Hiroko Sato Pijanowski – Artistic Research Into Spiritual Expression

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By Hiroko Sato PijanowskiMore from this author

Creativity is problem-solving, a skill based on the conscious and/or unconscious recombination and juxtaposition of information derived from diverse sources and influences. This requires a synthesis of intellect and emotion, establishing relationships between the worlds of imagination, thought and physical objective reality.

To achieve this synthesis, the artist engages in two types of research. The first is the exploration of materials and technique, which corresponds to empirical research in the sciences. The second is related to the development of concept and content. To accomplish this, the artist undertakes the study of his or her world, receptive to all manner of stimuli, both external and internal, concrete and emotional. The information is absorbed, then consciously and intuitively reinterpreted in a manner that may reveal some personal or universal truth.

"Creativity involves the construction of mental metaphors. By making one word, image or, idea take the identity of another, you can force it to take on new meaning that may be original and valuable."

- Edward DeBono, New Think

One of the reasons that artists are rarely thought of as engaging in research is that the public sees only the finished work, the result of the art process. The process itself remains invisible, and in fact, aside from the technical part of the process, almost inconceivable. The creative process cannot be quantified and is very difficult to explain through the use of language because of its intuitive nature.

The evolution of my current approach may help to illustrate this process, this kind of intangible research, which includes the search for, and incorporation of, diverse sources and influences. According to Bruce Metcalf's "Techniques for the Head" (Metalsmith, Winter, 1983):

"All artists use sources and influences and inspirations, and all art is in some way derived from something else. If a work of art was totally and completely original, it would be totally and completely incomprehensible to everyone but the artist himself. Complete originality would be so far removed from our normal experience that it would probably be construed as madness."

He goes on to say that "the range of art includes everything. Everything that you can perceive or imagine is available to the artist (as a source) . . . his only limits are self-imposed." That artists rely on sources and influences does not mean that they cannot create something new. On the country, the role of the artist is to absorb all of this information and, through a sometimes subconscious process of abstraction, recombination and/or juxtaposition, to produce some new insight or truth.

I adapted Metcalf's ideas to my approach. I went back to the beginning, to re-examine my early work. I started a collection of "Influences and Sources" by going to all kinds of exhibitions, reading widely, listening to music, going to fashion shows. I took notes, collected clippings from magazines, took photographs, even occasionally took notes while watching television. I studied the history of metalsmithing, reviewing in changes in my field and the historical contexts in which they occurred. Through my observations, analysis and criticism, I started to understand what was important to me in my work.

In 1983 a colleague casually referred to me as "Miss Mokume." I felt both complimented for having reintroduced a traditional technique to the world, and also sharply criticized that my work was nothing more than a technical achievement. Because of this comment I returned to the basic questions of materials and technique in jewelry. I realized that not to use metal and technique would be a new direction for me.

I was also charmed by the conceptual designs of Issei Miyake, a world-famous Japanese fashion designer: first, his basic idea derived from that traditional kimono, a combination of rectangular shapes that, when worn, take on a new shape, creating a contemporary look; on the human body, people cannot tell what it is. It looks like an odd-shaped throw rug. It changes form because of the choice of material—soft, flexible and stretchable—in this case thin knitted wool.

I decided to try paper as a material for jewelry due in part to my previous experience in producing handmade papers at the Twin Rocker papermill in Indiana in 1978. My first piece was a neckpiece. It looked like a placemat on a table, but changed form when worn. Paper alone was too fragile to be worn, so I used canvas as a flexible inner support material, I worked with richly textured Japanese paper to avoid flat, smooth surfaces. The result of this work was adequate, but I still wasn't satisfied. I was only playing with material and form. The work lacked content. I did not have "heart."

While purchasing Japanese paper at the store, I saw, by accident, another beautiful material—papercord. Available in gold, silver, white, black and red, this papercord is called mizuhiki in Japan, where it is traditionally used for ritual purposes and gift wrapping. I had never seen the material before in its original form. I was intuitively drawn to it, perhaps because the gold and silver colors reminded me of metals.

The beginning of my work with Japanese paper and papercord coincided with a period of deep reflection upon the meaning of my life. I experienced a feeling of emptiness and purposelessness, which everyone confronts at some point. I pondered my own mortality and tried to come to terms with the eventual death of my parents. Even though I had a successful career and was happily married, something was missing. I was not satisfied. I had always thought that one of the reasons for producing art is that it would give me some discipline and serve as a form of meditation. Why wasn't I getting peace of mind from my work? Why was I dissatisfied?

When I began my work with papercord, these feelings were flowing though my heart—that life lis like a dream and that someday the light of my life would go out. I began to see an analogy in the papercord material: it is like the length of a person's life; there is a beginning and an end. In spite of its apparent fragility and threadlike form, the bright metallic colors of the papercord create an illusion of strength and permanence, an illusion similar to the one under which we live a large part of our lives.

In making my papercord jewelry, I realized that form can have meaning beyond mere abstract beauty (see Table of Contents page for illustration). The contrasts between this organic material and its artificial metallic color, and between the traditional applications of papercord and these abstract designs, comment on the evolution of man's position in the universe. We are part of the natural world and of a historic and cultural world of our own making.

At the same time that I was with papercord, these new insights were becoming evident in my metalwork. I love working with metal, I enjoy the feeling of it. And while searching for sources and influences in books and at exhibitions, I had found that the work that made the strongest impression on me was traditional Japanese metalwork. I found that the natural motifs in the traditional pieces were very fresh and literal. While I appreciated the excellence of their craftsmanship, for which the Japanese masters are justifiably famous, their unpretentiousness made me feel relaxed and comfortable.

I tried to analyze why these pieces made me feel this way. What gave their work such a joy of life and a dignity and power, even though they were small in scale? These were qualities that my work seemed to lack, and I was determined to find the answers. As a result, I have been traveling to Japan to study with master metalsmiths. While studying with these masters, I did not question or argue with their opinions. I accepted them, thinking that I would analyze their attitudes and thoughts after I had experienced them. Arguing the philosophy of their craft would have reduced my experience to theory. I am a metalsmith, not a theorist.

During this study I found that traditional Japanese metalwork uses traditional techniques and motifs drawn from nature to emphasize both function and esthetic value. Do the constraints on technique and motif enhance or limit the content of traditional Japanese metalwork?

To answer that question, we must understand the cultural background that forms the philosophical and esthetic basis of Japanese metalwork. I have found that, despite the accelerating Westernization of Japanese society, its moral and esthetic values are still strongly rooted in Zen philosophy.

A good illustration of Zen's influence is the development and continued popularity of the Japanese rock garden. The rock garden creates and presents a universe within limited space. Its intention is to touch the core of nature, helping man to reach enlightenment by releasing the human spirit from the three-dimensional world into the indeterminate universal space.

The rock garden was created as a means of practicing the "way to enlightenment" through the contemplation of nature. The philosophy exemplified by the Japanese rock garden is a strong force in the work of traditional Japanese metalsmiths. They derive their motif from nature; their work displays an elegant simplicity of design that creates an universe within the confines of space and material; and the strict discipline in their training and work leads to the state of selflessness that is the goal of Zen meditation.

In Japan, each metalsmith has a specialty, much like medical doctors have in the United States. If a Japanese metalsmith's technique is raising, or if it is casting, he or she employs only raising or casting. Surface decoration is strictly surface decoration. An enamelist works only at tenameling, since, as the fusion of glass to metal, it requires a different set of techniques than does metalwork. This high level of specialization enables Japaneses craftspeople to polish their skills and to achieve a high level of craftsmanship. There is also specialization in the types of objects that Japanese metalsmiths make based on both historical and philosophical grounds.

Perhaps the words of Japanese masters with whom I have been studying can help explain the nature of their work as well as answer some of the questions that face us as craftspeople today. The following are phrases by a number of Japanese metalsmiths that I have recorded over the years.

On Concept and Content

  • In my case, "arting" may be the word that applies. My goal is to touch nature. Nature is my master and friend.
  • When you design wild weeds in a field, let's say you are not just sketching the field or the wild weeds. Your eyes and mind should be like a poet.
  • You cannot just sketch the outside of an object. If you sketch only the form, the object you produce will be just an object, you will not be able to read or communicate the spirit of the motif. When you are ready to sketch, you must confront the motif. Face it and observe it. When you want to sketch a tree, see how the tree is growing, observe its surroundings. What are the relationships of space, light and background? What is the tree like when the wind blows into it? What will happen on a rainy day? Is the tree happy or unhappy? Does it suffer? Is it saying, "Well, I was OK before but now I am not so good" or, "I was in terrible shape but I am fine now." You can carry on these conversations to understand the spirit of the motif. There is no lack of such conversation, and so there are virtually endless motifs. The point is, how willing and able you are to converse with nature, to listen to nature and try to understand what is behind the surface of things. Deep inside you will find the nobility, value and preciousness of life.
  • When you make a piece, it is important to become one with the subject itself. Take the case of a deer: you become the deer and the spirit of the deer. When you are making a bird, you take on the figure of the bird and fly into the sky. When you are inlaying the line of a vine, the movement of your body is the vine, and your hand is the growing tip of the vine. If you make a piece in this way, your work will touch the heart and mind of the viewer. If it doesn't, there must be some impurity in your work.
  • I want to create the innocent joy that we feel when we look at a baby smiling; it makes us smile even if we are not its parents.

On Material

  • How can the artist express feeling with a particular material, such as metal? I confront the metal, and use it just as if it were alive, just like a growing flower. If you don't plant the flower in good soil, or you fail to water or fertilize it, if it doesn't receive the proper amount of sunlight, the flower will not bloom. I feel a love for the metal. If you approach a material in this way, you will discover its different charms: it may be happy or sad, quiet or noisy . . .
  • Though the metal is strong and hard, it can sometimes be melted or bent, it can be changed from heavy to light. It can be cheerful. Through different treatments you can even pull out some gentleness. If you can see this in the metal, you can express your feelings on the surface.
  • Under the restriction of the material, I have tried to express some feeling in the steel surface—unsophisticated roughness, or sometimes gentleness, grace and elegance.

On Technique

  • Because materials have physical restrictions, you must employ techniques you can control (any way you like) to express feeling.
  • Beautiful material is not equal to beauty. It is the responsibility of the artist to develop and push the material to achieve a level of expression. For this purpose, because metal is such a difficult material to work, long discipline you will also discover yourself.
  • There should be an accumulation of technique that will enable you to know and control materials.
  • Technique is necessary to produce craft that brings joy to people's hearts. While it is important to understand and experiment with new methods, there is meaning in the use of traditional techniques. Human beings are a mixture of the traditional and conservative as well as the progressive.
  • If a craftsperson is a true artist, he or she will not to try to defeat the material by imposing technique. The technique is only a means of drawing the expressive qualities from the material.

On Craft

  • The goal of craft is to produce a functional object with spirit and beauty by hand.
  • Craft means to produce an object within the constraints of a particular material.
  • Craft is an expression of the admiration of life within the context of usage and esthetics.
  • It is not necessary to be distinctly original. Super craftsmanship will reveal the touch of you hand. It doesn't matter that you use old forms or traditional motifs with traditional techniques, because you fill find beauty beyond age.


The point of quoting from these Japanese masters, aside from the intrinsic beauty of the thoughts, is that even within the constraints of materials, traditional Japanese techniques and even traditional form, there is the opportunity, perhaps even the duty, for the artist to express both spirit and emotion. This idea of expressive freedom within constraints may be illustrated by the following analogy.

Shoeni Suga, Oni wallpiece, cast bronze, 9 x 9″, c 1966

I was watching a television program on Baryshnikov performing classic ballet. When he dances, he creates an atmosphere on stage through the movement of his body. The lines of his steps create lines on the stage, and the lines create forms. If he is not skillful in the execution of the steps, the audience will not be touched by his movement. He says that the emotion he puts into the dance is the most important. The classical steps become nothing, only a part of the whole. He can say this because he has mastered the classical steps and they are now a part of his body. The audience can enjoy this tangible process (in this case dancing) with the artist while he is performing. The resultant piece will remain as an intangible image in the mind of the viewer.

In the case of the craftspeople, while the processes of thought and creation involved in making the piece are intangible, the audience is presented with the quality of a tangible result. If classical dance and music are played again and again, yet enjoyed by people a bit differently each time they are performed, then can the same principle be applied to the field of metalwork? I believe that this is the idea behind the philosophy of traditional Japanese metalsmiths.

Based on my studies  with Japanese craftspeople, I feel traditional Japanese metalwork reflects the spirit of the artist. They love the materials with which they work—metal—and face it with an attitude of honesty and obedience. Their work shows the internal psychological expression of the strength and freshness of life, and the beauty of wisdom, intelligence and depth of sensibility. With regard to the other's functionality in daily life, the Japanese masters believe that if they are honest about themselves in their conversations with nature, and make every effort to produce feeling in their work, the audience will be touched by it.

The reflection of the artist's spirit in traditional Japanese metalwork is very subtle, partly because of the constraints of material and function, but also because the work is very carefully thought out and executed with superb technique. Their work leads me to the universe of beauty through delicate changes in sensibility brought about by careful attention.

There are traces of the unconscious resistance of materials and tools by the hands of the master craftspeople that results in a synthesis of the material beauty and the artist's personality. They are finding a joy in crafting these pieces, and playing in the world of self-effacement (that is, in a state of spiritual selflessness). When the work achieves these qualities, the audience can share some of the same joy and feel the individual artist's personality when they touch the object. Interestingly, though traditional Japanese metalwork employ realistic, natural motifs, it is an interpretation, not an imitation, of nature. This work does not confront the viewer, it is not directly about meaning. It embodies dignity, power and life in an unpretentious manner. This is self-expression at its most refined.

The Japanese approach is for the artist and the material to become one. Craft should reflect the artist's joyful search for truth and communicate this joy to the viewer, making his or her heart beat honestly and freshly. A mastery of technique is indispensable if the finished work is to achieve spiritual expression. If the craftspeople is a true artist, he will use skill as a tool, rather than egotistical demonstration of his mastery over materials.

Craft is the quality production of objects by hand, objects that have function and connotation of spirit or expression. The object is defined by its relevance to human existence. It is dependent upon the use and perception of the viewer, otherwise, it has no importance. It is the artist's responsibility to combine the functional characteristics of craft with esthetics and expression.

Craft produces something that is physical, that produces joy when it is held and touched, much like the human body. For this reason craft is concerned with issues of scale and detail. The most comfortable size for a piece is determined by human scale. The height of a person while standing or sitting, the length of arms and legs, the size and shape of the human hand and the living space in an ordinary home or public building are all considerations. The weight of the crafted piece also influences the effect it will have on the viewer or holder.

Quality craft is spiritual existence, as well as the combination of head, heart and hand, both in making the pieces and in the audience's response to them.

Professor Richard Guyatt of the Royal College of Art in London noted the relationship between heart, head and hand when someone experiences the emotional urge to create. These three components are integral to any type of art, from industrial to fine art to craft art.

  • Industrial art springs primarily from the intellect but is dependent upon the skill of craftspeople and the esthetic response of the people that comprise the market.
  • Fine art must, of necessity, include all three human qualities, even though it may emphasize one or two. Without judgement, emotion or technique, fine art would be devoid of interest.
  • The craftsperson seeks to express form and function though the beauty of skill. If the artist does not combine hand and head to organize and execute the work, and heart to create a sense of spirit and a relationship to society, the work will be purely masturbatory.

The lines between industrial art, craft and fine art are not at all clear, since they all require the application of heart, head and hand.

Art and Craft

  • Embrace honestly and enthusiastically an event in nature and the universe.
  • Produce a response, and then a memory in the mind of the audience through the application of the human intellect at work.
  • Demand a high level of skill to work within the limitations of material and the considerations of function, yet still achieve a level of personal expression.

Personal Direction

My studies with the Japanese masters pointed the way for me to develop the marriage of heart and hand that I had been seeking. My extensive research and study of technique had given me the tools with which to work, but now I had to find my voice, to define what I wanted to express.

When I returned from Japan, I produced two small pieces (about 4 x 4) titled Cherry Blossoms at Night and Autumn. These attempts were unsatisfactory, although I couldn't say why. I went back to my notes, and my collection of materials. About the same time, I started to visit the Zen temple in Ann Arbor. Long periods of quite meditation helped me begin to find a sense of personal direction. This, too, was a form of research for me as an artist. My current work focuses on expression. I am interested in creating images that communicate emotions to the audience.

I wish to express a soothing antedote for the loneliness and emptiness in life, a common and profoundly human feeling. I want to offer the audience relief and warmth, the chance to forget ugliness and sadness of the world.

I try to create a sense of relaxation and contentment: the feeling that one gets after working hard; the sensation of a soft, mild breeze caressing one's cheek; the faint sound of falling leaves; or the sparkle of reflections of the sun on water. The perception and contemplation of these qualities dispels feelings of emptiness and isolation. My goal is to capture and distill these moment in my work, achieving an universal poetry that I can share with the audience.

As an example, I want to produce a koi, or Japanese carp, realistically in metal. The koi is swimming in a pond with no exit. What can the koi do? It is the exaggeration and emphasis of what life is and how to react to it. I selected the koi from many varieties of fish because it is domesticated, trapped in its environment, the way that people are trapped in society. A no-exit pond represents life or society, its frustrations and limitations. But life continues. I hope to place the koi in such a that we can see his contentment in spite of his confinement.

But as you can imagine, it is extremely difficult to communicate complex emotions like these using only visual metaphors, especially in metal, which is a difficult material to work with. How can you express the sound of quietness of the mild breeze of spring? How can I visually represent the subtle sound of the koi swimming? In an attempt to resolve this problem, I began to write haiku to accompany each piece.

Haiku is simple but connotes a universe. It can express sound and light, and include reverberations and suggestions. I write haiku to create a verbal environment to guide my audience. Another solution was suggested to me when I saw an exhibition of the work of the late Japanese painter Toshio Arimoto. He used paintings of small balls in his work, and it seemed to me that they could symbolize sound. As a result, I have been exploring the use of round quartz balls to suggest sound or spirit in some of my pieces.

The result of all my research, both tangible and intangible—the marriage of heart, hand and head noted by Professor Guyatt—can be seen in my current series on the theme "Gentle Solitude."

- A frozen sea
Drifting Cherry Blossom
Za Zen

The frozen sea represents life and society, while I am the cherry blossom. I am drifting in life and confused, but if I row my boat correctly I will be O.K. The rose quartz is my spirit. I am confused, so my self and my spirit are separated. Za Zen is meditation, through which I seek to find peace of mind.


There are many goals, methods and types of research in art. R. Buckminster Fuller once said that "Really great artists are scientists and really great scientists are artists." He based his statement on the fact that creative thought is based, in great part, on intuition. This is because, he says, "the physical is forever transforming, while the metaphysical is forever clarifying, resolved towards imperishable simplicity and stability."

Art is an illuminating vocation that requires continual self-analysis in order to unveil the unknown both within and beyond the self. Artists move into the space between sources and influences, hoping to return with knowledge and vision in their hands. Art can touch every phase of human life and make it that much more comfortable and beautiful.

Research for the artist means being open to all of the stimuli in the world around and within him; being attuned to the sources and influences in the natural and cultural environments. Once this information is absorbed, the artist combines a thorough knowledge of materials and techniques with the analytical qualities of the intellect and the subtle suggestions of intuition. The creative process in art is the never-ending search for answers, even though none may ever be found.

Hiroko Sato Pijanowski is a Professor of Art at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Versions of this paper were presented at the "Craft as Content" symposium in October, 1987 at the University of Akron, Akron, Ohio, organized by Christina DePaul and at the Society of North American Goldsmiths' annual conference in June, 1988 at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, organized by Tim McCreight.

By Hiroko Sato Pijanowski
Metalsmith Magazine – 1988 Summer
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Hiroko Sato Pijanowski

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