Chatham University

Chatham College for Women

Commencement 2009

Naoko Matsubara
May 23, 2009


Good Afternoon.

Dr. Esther Barazzone, President of Chatham University; Dr. Murray Rust, Chairman of the Board of Trustees; Dr. Laura Armesto, vice president for Academic Affair; Deans of the University; Members of the Board of Trustees, alumnae, friends of the university and guests - it is a great honor to speak to you this afternoon.

I would first of all like to thank Dr. Esther Barazzone for the decision to present me with an honorary doctor's degree in Fine Art. I am overwhelmed and grateful, and feel a sense of responsibility. My thoughts are especially with the many extraordinary mentors, friends and people around the world who have guided me, nourished me, encouraged me, inspired me and helped me throughout my life.

I am particularly happy that this great honor is coming from Chatham University; and I would like to tell you the story of my connection with this institution, which goes back 48 years. Please bear with me if you have already have heard the story, from the public lecture which I gave at the Carnegie Museum of Art in early March this year.

In 1961 I was a graduate student of the School of Fine Arts at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University. Dean Norman Rice, a tall and elegant man, was very kind and thoughtful to this new foreign student from Japan, and told me that as a graduate student I was free to take any class or course in any department, without obligation: but that while I stayed at Carnegie I should seek out what I wanted to pursue in the field of art and design, and dig a deep hole for myself.

Initially I wanted to look into commercial design, in which the United States was then ahead of Japan. But I lost that interest the moment I arrived in America; and chose rather to discover what I really wanted to pursue among the various fields of fine art. So I took lessons in calligraphy with Prof. Howard Glasser; I had some lessons in mural art with Prof. Wilson mural art, using color cloth stitching; I took lithography lessons with Prof. Gardener on the sixth floor; and in Prof. Glasser's classes I did lots of life drawing as well. I also gave demonstrations of Japanese calligraphy for Prof. Arnold Bank's class. But I could not yet find the medium I was earnestly looking for. September passed quickly and October too was passing by, and I started to feel tremendous pressure.

Then, one day in the fall of 1961, Ravi Shankar came to perform in the chapel of Chatham University; and some friends asked me to go and hear this extraordinary musician. I had never heard of him or his music, and I had never seen such an instrument as the sitar. That night I experienced a strong rapture and almost electric joy, so to speak, from the sitar music as well as from the rapport I felt with this Indian genius. I had no sketch book with me, and could make only tiny line drawings on the small edges of the program.

Next morning, when I arrived in my studio at Carnegie Tech, I was still breathless from excitement. I begged my good friend Russell Twiggs at the school to get for me right away any piece of wood, any piece at all, as I had the urge to make a woodcut out of my impressions of the concert. Russell obtained for me a big sheet of spruce or birch plywood, 8x4 feet; and I had it cut into pieces 2x3 feet or thereabouts. Then with two small tools I had brought from Japan I started to dig into the extremely hard plywood. My eagerness to create something worthwhile out of the rapturous experience of the concert was so strong, that I continued with gusto at this hard task for weeks.

By the time I had finished two large woodcuts, and printed images from them onto the Japanese washi paper I had also brought from Japan, I heard my inner voice saying "this must be the direction you wanted to pursue!" I still do not understand why I wanted to record my impressions of Shankar with woodcut, rather than with painting or sculpture or another medium of printmaking. When I left Japan, I had no intention of pursuing this rather old-fashioned Japanese medium. But there it was: in the open and very free environment of the Carnegie Institute, for the first time I found myself earnestly seeking the right path to pursue, and in this totally unexpected way something came about that has been so essential and important in my life. After this amazing incident, I could continue to create abundantly, without any hesitation. When I left the United States, I felt confident enough to set sail on a voyage of woodcut making as my vocation.

In March this year, when I came to attend the openings of my solo shows at the Art Gallery of Chatham as well as at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Esther took me one sunny afternoon into the Chatham chapel, and I sat down more or less where I had sat listening to Ravi Shankar 48 years ago. It was a moving experience. Thanks to Esther Barazzone, who had the cultivated vision and imagination as well as the exceptional ability to organize and carry the project through, my two woodcut prints from 1961, called "Ravi Shankar" and "Two Musicians", are now hanging permanently in the beautiful Mellon Boardroom; along with my newly commissioned woodcut collage entitled "Giant Tree". I cherish the thought of this big beautiful circle in my life, so strongly connected to this fine university here in Pittsburgh.

Over the fifty long years of my career as an artist, in so many ways I have been extremely lucky to be able to continue to create, having numerous shows, and teaching as well as publishing my books and portfolios; but as in any long voyage, I have encountered a fair amount of stormy weather.

As I think back, perhaps the most difficult time was when I experienced rather severe post-partum depression. To our joy, a beautiful and very healthy 10-pound boy was born a year after I married and moved to Toronto. After going through 48 hours of labour I unfortunately had an internal infection from the caesarian operation. I was so sick and weak, and my weight went down to only 90 pounds. I had no mother nearby to care for me, I had no friends to visit me since I was a stranger in Canada, and I had no help to instruct me in dealing with a new-born baby. My husband and I stumbled and struggled alone through this entirely new situation.

Physically it took me nearly two years to return to normal, but my mental state was a lot worse. I did not know there was such a thing as post-partum depression. I was constantly tired, and cried all the time. I had lived in the United States for ten years before coming to Canada, and never previously suffered from homesickness. But in my poor physical state, I started to miss everything about Japan. I missed our culture, I missed our customs, I missed our food and I missed my mother and friends. The pain of bottomless loneliness was so foreign to me, and too hard to deal with. I used to think that those stories of Japanese ladies who came to foreign countries with a businessman husband and broke down with loneliness had nothing to do with me, but then it became all too real for me. The previous year we had bought a house outside Toronto, with two large mortgages; and we were completely broke as well.

In desperation, my solution to this unbearable situation was to start making woodcuts of the city of Kyoto, for which I was having sudden pangs of nostalgia. With this as my motive force, memories of that exquisite city came clearly into focus in my exhausted mind, one by one: the centuries-old monasteries, the castle, the palaces, shrines, the beautiful gardens where I used to roam; the N? and Kabuki performances and the sounds of their unique music; the many elegant traditional festivals which take place across the city throughout the year; the streets and the old houses; the weavers, the potters, the gardeners and shop keepers; the scenery of mountains and streams and trees surrounding the city... I sought to digest all these images into my own woodcut language. Memory can be a more effective basis for creation than photographs or sketches, because it eliminates extra things and focuses on the essence of what I wanted to capture.

It was a slow and tedious process. I had a house and baby to look after, and I was constantly tired and weak. Over four long years I gradually created more and more woodcuts of this beloved subject; and I began to dream of gathering my woodcuts into a book. Amazingly, this desperate process of creation and purposeful dreaming wafted my depression away completely, and I did not even notice when it happened.

I was very fortunate in that two books of my work had already been published in the 1960s by Kodansha International in Tokyo and New York. They had been well received, and I knew the editors well. I telephoned the chief editor of the company and explained to him that I had been earnestly making woodcuts on Kyoto, and had assembled some 25 to 30 of them. I asked if he was willing to publish them as a book; and he said "Yes, let's do it!" That is how my book Kyoto Woodcuts came into existence, in 1979. Of course, by that time our baby boy was running around and attending kindergarten.

In my medium of woodcut, it is not at all difficult to learn the technique: even school children can manage to do it easily. That applies to painting as well. But the most difficult part is to sustain the creative force in yourself continuously, year after year. Also, just as living beings we need to breathe fresh air, we cannot repeat the same thing. Within the limits of the medium, we have to grow and find a newer and fresher language, both for our own time and to satisfy ourselves: which is not a easy task.

In my case, very often I receive inspiration from the life around me: from seeing magnificent trees, powerful rivers, tranquil lakes, majestic mountains, the changing light on vast fields in the country, beautiful dancers and so on; or from hearing music or travelling abroad to visit interesting and unusual places. Another creative source for me can be a good book: and I especially enjoy reading poetry and fairy tales.

In 1986 my husband led a cultural tour to China and Tibet, and I accompanied the group. Before the trip we were all asked to read quite a lot about both countries and their history and culture, but nothing had prepared me for the immensity and magnificent blue of the Tibetan sky; to see so many half destroyed but still beautiful monasteries in that unfortunate land; or for encounters with its simple, pious people. Together, they were a powerful inspiration for me.

Right after our return I set to work, to put my impressions of Tibet into woodcut. But I could not do it. I struggled and searched for three whole months without getting anywhere. I even thought that maybe Naoko Matsubara was finished, as nothing worthwhile was coming out. I was beginning to feel desperate also because my big show in Tokyo was scheduled for the following spring, and I had already announced that it would be about Tibet.

I had made many woodcuts of Japanese Buddhist monasteries, using majestic black and white forms. The subject matter suited this kind of expression. On the other hand, what I saw in Tibetan monasteries was the dense mass of color in their labyrinthine interiors, so many raw bold colors on the doorways, walls, pillars, brackets, ceilings, stairways, altars, images, brocade hangings and other numerous decorations. Yet the total impression was of the spiritual harmony pervading these overflowing colors. I even wondered if for Tibetans the colors themselves might be considered deities.

Finally I started to understand that I had to respect the colors as they were. Each color speaks to the next one, and has to stay connected to the whole; and I could not spoil them by attempting to mingle in conceptual ideas. Slowly what I wished to create from this powerful inspiration started to emerge and take wing. Also, as a woodcut artist, I could not allow myself to forget the integrity of the wood itself. It was an exhilarating experience for me when this new search and these new experiments finally started to work. Late as I was in my career, it was the beginning of my understanding of abstract expression in art. I am grateful to Tibet and the Tibetan people who have shown me the way towards this new realization, giving me a stepping stone to proceed in my career.

In 1995, my prints of Tibet were published together in Canada as a book, under the title Tibetan Sky, and with an introduction by the Dalai Lama. I was happy to be able to donate the entire proceeds from the publisher to the office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whom I respect so much.

Thank you for bestowing on me this honor, which I am sure there are other people who deserve more than me. Thank you for encouraging me to continue creating.