Both a traditionalist and a trailblazer, Shu Kubo has famously revived a centuries-old tradition through the art of Kirie or paper-cutting. Nashville Arts Magazine had the good fortune to sit down with Shu Kubo over cakes and tea in the intimate setting of the Japanese Consulate’s home. We later followed Shu Kubo to a small class downtown where he instructed a group of eager students in the art of Kirie.
Upon meeting Shu Kubo, it would be easy to guess that he is a professional artist. From his bold yet subtle attire to his tousled hair, he commands an aesthetic presence. Since the artist does not speak English, his translator, Sara Ogawa, acted as a liaison for our conversation. Language barrier aside, the artist’s excited gestures and expressive manner went beyond words to convey his passion for his work.Shu Kubo discovered the art of Kirie thirty-eight years ago while he was attending university in Osaka. The son of an architect, the young Shu Kubo had followed in his father’s footsteps to architecture school. Even though he loved what he was doing, the artist felt that he was not totally fulfilled by his work. Enter Kirie.
Tucked away in a notebook of paper cuttings carried by Shu Kubo are two delicate sheets of brown paper lacework. Latticed and filleted from top to bottom, they act like small screens through which you can view objects on the other side. As he unfolds them, Shu Kubo explains that these papers are from the Edo period of Japan when samurais walked the city streets. Hundreds of years old, these intricate masterpieces acted as a catalyst in Shu Kubo’s transformation from architect to Kirie artist.
Since childhood, Shu Kubo had been attracted to beauty in nature. In that love of nature, he found a source of patriotism. He explains, “When I was a little boy, ever since I was born, I grew up in great nature. We have mountains and rivers and fields. We have the four seasons, and we value them very much. For example, when you look at the flowers in the mountains or in the fields, you never get bored. I like to observe the scenery in nature. When I look at it, it moves me.”When Shu Kubo discovered Kirie, it allowed him to express and engage his love for nature and his love for Japan by charging an old tradition with new vigor. Shu Kubo works directly from life. He takes a sketchpad on long walks and bases his paper cuttings on his studies from nature. “When I take a walk, I don’t just take a walk and leave—I try to go back and see things carefully. When going and on the way coming back, I always see something new.” When producing one of his Kirie fish, Shu Kubo repeatedly goes to the market to get more fish as previous ones begin to go bad so that he can constantly observe the natural form as he works.
The artist compares his cuttings to the tradition of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints in Japan. “I started really liking Hokusai and Hiroshige. If I could go back in time I would like to show them my images. Ukiyo is printing—there is a similarity between Ukiyo-e and paper cutting. We both use the knife either to cut out paper or to cut out wood.”Shu Kubo’s Kirie masterpieces look more like prints than paper cuttings. It is hard to believe the works are made of paper at all. Their graphic quality could easily be mistaken for paint or ink. Perhaps the most surprising element of Shu Kubo’s work is the fact that they are mostly cut from one single sheet of paper. The artist usually begins with a black or brown sheet of washi, a special Japanese paper used for Kirie arts. He then carefully cuts away a silhouette based on his drawings.
These works are by necessity sharp and linear because of the razor stylus used in their creation. Shu Kubo claims that he can achieve a sharp line with Kirie that is impossible to recreate with painting and drawing. When Shu Kubo’s outline is complete, he places it over sheets of hand-dyed washi in various colors. The end product is a work that bridges two- and three-dimensional art. Part paper sculpture, part drawing, these chimeras defy categorization.
Shu Kubo believes that Kirie brings an entirely new form of art to the contemporary market. As part of his work as an emissary for the Japanese government, he travels to schools and hosts workshops like the ones that he held in Nashville. Through this work, he hopes to spread the word about his new art form and draw attention to the tradition in which he found his inspiration.