Looking at the remarkable woodblock prints of the ASARO collective, it is clear that some of these talented young artists have had formal art training. I was surprised when Mario told me their maestro (teacher) was a seventy-five year old Japanese artist named Shinzaburo Takeda.
I asked Mario if he thought Maestro Takeda would speak with me.
“No,” he said, “Maestro Takeda doesn’t speak.”
“You mean he doesn’t speak English?”
“Not English, or Spanish, or Japanese,” said Mario. “He is a man of few words.”
Takeda is a professor at the School of Art at UABJO, The University of Benito Juarez, Oaxaca. So, of course, he speaks, but Mario persuaded me to let the idea of talking to Takeda drop.
Then, a few days later, Mario announced with some annoyance that he read an internet essay stating ASARO had studied under another great Oaxacan artist, Francisco Toledo. Mario insisted this was entirely incorrect; none of them had studied with Toledo. (Francisco Toledo may be the most important artist in Mexico. In 2008, at Christie’s in New York, a Toledo watercolor drawing of elephants sold at auction for $265,000.) Mario respects Toledo. Toledo had, indeed, supported some ASARO projects and permitted them to exhibit in his IAGO Gallery, but Toledo was not their teacher. I shrugged and said I hadn’t written that essay. Mario decided I must talk to Maestro Takeda to set the record straight.
Oaxaca’s School of Fine Arts is housed in an ancient stone cloister beside the magnificent baroque Basilica de Nuestra Señora Soledad (The Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude.) In the 19th century the Mexican government seized properties from the Catholic Church, so today it is common to find public schools and museums housed in former convents and monasteries.
When I arrived for my first appointment, Maestro Takeda told me he could not talk, as there was “a problem” at the college. He asked me to come back the next day. The next day the massive wooden doors leading into the college were padlocked shut. A note pasted across the doors announced a protest against the school’s administration. Two men, who looked like plainclothes security, were unimpressed that I had an appointment. They told me to come back another day.
The next day I noticed a dapper gentleman with a mustache, wire-rimmed glasses, and a brown fedora chatting in a plaza near the art school. I approached Takeda, and reintroduced myself. I asked if he had a moment for an interview.
He asked if I’d like to have a “cafecito,” meaning a quick coffee. I said yes. He excused himself from his friends and led the way east along the crowded sidewalk of Avenida Morelos. As we walked, I did all the talking. I told Takeda that I’d read his biographies on the web sites of Philadelphia’s Indigo Arts and San Antonio’s Ruiz-Healy Gallery. I told him I had seen his 2004 one-man exhibition in the Museum Diego Rivera in Guanajuato, Mexico, and was impressed by his artwork. That earned a nod.
After two blocks of me talking and Takeda nodding, he paused and poked his head into a smoky coffee shop. He turned back to me a said, “Cerveza?” (Beer?) It was my turn to nod.
He pointed ahead toward the zocalo, the town square. We walked another five blocks and turned right at the cathedral. He chose a table near the stone arches on the west side of the square shaded by laurel trees and umbrellas advertising Cerveza Bohemia. Takeda asked the waitress to bring a plate of pickled carrots and he ordered a Sol. I opted for the Bohemia. The zocalo is the heart of Oaxaca, ground zero for the rebellion of 2006. This is where the artists of ASARO used to sit on the curb selling their prints. Punctuated by interruptions from guitarists, a marimba band, beggars, and children selling handcarved toothpicks, Takeda told me his story.
He was born in 1935 and grew up during World War II in Seto, Japan. Seto has a long artistic tradition and is best known for its rustic earthenware pottery used in tea ceremonies. He studied art in Tokyo in the 1950s, then moved to Mexico City in 1963. He attended the Academy of San Carlos, the country’s leading art school. He also took night classes with the radical printers of the Taller Grafica Popular at the “Escuela para Trabajadores,”( School for Workers.) Takeda has lived in Mexico for over forty-five years, the last thirty in Oaxaca. When he reached Mexico, he sensed he was “home.” There is a YouTube interview, in Spanish, in which Takeda explains his somewhat mystical belief that Oaxaca is his ultimate destiny.
I found his life story unique, but Takeda told me he was not the first Japanese artist to move to Mexico. Tamiji Kitagawa (1894-1989) arrived in Mexico City in the 1920′s and became an integral part of the “Mexican Renaissance.” Kitagawa was the director of an influential “open air” art school in Taxco, Mexico, that attracted the next generation of Japanese artists.
Takeda spoke of his passion for the art of “xylographia,” Spanish for woodblock printing. There is an equivalent English word, “xylography,” but it is seldom used outside of textbooks. Woodblock printing may have originated in China. But it was in Japan that Hokusai, Hiroshige and other Ukiyo-e printmakers elevated the art to its greatest heights.
Takeda imported the first Japanese woodblock tools to Oaxaca. Japanese hand chisels, or gravers, have straight, “U”, or “V” shaped blades. The finest are made of high carbon forged steel, like samurai swords, and are quite expensive.
The young artists of ASARO work with less expensive materials. They sometimes use ordinary utility knives to carve scraps of “3-ply,” cheap plywood sub-flooring. Takeda believes this 3-ply process, which has spread around the world, was born of necessity in Oaxaca. He credits his former student, Oswaldo Ramirez, with being the first to use these raw materials.
Takeka also teaches painting and drawing but feels his Oaxacan students have a special affinity for woodblock printing.
Takeda believes xylographia’s special appeal is three-fold. It begins with the physical labor of carving. Unlike the brush or pencil, a razor-sharp blade forces the artist to focus with a unity of physical and spiritual energy. The second special characteristic of the art-form is a sense of mystery. With brush or pencil, the artist sees the marks as they are made. Woodblock printing is much trickier to visualize. It is a subtractive process. The carved areas are not inked when the roller is applied, so the engraved “marks” do not print. When the first impression eventually appears, the image is reversed, flipped on its axis. So, the printed artwork is always different from the artist’s original vision.
I interrupt Takeda to tell him I’ve heard the result is 30% different than what the artist expected. He shrugs at the precise percentage and insists the point is it is always different,“ un milagro” do I understand? “a miracle.” Mexicans have a thing for milagros. The third amazing aspect of xylographia is its fertility. The art can be reproduced over and over.
“How many torculos, (printing presses) are there in Oaxaca today?” he asks. “So Many!” he answers himself. He laughs; he tells me his friends joke that Oaxaca will sink like Venice under the weight of the printing presses.
Maestro Takeda spoke about his outreach project to Oaxaca’s poor. He is devoted to nurturing students from the underclass, the sons and daughters of “campesinos” or landless peasants. Oaxaca is among the poorest Mexican states and one of the poorest regions of the state is the remote Costa Chica. Nearly 8 hours by bus from Oaxaca City, the Costa Chica is home to Afro-Mexican communities. An activist Roman Catholic priest there, Padre Glyn Jemmott, has made it his life’s mission to raise awareness of Mexico’s racial diversity. Padre Glyn is himself of African descent, born in Trinidad, and like Maestro Takeda, devoted to expanding opportunities for the campesinos.
During the 1990s Maestro Takeda arranged for some of his best students go to the Costa Chica and work with Padre Glyn. Only Mario, who would later become a founding member of ASARO, stayed to teach the students in Padre Glyn’s parish. Interestingly, Mario had a grandmother of African descent, even though he was born in another state, Vera Cruz. Under Mario’s supervision, the Costa Chica youngsters made portfolios of woodblock prints reflecting their unique culture. Art exhibitions were mounted to raise awareness of the Afro-Mexican heritage and highlight the best student work. Over the years, a number of these students have been admitted to Takeda’s Fine Art program at the university.
Mid-sentence, Takeda has an idea. “Like Baltizar!” He asks me to take Baltizar, a student from the Costa Chica, to Pennsylvania on a scholarship to Kutztown University. I break it to the Maestro gently. I’ve met Baltizar, and his prints are extraordinary, but it is not that easy. I have no authority to offer scholarships. Besides, Baltizar speaks no English. He would never pass the TOEFL, the English language test. I suggest a Texas or California school with bilingual classes might be an option for Baltizar.
When the political turmoil hit Oaxaca in 2006, Takeda challenged his students to respond to the crisis as artists. If one is an artist, then one responds to any phenonomenom, be it natural, social, or political as an artist. He teaches his students about Mexico’s proud heritage of activist artists. He shares his own collection of books of Taller Grafica Popular prints with his students. He is impressed with both the quality and quantity of political prints his former students in ASARO have produced. He recalls with pride how ASARO upended the whole idea of the preciousness of art, selling their unsigned prints for just a few pesos more than the cost of the paper it was printed on.
After just two beers, I am ready for a siesta. Oaxaca City is in the mountains, over 5,000 feet, and somehow beer seems stronger at high altitudes. Maestro Takeda, nearly twenty years older than I, is clearly better acclimatized. He springs to his feet as he puts on his fedora, telling me he has to get back to work.
I have one last question. I ask him about a line in a review of his work saying he is “more Mexican than the the Mexicans.” He laughs aloud. ” That is impossible,” he says. “I am a mix – Japanese, Mexican, but most of all, Oaxacan.”
credits: Takeda photos by Kevin McCloskey Takeda’s artwork: courtesy Ruiz-Healy Art, San Antonio, Texas. Additional art may be viewed at the Humboldt State College’s First Street Gallery web-page.