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On the Ground with Japanese Art Brut

Hisayoshi Watanabe’s figures at first appear to be simple rag dolls, but on closer inspection, they reveal themselves to be much more. Twisting, cutting and tying scraps of discarded fabric, Watanabe fabricated objects that are deliberate in their intent and distinctive in their form. Each of his works is unique, defined by materials at hand. Some pieces are soft, delicate or whimsical in appearance, while others can be more menacing and forceful. He made some sculptures from the simplest of materials, such as a washcloth and a few knots, others pieces can be elaborate and extravagant, with many types of fabrics, textures and, at times, even jewelry.

Watanabe was like a magician when he made a sculpture. Out of a neatly packed suitcase, he would remove a bit of cloth or an old garment. Then with powerful hands, he manipulated the material into a basic figure. Never cutting or sewing, he created the structure with tied cloth strips. After the figure was shaped, the embellishment began. This could be just the addition of a few pieces of fabric that suggest attire or more elaborate adornments of found elements resulting in complex and robust forms.

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“Untitled,” Found Cloth. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery.

Gentle in his manner, Watanabe explained to me when we met that he has been homeless for sixty years. He once had a house in Tokyo, but it was destroyed in an earthquake when he was in his twenties. During the last years of his life, he lived at the northwest corner of the Nihonbashi Bridge. The original Nihonbashi Bridge was built in the 1600s and has been rebuilt several times in the same location. This landmark is known throughout Japan, as it is the point from which all distances from Tokyo are measured. It seems more than just coincidence that Watanabe, who valued culture and history, chose this place as home.

Each weekend Watanabe presented his work on the most fashionable shopping street in Tokyo, the Ginza. On Sunday, the Ginza is closed to automobile traffic and becomes a pedestrian walkway. Watanabe came to the same sidewalk on the Ginza since the mid-sixties. He would setup shop on the curb directly in front of the Wako department store, one of the most exclusive shops in all of Japan.

"Untitled," Found Cloth. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery.

“Untitled,” Found Cloth. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery.

Watanabe did not come to the Ginza to sell his sculptures, but to share his vision with anyone who was interested. If asked to sell a figure, Watanabe would accommodate, but for each work he would only accept 100 yen – a bit less than $1 US. When he saw a person thoughtfully looking at one of his sculptures, he would simply put that figure in the arms of the viewer, presenting it as a gift. One got the impression that Watanabe felt these objects should belong to the people who are drawn to them.

Watanabe never spoke in detail about his work or his motivations. He recalls that he started making figures after seeing the opening events of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Watanabe was also concerned with movement in his work. After he completed a sculpture, he would demonstrate it in action, flipping and contorting the figure like the Olympic athletes he saw so many years ago. Yet there seems to be other inspirations behind his creations.

"Untitled," Found Cloth. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery.

“Untitled,” Found Cloth. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery.

Watanabe appeared to be informed about Japanese art and literature, and it is evident that he saw himself as an artist with something significant to contribute. When encountering these works, one perceives a profound depth of focus and commitment, the efforts of a serious thoughtful artist. Using the most humble of materials and under difficult circumstances, Watanabe created an uncommon body of work that reflects as well as transcends the contemporary.

"Untitled," Found Cloth. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery.

“Untitled,” Found Cloth. Image courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery.

Watanabe passed away in the early evening of August 10, 2007. His exact age was unknown, but most likely he was in his late 70’s.

On August 15, 2007, his cremation was attended by a few of his friends/admirers. They were allowed to have a small amount of his ashes. They took them back to his “home” at the Nihonbashi Bridge. Mixed with the soil under the bushes, his ashes were buried next to the place where he slept every night and where he made his sculptures.

This post is adapted from Art Found Out. Art Found Out is a blog about artists informed by heritage or a highly personal aesthetic vision. Artists profiled on the site respond to and reinterpret traditional culture or find motivation from a hyper-internal drive to create. Art Found Out also examines lesser-known non-western art forms, both contemporary and historic that enhance the understanding of the artists presented.