I first met Sadako Ohki, the Japan Foundation Associate Curator of Japanese Art at the Yale University Art Gallery, during a visit to YUAG with my Japanese literature course. We stood gaping at Japanese calligrapher Konoe Nobutada’s towering poetry screen, complete with six folding screens displaying the melancholic love poems of six female poets. However, despite Ohki’s detailed description of the piece’s content and aesthetics, I was at a loss for words to describe how I felt looking on at Nobutada’s intricate yet bold brushstrokes on the discolored screens.
When I asked Ohki what she felt, she replied resolutely, “strength.”
Indeed, viewers’ emotions when viewing the piece was more than appreciation, more than awe. The viewer transcends simple admiration and experiences what both the poet and the calligrapher felt as they produced the piece. In short, the calligrapher, poet and viewer feel as one. In a single word, Ohki encapsulated the sensation of being in the presence of a calligraphic masterpiece.
Born and raised in Tokyo, Ohki started attending calligraphy classes at age eight, taught by a neighborhood instructor. Often singled out for her remarkable aptitude at the art form, Ohki was motivated to continue practicing calligraphy into college, whereupon she received a teaching certificate in calligraphy — an incredible feat for a 20-year-old. It was also during this time that Japanese university students of the Shin-Sayoku, or the New Left, took to the streets to violently protest for social reforms.
“I needed something continuous, steady and grounded in my life during such a tumultuous period. I looked to calligraphy.”
Instead of pursuing what promised to be a steady career in Japan, Ohki was determined to “introduce Japanese calligraphy to the West.” She packed her bags and left Tokyo to attend the University of Michigan as a master’s candidate in history of art, and later earned her doctorate in the field in 1984.
Though Ohki is now an acclaimed art curator, her first foray into art curating was not until 1998, after she was hired as the associate director of the Institute of Medieval Japanese Studies at Columbia University.
“My job was to do everything Japanese,” Ohki laughs.
There, she ran an art exhibition with pieces by Japanese Buddhist nuns, overseeing its every aspect. From clerical work of writing contracts, to technical work of installing artworks, Ohki did it all. Though an exhausting feat, the experience gave her a comprehensive glance into the curating world.
“My life changed. Together with calligraphy, I discovered curating as something I do well and something I love.”
Before then, Ohki focused on practicing calligraphy solely for her own self-expression. Now, Ohki found herself at the intersection of creating art and showcasing it to the world. She discovered a unique approach of conjoining Eastern art with Western culture, bringing to fruition the goal she had harbored since she left Japan in 1974.
Since joining the Yale faculty in 1999, Ohki has transformed Japanese art on campus from head to toe. “When I first came here, an art historian told me, ‘I didn’t even know that there was Japanese art at Yale.’ Indeed, there were only two worthwhile Japanese calligraphic pieces. I was brokenhearted.”
Brokenhearted she was, but Ohki was committed to change.
“I was going to make something tangible, so that people will never say that about Japanese Art here again.”
Together with the help of the governing board members at the YUAG, professors, art dealers and curators from inside and outside of Yale, Ohki began to slowly expand Yale’s Japanese art collection. In 2007, she succeeded in creating the YUAG’s Bulletin for Japanese Art at Yale, a catalog of masterpieces in diverse forms of art — from Buddhist hanging scrolls, to calligraphy on silk, to lacquerware and pottery. The 250-page catalog is not just a tangible asset, but a spiritual one — it exemplifies the long overdue surge of awareness and interest in Japanese art
Ohki has succeeded at transforming the art scene at Yale. She credits her success to her strong sense of discipline taught to her by calligraphy training.
“Picture facing your white sheet of paper, grinding your ink and preparing your brush. Once the ink hits the paper, there is no going back,” Ohki explains. “There are so many aspects of calligraphy that demands your absolute concentration: not only what you are writing, but also your periphery — the type of inkstick, brush, paper. You cannot overlook any detail.”
To demonstrate what she means by “discipline through calligraphy,” Ohki recounts a visit to the National Palace Museum in Taiwan, where, for a week, she visited to observe one scroll: The Monk Huai Su’s calligraphy scroll.
“I looked at it for — I don’t remember — for how many hours. Then — ah! — I suddenly recognized that the ink tone of the first fourteen columns is different, meaning that they were probably done at a later time.”
Ohki’s training is not only on paper, but also in the mind. It is more than physical movements of the brush; it is the training of her attention, control, composure, conviction. It is, encapsulated in one word, professionalism.
Occupied with managing Yale’s curatorial work, Ohki still practices calligraphy, though not as much as she wishes. She compares calligraphy to music: Practice precedes improvement. However, Ohki does not compose her own poems. Just like in music, where there are great composers and great performers, Ohki is the latter. Ohki is also highly selective of the content of her calligraphy pieces.
“I cannot write calligraphy of a poem that I do not like,” Ohki said. “Calligraphy writing is physical; I am putting every part of myself into it. The effort I put in has to balance the feeling in my heart. Otherwise, I cannot bring it to life.”
As I sit alongside Ohki, sifting through the calligraphy pieces included in her art catalog, I cannot help but feel the same way I did in the YUAG classroom. I realize that calligraphy is more than ink on paper; it is a messenger of poets’ sentiments, portraying what cannot be conveyed through plain words. It is a précis of art on canvas, condensing what could be expressed through thousands of brush strokes into just a handful. Or, perhaps, if literature and art were droplets of ink, then calligraphy is the paper, the foundation upon which both disciplines rest.
Bernice Zhao | email@example.com .