Tamiko Thiel
Brush the Sky
A calligraphic family narrative, written onto the skies of Seattle (2015) and San Jose, CA (2019).
Tamiko Thiel: Augmented reality & digital prints / Midori Kono Thiel: Japanese calligraphy & mylar hangings


With these texts we hope to give some background on the concepts and motivations behind this project:

On the Calligraphy for Brush the Sky

For the gallery exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum, Midori Kono Thiel chose to experiment with a new medium: transparent sheets of treated mylar instead of Japanese washi paper as the substrate for the traditional water-based sumi ink. Radically abstracting the calligraphy, she separated the strokes of the characters over several parallel sheets in ways that are never done in traditional calligraphy, rendering each sheet a completely illegible, abstract construction that only from straight on frontal perspective would resolve into the proper alignment. Shadows cast by lights create a second, distorted and ghostly layer, and a slight draft in the rooom stirs the sheets and the shadows in constant, animated motion.

As the mylar does not absorb the sumi ink, traditional methods of bleed and flow of the ink, or the scratch of the dry brush, did not work. Midori had to discover new ways of interacting with the page, even blotting the puddles and pools of ink, or letting them dry together only to rip them apart into two separate traces, as if the two sheets were block and print of the woodblock prints she used to work with.

For the augmented reality (AR)* calligraphy, Midori's daughter Tamiko Thiel rendered the black-to-grey calligraphy into her signature virtual gold. She preserved much of the fading and transparencies but adding elements of repetition, distortion, scale and animation depending on the meanings and relationships between the respective calligraphy and its location.

So for instance at the Pike Place Market, the phrase "Mukashi mukashi, ojii-san to obaa-san ga …" ("Long, long ago, an old man and an old woman …) is repeated over and over again, echoing the many individual stories of each family that sold their produce at the Market. At the site of the former Nippon-Kan, the calligraphy "Yo-in" ("Reverberation, Lingering Sound") periodically spawns a faint replicant that fades slowly away like the ringing of a bell.

At the Asian Art Museum, "Senri no Bunka" ("Thousands of Miles of Culture") is replicated into the distance, forming caravans of characters that then drift apart, transforming the single simple Japanese calligraphy into a complex tapestry reminiscent of the multitudinous cultures spanning the Silk Road. In this way, although the strokes of the virtual calligraphy do not have the intricate subtlety of the original calligraphy on paper or mylar, each on site installation uses the special characteristics of augmented reality to enhance the calligraphy with a visual evocation of its meaning and relationship to its site. * Mobile augmented reality (AR) reifies the hitherto unseen layers of memory and culture associated with a site into artworks visible in the display of a mobile smartphone or tablet AR app. The artist places virtual computer graphic artworks – 2D, 3D or 4D animated - at selected sites via their GPS coordinates. Viewers at that site see the virtual artworks as an overlay on the live camera view of their surroundings, as if the artworks were physically present at that site. The real and the virtual merge into a new experience of reality.

Midori Kono Thiel's Path to the Way of Calligraphy ( Shodō: 書道 )

For Midori Kono, growing up on the island of Maui and later in high school in Riverside, California, the image-rich pages of Life Magazine were a fascinating introduction into a larger, outside world. In the late 1940s to early 1950s Life featured big spreads on the new artists in New York who were doing totally abstract, non-objective expressionist painting.(1) Especially striking for Midori were the bold black and white works of Franz Kline.(2)

Her personal search for color intervened, however, and led her to study painting at UC Berkeley in the 1950s. At that time debates raged on the question of meaning in art. The philosopher Susan Langer(3) maintained there is a basic human need to invest symbols with meaning, but in the art world abstraction had won the day and figurative painting was seen as old fashioned.

Midori was working in large, abstract expressionist oil paintings, but when her son Kenji and then daughter Tamiko were born she began working more with the smaller scale woodblock prints, attracted by the abstraction inherent in the slashes of wood printed on paper and by the less toxic materials used in Japanese woodblock printing. Seeing Oliver Statler's(4) now classic "Modern Japanese Prints: An Art Reborn" in 1956 led her to apply for a grant to study woodblock printing in Japan. Her husband Philip Thiel was also able to get a travel grant for studying Japanese spatial design, and so the young family moved to Japan in 1959, staying for one and a half years – for the entire family, the beginning of a long and important relationship with the land and culture.

Through Statler Midori met Yuji Abe,(5) who had just founded the Yoseido Gallery in Tokyo in 1953, specializing in modern prints. Upon seeing her work, Abe introduced Midori to Hideo Hagiwara,(6) who became her teacher – and shortly thereafter became famous, taking the grand prize at the international woodblock exhibition in Tokyo.

Hagiwara was an abstractionist, but the titles of his work evoked nature, or some internal emotion, and seemed to have deep meaning and emotional impact. The possibility of combining abstraction and deep meaning also led Midori in Japan to her first studies of calligraphy as an art form. The dramatic black and white forms of modern calligraphy recalled Franz Kline's abstract art, but enhanced with the importance of an inherent meaning.

Returning to the US in 1961 via freighter, the family disembarked in Seattle, the ship's first port of call. Phil's fortuitous lunch with architect Victor Steinbruck and Bob Dietz, the dean of the architecture department, led to his immediate appointment at the University of Washington, and the family settled in Seattle.

The Kono family's long history in the Seattle/Puget Sound area also made the city an attractive place to raise a mixed Caucasian-Asian family - in those days still a relative rarity. Midori's grandfather Jinpachi Kono came to the US in the early 20th century to earn money to buy back the clan's mountain, lost due to financial speculation during the war with Russia. He called his son, Midori's father Juhei, over to the US as a 13 year old boy in 1911 to help work his father's 1-acre farm, in Fife near Seattle. They sold their produce in Seattle's Pike Place Market – as did many Japanese American farmers, who before their forced internment in WWII made up 4/5ths of the stands. Juhei remained in the US, became a Methodist minister and in 1961 was the minister for the Issei (first generation Japanese) at Blaine Methodist Church in Seattle.

The University of Washington in Seattle also provided a cultural "home" for Midori. In 1963 the Center for Asian Arts (now defunct) opened at the UW and began bringing both fine artists and performing artists to Seattle. Midori began studying the instruments koto and shamisen (for which in 2013 she acquired her master certificate and stage name), and also Noh and Kyogen theater with Mansaku and Man Nomura, the latter who is now designated a living national treasure. The Kono Thiel family, now with sister Kiko, was able to return again to Japan in 1967-'68 to deepen its ties with Japan further. Midori continued her studies with the Nomura family, the children attending Japanese schools, learning to read and write grade school level Japanese and even winning awards in a prefectural childrens' calligraphy exhibit.

In 1976 the famous calligrapher Yamanouchi Kan came to teach at the UW, and with him Midori began her intense involvement in exploring calligraphy both as an art form and as a historical form, learning about its background, its roots in China, and its development in Japan. Since 1979 to the present day she has continued on these studies with the Reverend Kanshu Ikuta and Mrs. Hiroko Ikuta of Beikoku Shodo Kenkyukai, and has won prizes in calligraphy exhibitions in the USA and Japan.

In the drama of black ink on white paper she recognized the same emotional impact as the bold black and white works of Franz Klein. At that time able to read only a few of the actual characters, she was more attracted to the formal and dramatic qualities of the image as abstract art, rather than to the meaning of the characters themselves.

1) Abstract Expressionists: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Irascibles
2) Franz Kline: http://www.moma.org/collection/artist.php?artist_id=3148
3) Susanne Langer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susanne_Langer
4) Oliver Statler: http://www.hawaii.edu/asiaref/japan/special/statler/bio.htm
5) Yuji Abe: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2005/02/19/people/yuji-abe/#.VEkckxaVPIU
6) Hideo Hagiwara: http://www.myjapanesehanga.com/home/artists/hideo-hagiwara-1913---2007-

On the Magic and Mystery of Calligraphy as Abstract Art

Many Japanese perceive calligraphy primarily as abstract art, since the characters used in fine art calligraphy can be entirely different or be extremely abstracted from the forms used in everyday writing. Of the five traditional styles brought over from China by or before the 6th century A.D., only the "gyōsho" semi-cursive script used for handwriting and the "kaisho" block script used in printing are taught in the schools. The "kōkotsu-bun" oracle bone script, the origins of Chinese characters as magic divination symbols; the "tensho" seal script, still in use for "hanko" seals which are the Japanese legal equivalent of a signature; "reisho" clerical or scribe script, developed for writing Buddhist sutras; and the very abstract and fluid "soshō" grass or cursive script are often not legible to many Japanese.

Originally, educated scholars in Japan wrote only in the Chinese language, just as Latin was used for written communications throughout Europe. Japanese however has an entirely different grammatical structure from Chinese, so the "manyo-gana" system of characters was developed to write texts in Japanese using solely the phonetic sound of Chinese characters, without reference to their semantic meaning. Man'yogana written in the soshō cursive style evolved into the more simplified phonetic "kana" syllaberies ("hiragana" and "katakana"). These were used especially by women of the imperial court, as Chinese was considered too "difficult" for women (as was Latin in Europe). This development of a writing system for the Japanese language led to the "golden age" of classical Japanese literature in the 10th-11th centuries – largely written by women.

The masterpiece of this time is The Tale of Prince Genji, written in the early 11th century by the imperial court lady Murasaki Shikibu and widely considered to be the world's first novel. As it was unseemly for noblemen and noblewomen to meet face to face, they courted each other by sending exquisite poems back and forth through intermediaries. Both the would-be lover and the object of desire would judge each other's worth and quality on the basis of: the appropriateness of the poem and its subtle references to the season, current events and high literature; the beauty of the physical presentation, including the quality of the paper, its perfumed scent, the exquisiteness of the presentation – wrapping the poem on a sprig of the appropriate season; and most importantly on the quality of the calligraphic hand, which was considered to reflect on both the physical and spiritual beauty of the writer.

From the 12th century on, Zen Buddhism had an important impact on calligraphy that lasts until the current day. Instead of extensive texts, practitioners would focus on one or two characters and on the dynamic expressive force of the brushstroke, performing writing as a form of meditation. Modern calligraphers build on this tradition: in the "gendaisho" contemporary style a small number of characters can be written huge and bold, as tall or taller than a man; in the "kindaishi" modern poetry style the characters will be purposefully awkward, as if written by a child or an uneducated person. In the expressiveness of their work, modern calligraphers seek to evoke the magic and mystery of calligraphy's origin as divination.

So is not necessary to know the meaning of the characters to be moved by the art of calligraphy. As with all abstract art, one can be moved by the energy and power of the stroke, the elegance or sensuousness of the line, varying from thick to thin, stopping, turning, leaping through the air and landing with a splash, the impact of black ink on white paper. But the wonder of calligraphy is that because there is meaning in these words, there is an added depth which influences the act of writing. Calligraphy is immediate, raw expression, a performance recorded in time – the artist never reworks a page. Each calligraphic image is a dance of the artist's body and spirit, expressed directly from the heart through the hand, and made visible on paper.

Through the visual form and dynamics of the stroke the artist tries to convey their personal relationship to the word and its meaning. In modern calligraphy artists discovered the use of grey ink to convey gentleness, softness, something that is unsaid ... Or the ink might fade from black to shades of grey, fading into nothingness as the brush runs out of pigment. The stroke may start deep black and bold, but fragment into dramatic trails as the brush runs dry. It might be bleeding, blotched, flowing, the ink spreading out in a halo around the character. It is at the intersection of wet and dry ink on paper that the artist conveys spatiality on the two dimensional page ... all this is part of the expressive beauty of calligraphy, the power of abstract art deepened by performative, lived meaning.

Midori Kono Thiel
Tamiko Thiel
May, 2015