REFLECTIONS ON RICHARD FLAVIN
Compiled by Tim Barrett
I’m so sorry to hear of Richard Flavin’s passing. At every PBI that I was able to get to, Richard was pure magic to be around. I learned so much from him. One of the very best times of learning something new for me was his PBI class “In and Out of the Vat” at Penland. Somehow that was over 20 years ago. Richard was for me part of what made PBI so incredible. As was Nell Meldahl, too. They both taught me so much about books and about craft in the Japanese tradition. Such wonderful people we’ve had the honor to learn from. – John Cutrone
[Posted on the Book Arts Listserve, 5-28-2020]
Trip to Richard Flavin’s in Ogawamachi, Japan Friday, October 4, 1985
Got up at 5:30am, packed our stuff and headed to the train station and Ogawamachi- First time we got to use our rail pass for the 1st part and the rest was by private line – took about 2 hrs. Realized we had to transfer at one point when everyone got off the train. We got there with amazing good luck.
Richard came and picked us up after I called. When we got in his van and I saw tapes of old time music, I knew it was going to work out.
He & Haruko live at a Buddhist Temple- as a result they have larger living quarters than most and not many visitors to the shrine except for one big event a year.
No shoes- tatami mats- Japanese no flush and no hot water or shower/ bath visible.
He had a papermaking studio of sorts- more like a summer porch area and a number of old Japanese chests of drawers. Lots of Persimmon trees in the area, bamboo and red lily-like wild flowers. He showed us his studio he does printmaking Japanese style wood block prints.
Richard took us to visit a papermaker in Ogawamachi. Mr, Tanaka- a lively little man who had a young woman assisting him. He was making dark green kozo paper and laminating splotches of red, and dark blue to it.
We watched him form a number of sheets, charge the vat and stir vigorously all the while slowly pressing another group of sheets. His wife made us tea & Chestnuts and we watched as he removed the sheets (no felts between but he did lay a sheet of dry white commercial paper between the lamination and the next sheet. He whipped them off the stack and onto his steam heat paper dryer. In a matter of 5 minutes or more the sheets could come off.
This particular paper would later be crinkled, smoothed, and laminated to a flat sheet of paper- quite a process. The studio was dark, cool and would be very cold in winter. In surrounding rooms were stacks of paper, the kitchen, outfront was soaking tanks, cooking shed, picking shed and storeroom we didn’t see.
We never really spoke to Mr. Tanaka. Richard asked questions for us. We left his place and stopped at a place in town and bought sandwiches for lunch and took them back to Richard’s & Haruko’s. While we were trying to eat our lunch, the cat kept carrying on- jumping on us, the table and she had a horrible pink bulging eye and side of her face- cancer. Her voice was out of a nightmare- I tried very hard to act normally since she was like their child and they were taking her back for treatment on Saturday.
Anyway- we then left again and went to the Paper Station- Shikenjo a very large facility with only one woman ever doing anything- picking kozo from Thailand. We saw any number of beaters, cookers, even a small scale paper machine and some different su’s & wooden stamper. Richard uses the Station to cook, stamp, beat his fibers. There was a huge lab section but it was locked up.
We left the lab and went to visit Mr. & Mrs. Fukuishi- su(flexible screen) makers, one of 6 still doing it in Japan. They make screens for papermakers, ones for rolling up brushes in and decorative ones that are lacquered for large sus.
The loom is on wheels to be moved along as you work. Their studio was up the steepest stairs with clutter everywhere and he was sitting on the floor with poor light and weaving away. The su has heavier bamboo strip along the edge. The length of the strip is determined by the space between the ridges on the bamboo. Someone else supplies the drawn down bamboo. I remember Mr. Fukuishi had grooves cut into his longish finger nails that he would use like a beater to position the fine bamboo used to weave the surface.
We left there and went back to their home and spent the next couple hours chatting and cleaning specks of kozo. Then he showed us paper he had made & Haruko fixed a wonderful supper. Five taste casserole & chicken pieces and Sake- very good- except for the cat.
After supper, Stu and Richard played folk, bluegrass music – Richard on a banjo and Stu on a fiddle at hand. I had no idea that Bluegrass music was so popular in Japan. I looked at Richard’s books and listened to the music and then there was an EARTHQUAKE! Things started vibrating slightly for about a minute- a very scary feeling as we had asked about earthquakes earlier and Richard said they rarely have any. Experiencing it in the old temple reassured me as to how many other earthquakes they had over time and it was still standing.
We slept on the floor in the room next to them with sliding frosted glass panels between us. On Saturday morning we had the best toast so far- wheat, molasses with preserves and tea. Bought Richard’s beautifully made book, The Ballad of Joe Kozo #13 from an edition of 100 which he signed, dated and inscribed to Peg & Stuart.
We all four of us and the cat walked to the train station to go to Tokyo. When we got there we got our Bullet Train reservations. We headed back to the Ogahsui Hotel to get a room. It was about 11:30am & we weren’t allowed to check in until 3pm. Trudged back to the park and ate sandwiches we had picked up. Then walked over to Tokyo University to check out the Metals Dept. We asked 2 Japanese students where it was and proceeded to head every which way- finally found some of it but nothing was happening until Monday. We walked back to the hotel and collapsed- walking with a backpack in the rain was not my favorite thing to do. Then at 2pm we left to meet Richard and Haruko to see about getting some Katazome tools. Instead we visited a school of sorts- a couple of tiny rooms and in one an old woman was coating the stencil with some smelly lacquer and next to it at a low table was a woman cutting an intricate stencil and an older man who R & H conversed with who told us about the process. He personally seemed to do very intricate figurative kimonos and women with many colors. He had some beautiful examples- 300 years old- stencils framed. We left there and went old book store hopping. There were about 30 of them. Richard seemed to know which ones had books on art/craft. Saw some beautiful Japanese paper sample books.
Study No. 7: Richard Flavin
The following is Aimee Lee’s section on Richard that she wrote for her report for the American Folklore Society (you can download the entire pdf after searching for her name on this page: https://www.afsnet.org/page/ConsProfDev
Of all the ex-pats devoted to washi in Japan, Richard Flavin is by far the elder statesman. It is worth repeating that many people believe that he makes paper closer to the Japanese tradition than Japanese-born makers. An artist and proprietor of Jionji Press who lives in Tokyo and maintains a studio in Ogose, a western suburb, Mr. Flavin is an American from Boston who has lived in Japan for over 40 years. I met him twice during my trip, at his wife’s studio. Ryoko Haraguchi is a talented textile designer who owns the design studio Sind/Gallery Sind in Tokyo, and works extensively with master artisans in India.
Mr. Flavin was drafted during the Vietnam War and therefore very happy to be sent to Korea to serve in Incheon (1968-1970). In Korea, he met an etcher who introduced him to a Japanese printmaker, and was so inspired by this visit that he returned to Boston to save money to get back to Japan. Like Mr. Denhoed, he never expected to stay this long. In college, he studied graphic design and printmaking, and in Japan learned how important paper was to woodblock printing. In the 1970s, Ogawa’s Testing Station had an excellent system with many teachers, where he met Timothy Barrett, who happened to be training at the same time. This was a way for students outside of papermaking families, and even outside of Japanese culture, to learn the craft.
Eventually, Mr. Flavin gathered enough equipment to set up his own studio and kozo field. He found a dream location at a Zen temple in Ogawa where he was the temple keeper in exchange for rent. He was very active in the farming community, which included the care and harvest of kozo plants. The building was very accessible and he worked there until a tragic fire in 2005 that destroyed everything. This was the biggest shock of his life, and he used his entire savings to help rebuild it. The community is happy with the new temple and he remains part of it, having always given a yearly donation since his days as a caretaker. In the meantime, he and Ms. Haraguchi had already bought land in nearby Ogose, so they built a new studio there. It is more remote, 20 minutes from the station after a 1.5-hour train ride from Tokyo. Only one neighbor stays year round, and only half of the 12 houses are occupied. The homes are not winterized but his studio is insulated, though his only source of heat is from kerosene space heaters. Ogose is a depressed area that can only produce plum and other fruit trees because of its poor soil in the rocky mountains. The benefit to working there is clean river water that runs through his property with high calcium content, excellent for papermaking.
When Mr. Flavin had the temple space, it was large enough to accommodate visitors and short-term students who came and went as they trained with him, as well as long-term ‘apprentices’ like Mr. Denhoed. Mr. Flavin never searched for people to train; they simply came and he took in those whose natures fit. When Mr. Denhoed asked to study with him, Mr. Flavin accepted because they had already met and he knew that they would get along.
Now in his early 70s, Mr. Flavin no longer teaches papermaking because the physical labor is too demanding. He still teaches paper casting and other craft workshops, which require significantly less time and energy to prepare. He thinks that washi can only survive if young people participate in making it. “If you asked me ten years ago, I would have said that washi would not survive. But now, the attitude of young people has changed,” having seen more of them give up city life to move to the country. Though country life requires a lot of hard work, it is less costly. He noted that young papermakers are more independent and freer than their elders, who often only made paper to fulfill orders and had a limited, conservative output.
Mr. Flavin spends weekdays in Ogose at his studio and long weekends in Tokyo to help his wife at work. They both use kakishibu (persimmon dye) and carved woodblocks in their respective work on paper and textiles, and the same block created dyed designs on silk and debossed patterns on paper. He loves antiquing, and has found worm-eaten account books made of washi that he recycles into new paper, cross-shaped woodblocks carved on both sides to print kite designs, and 66cm-square sheets of paper made during World War II for balloon bombs.
Mr. Flavin has an expansive view of papermaking and his travels informed our conversations about Chinese, Nepalese, and Philippine papermaking. He acknowledged Mr. Kobayashi’s prescient insight to approach a brewery to make sake labels, which has now become a trend. Mr. Flavin also made labels for a local brewer over 10 years ago in collaboration with a local farmer, to make a product made entirely in Ogawa. He feels this is a consistent and regular market for washi, which appeals to customers looking for good quality products. In the past, he made large paper with Mr. Denhoed to cover fusuma (sliding panels that act as doors or walls) for a traditional Japanese restaurant in Kyushu. These are only a couple of his many collaborative projects that highlight the versatility and beauty of handmade paper.
Without signs of boredom, Mr. Flavin fielded my barrage of technical questions with practical and poetic answers. He talked about work songs in Ogawa often sung while people beat fiber, one whose lyrics are sung by women who do not want to marry papermakers. Unlike most of the papermakers that I met, he considered himself an artist first. To make his art, he dedicated himself to papermaking, which is the first step before he works with natural dyes, acrylic colors, and rubbings over wood and metal shapes. Not many artists commit this deeply to materials and process, and his work has inspired American endeavors in root-to-sheet papermaking that leads to thoughtful paper artwork. His boundless sharing of time and expertise seemed completely in character with his history of teaching many people over many years.