in the hall, whom I never did meet, and who did not feel the need to preview the art piece which he purchased. The only requirement was that the piece be the masterpiece, and this transaction remains the most unusual sale of my art career.
As the exhibit drew to a close, and feeling giddy from the unpredictable evening, I retired to my host family’s home. Entering the cozy sitting room, I found the grandmother of the house sitting on pillows and busily slurping from a soup bowl [slurping is good manners here]. With her feet dangling into the customary fire pit in the floor beneath the large, low lying table, this esteemed elder of the Sakurai family appeared to be in total comfort.
My curiosity was drawn to a glint of gold from a large opening into the adjoining room, and she nodded a welcome to explore the room. As I marveled at the extravagant gilded alter and the ancient cabinetry in the center of this room, the college age daughter with a wedding on the horizon appeared and explained this Buddhist shrine, which was the soul of their home. They had recently built a new house here, after tearing down the 500 year old original house that generations of their family had occupied for all those years. This sanctuary room and its fixtures from the old house, and from the one before that, remained intact, and in keeping with their traditions, the new house was built around it.
A high shelf ran continuously around the room, and here homage was paid to all the family’s ancestors, each with an urn of ashes and a portrait from film or on canvas depending on the era of the deceased. This circle of ancestors, with the living family in the center, was spiritually inter connected, and would connect to the future generations as well.
As I gazed around and around, one urn after another, and empty spaces for future use, and with the daughter’s willing narrative, I grasped the concept of this culture’s life-overlapping-death philosophy. With the zen conscience being like holding hands through the ages, each generation gained comfort that they, too, will be upheld by the succeeding family lineage, and the perception was that those who passed on, since they were such an integral part of the living, were really not gone at all.
Where on Earth?! Choshi, Japan, Spring of 1993