Playing with Poison Ivy

Well, it's actually a relation of poison oak, poison ivy and poison sumac, Toxicodendron vernicifluum or the Chinese (Japanese) Lacquer tree. The tree is grown commercially in Japan, China and Korea as a source for its sap which happens to contain very high concentrates of urushiol, the oil found in Poison Oak, Ivy and Sumac that causes the rashes; but it also makes a beautiful and durable lacquer.

For millennia, Urushi (the lacquer) has been used in Asia as a coating and varnish on wood, metals, ebonite (hard rubber) and even paper. It's used to decorate boxes and scabbards and statues and tableware and temples and jewelry and musical instruments and bows (violin, etc) and the items I'm going to talk about, fountain pens.

It is the early 50s and the location is downtown Baltimore between the harbor and Mount Vernon Place. Ike was running for President and my school had a mock political convention to help us understand the process. That makes me about eight or nine at the time of this story.

It was late spring; school was about to end and summer was coming on. Trees were in bloom and the weather warm and the smells from McCormick's plant down at the harbor filled the air. It was a weekend and I had gone to work with dad but had set out to explore some of my favorite places.

Just a ways down the hill from dad's office was the Walter's Art Gallery and one area I always enjoyed was their section on Japanese military armor with swords and helmets and parts from swords and daggers often depicting scenes from tales and myths, often engraved or painted but in a way unlike scabbards from European makers. I'd often ask about the scenes on an object and they could always find a man that would explain the history and tales depicted.

Soon it was the images and tales that became my focus and I was guided from the armory into the Walter's vast collection of lacquer and inlay and then their collection of Chinese, Japanese and Korean paintings and drawing.

The Walter's became my special haunt for the rest of the spring and summer and I would wander down every chance I got. Gradually some of the tales became as familiar as the North American Indian tales of Raven and Coyote and luckily dad insured several companies that could help my explorations into the tea ceremony and incense game, iron and bronze casting. I learned the tales of the Tongue Cut Sparrow, the Mandarin Ducks (that one really bugged me), the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, how a Prancing Pony made the fallen cherry blossoms fragrant by dancing on them and the tale of the Old Man who Made the Trees Blossom.

I learned about urushi and maki-e and "Japanning" (raden) and tea services and boxes to hold writing implements and the inro that took the place of pockets when wearing a kimono. At McCormick's they let me sample teas from all over the world a taught me how to "taste teas" (although I was not allowed to slurp at dinner). A jeweler that dad insured would let me play with bags of different gems and taught me the history and mythos of each stone. I got to visit (later worked one summer there) an iron works and foundry and see molten metals poured into molds. One small shop down on the waterfront sold incense and charms and fans and kimonos and papers with leaves and insects embedded (but they were Chinese not Japanese they said; it was less than a decade since the war ended).

So my fascination with pens that tell stories and incorporate various materials and hand craftsmanship began rather early.

Forward ahead a few decades and I found myself accumulating fountain pens. Among those I somehow ended up with were several ST Dupont pens that were coated with Chinese Lacquer and it was as shiny and deep and enticing as many of those items I had loved at the Walters. One was a Columbus Commemorative with the boats done in gold dust, a technique I remembered from my lessons (I did not realize they were lessons at the time or that I was learning, which is always the best way) as Maki-e.

Maki-e is an art where very fine gold powders (and other substances) are put down on still wet urushi through thin bamboo tubes to make pictures. Often the artist must literally hold his breath to avoid blowing the fine gold dust or abalone shell about. (you'll see more of the detail on this in awhile).

Later I turned and looked west to the East and added some pens from Japan and by Japanese artists to my accumulation. But before getting too far into Maki-e lets look at basic Urushi.

The fountain pens I'll be discussing here are all hand made from ebonite, hard rubber. The two companies are semi related; one is the Platinum Pen Company which began in 1919 and the other Nakaya which is staffed by retired Platinum employees. The model I will concentrate on from Platinum is the Izumo, a moderately large hand turned pen where there are almost no straight lines but rather continuous sensual curves. Once the cap and body are finished they are sent to be coated with urushi, a process that can take months. Each layer of urushi lacquer must be allowed to cure and then polished before the next layer of urushi is applied and the process repeated. With the many layers a deep, hard, nearly impervious coating develops that will last for many generations and actually improve with age.

Sometimes, a base color will be put down with several layers of a brighter color then layers of a darker urushi over top. As the urushi ages it will become increasingly transparent allowing the undercoating to show through. When only one color is used the process is call tame; kurotame would be all black. When there are two or more colors the process is called tamenuri as in Akatamenuri, aka being a red color.

Here you can see three examples of Platinum Izumo Urushi pens, from top to bottom, an Akatamenuri, a Soratamenuri and an Kurotame.

You can see the blue/green undercoating on the Soratamenuri just beginning to show at the edges of the cap and body.

Next here are examples of pens from Nakaya one in Akatamenuri and the other in Kikyotame.

and the Izumo and Nakaya Akatamenuri side by side.

Next I will look at some fancier Maki-e pens.

True Maki-e is not simply paint on some object. It begins with the urushi base as seen above. Then, while the lacquer is still not fully cured and is tacky various colored metals, gold, brass, bronze, silver powders are sprinkled on the surface to form a picture. Then additional coats of urushi are applied to cover and protect the images.

The least expensive Maki-e style pens use a silk screening method to put down the basic design which is followed by the artist adding hand done details. Each color must be a different silk screen and so registration and speed are essential but this form of Maki-e can produce some of the brightest most vibrant design. Some pens I've seen used as many as seven different silk screens.

The Maki-e pens where the artist does all of the painting are of course far more expensive and usually in limited editions. The details though produce an item that simply can't be duplicated by the higher volume silk screen techniques. Different size particles produce different results and very fine particles can produce even the gossamer look of a fishes fin or butterfly wing.

Let's begin at what I call the entry level Maki-e pens. These are all basic silk screened designs with additional hand embellishment and produced in unlimited editions.

Here you can see five different examples from three different makers. From the top down, a Platinum #3776 Plum Blossoms, a Sailor 1911 Oshidori (Mandarin Ducks), a newer Platinum #3776 Century model Sansui (Mountains and water), a Pilot Nippon Art Dragon descending from the clouds and finally a Platinum Modern Classic Two Cranes and Mt Fuji.

Each of these picture either a traditional theme or a fable in the case of the Oshidori.

Now let's look at an example of a Maki-e fountain pen done by a Maki-e shi, a Master. It is from a company called Danitrio, an American maker who has the pens hand turned and then finished by Japanese Urushi and Maki-e shi. This one is Suzume (Sparrow) on a Hanryo model pen by Mr. Masanori Omote.

As you look closely at the work you can get an idea of how detailed and precise it is as well as how the different powders can change the tones of the painting as the light changes.

the artists signature and chop

In addition to powdered metals, other materials such as abalone shells can be used as well as strips or leaves of the metals. Then the technique is called raden.

Here are two more examples the first an abstract design again from Danitrio and by the artist Zhi Hao...

... and an example from Sailor, Siamese Fighting Fish on a smaller size model 1911 fountain pen by Katsunobu Nishihara.

The fish's eye is a small dot of abalone shell and changes color as the angle of the light changes.

and the finest grind of gold is used to add the visual effect of transparency to the fish's fins.

So that is a short idea of what can be achieved when playing with poison ivy.