OU Museum of Art: “An Academic Treasure Trove”

I have always loved Japanese art. So, when I learned that my Asian Politics class was attending the OU Museum of Art’s Japanese art exhibition as part of learning about Japanese history and culture—I freaked. Two things I love had come together: learning and art.

Yoshida's woodcut "Sending Boats" series especially stood out to Jacob Tadych '14 in Dr. Steen's Japanese Literature class. WHY?

Yoshida’s woodcut “Sending Boats” series especially stood out to me. The series of images depicts the life of traditional Japanese fishermen from the same perspective during different times of day.

Both my class, taught by Dr. Stephen Herschler, and Dr. Robert Steen’s Japanese  Literature class took full advantage of having the exhibition right here on our campus at the beginning of this semester. Jiki to Hanga: Japanese Porcelain and Prints helped our classes see art as a reflection of a culture and current events, and to explore how art is a means through which cultures can exchange ideas with one another.

“Learning is more effective when it is attached to the real world and becomes not just theoretical but experiential as well,” said Dr. Herschler. “It was an incredible opportunity…(and) a truly fabulous way for the Asian Politics class to start the semester, using art to learn about not just different cultures but also philosophy, international commerce, and politics as reflected in the techniques, materials, and aesthetics of specific artistic works.”

Porcelain detail: Artist unknown. Arita, Japan, late 17th century. Collection of Oglethorpe University. Gift of Carrie Lee Jacobs Henderson.

Porcelain detail: Artist unknown. Arita, Japan, late 17th century. Collection of Oglethorpe University. Gift of Carrie Lee Jacobs Henderson.

Some of the porcelain pieces on view, for example, showed how Western culture influenced Eastern culture. Traditional Japanese art forms are stoic and minimalistic, but that contrasted with the vibrant pieces created by the Japanese for Westerners to display in their Victorian era households.

The displayed works by master printmaker Hiroshi Yoshida gave students a snapshot of Japanese culture in transition from a feudalistic society to the current industrial power. His use of traditional Japanese woodcuts and the European oil and watercolor painting techniques shows the balancing act that resulted from the mash of cultural ideals following WWII. Yoshida’s works are traditional in their minimalism, but also very impactful in that the cultural transition is gently introduced to the viewer. Most prints in the exhibit showed very traditional scenes, like Mount Fuji and shrines or fishermen on sailboats throughout the day, while others showed the shops at night seeming to suggest the beginning of using electric lights by the intensity of the shadows and the use of Western techniques.

Dr. Steen’s class was studying post WWII Japanese literature, coinciding with the time period of the Yoshida prints. His class used the exhibit as context for discussing the cultural transitions in Japan at that time and the effects on the country’s literature. “Art tells stories and I have my students write about those stories,” said Dr. Steen, who uses the themes of memory, cultural identity and travel to relate the texts back to differences in perspective. “There are many ways to make connections to the ideas that we talk about in class, even if they aren’t directly related.”

Elizabeth Peterson, the director of the OU Museum of Art, is thrilled that the classes were able to use the exhibit to compliment their classroom curriculum. “This is precisely why universities have museums—as more than a lovely place to visit—it’s an academic treasure trove for students.”

Dr. Herschler's Asian Politics Class with Dr. Terry Taylor.

Dr. Herschler’s Asian Politics class pictured with Dr. Terry Taylor, who loaned the Yoshida woodcuts to OUMA for the exhibition. Dr. Taylor gave a lecture to the class about the dedication required by Yoshida to create the woodcuts—all of which came from a selected single piece of wood.

Oglethorpe Students Explore “Stand Strong Japan” Exhibit

It’s exciting when the Core curriculum and what Atlanta has to offer come together.

Last semester I took my Narratives of Self class to an exhibit sponsored by the Consulate of Japan. The exhibit was called Stand Strong Japan and was held at the Wimbish House in Midtown. It showcased the culture of Tohoku, the region that was hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami. I was looking for a way for my students to connect with Japanese culture because they were writing an essay on Ran, an adaptation of King Lear by the director Akira Kurosawa. This exhibit provided the perfect opportunity for students to connect with the culture and it also allowed us to show our support for the people of Tohoku.

“I like studying Japanese culture,” said OU student Cayla Austin ’15. “I got to touch and feel authentic Samurai Gear and practice the bit of Japanese I learned in class.”

The highlight of the event was the introduction of the Soma Noma Oi (Soma Wild Horse Chase), one of Japan’s foremost festivals. Held every July in Soma and Haramachi on Fukushima Prefecture’s east coast, the festival features horseraces in full samurai regalia, a Bon Dance, a parade, a contest of sacred banners, and a horse chase where riders catch wild horses and then ride them bareback. In 2011, the festival, which has a history of more than 1,000 years, became a symbol of Tohoku’s resolve and recovery when the people of Soma and the surrounding area joined forces to hold the festival despite the devastation sustained by their town just four months prior. 

Mr. Satoshi Tachibana of Soma City, one of only five people remaining in Japan with the skills and knowledge to create and restore the Heian Period (794 to 1185) yoroi armor used in the festival, came to Atlanta all the way from Soma to demonstrate his artform at the Tohoku exhibition. Two suits of authentic samurai armor, video, and photographs of several famous Tohoku festivals, including the Soma Noma Oi were also on display. 

“This exhibit truly showed the nature of a culture that survived one of the worst storms in our lifetime,” said Heather Burgess ’15. “The ability for so many people to stand together and keep a cultural existence is inspiring.”

Dr. Robert Steen is Associate Professor of Japanese.  He received his BA at Oberlin College and his MA and PhD at Cornell University.