A Printmaker Gets an (Unlikely) New Fan

Commentator Daniel Pinkwater talks about his meeting with a Japanese printmaker. Pinkwater was tickled by the fact that both he and his new friend were short, fat, and wore glasses. Later, Daniel found one of the man's prints in a junk store.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You can play a hunch in life as well as at the gambling table. Commentator Daniel Pinkwater once relied on his ample gut feeling about an artist, and he's happy that he did so.

DANIEL PINKWATER reporting:

One of the courses almost everyone took at Barge College was woodcut studio. For most people it was the equivalent of the arts and crafts stint at camp. The college assigned huge amounts of reading and this was a course anyone could get into that had no reading requirement. And it was restful and pleasant. You could chat while chipping away at a hunk of board with a set of little tools you got from the college bookstore, rolling ink onto it and then placing a sheet of rice paper on the inked block and rubbing the back with a spoon. When you peeled the paper off, there was an image in reverse of what you'd carved, and it was always a surprise, no matter how crude your talent.

Somehow, maybe because we couldn't quite tell what we were doing when we carved the block, some kind of something would find its way into the image. The woodcut studio teacher was Louie Shanker, an artist of some repute who taught by saying practically nothing. Surprisingly, it worked. The kids all respected him and some of us made progress. I took woodcut studio seven times and along the way, changed my major to art.

Louie wasn't my only woodcut teacher. The other was a man in another country whom I'd never met. In a little Japanese gift, books and art supplies store in Chicago, I picked up a paperback book picturing the woodcut prints of someone called Munikata. These pictures had an immediacy of energy that astonished me. They were rough and crude. You got the feeling that he carved the block fast without thinking, but at the same there was precision. Every bold black mark seemed to be right where it had to be, as though it couldn't be anywhere else. The images were simple, childlike even. There were landscapes, Buddhist subjects, nudes.

I was blown away.

The guy's like Picasso I thought, but I'm the only one who knows about him. Me and everybody in Japan, where he really was thought of like Picasso, but I didn't find that out until later.

I just kept poring over the little book and trying to figure out how to do woodcuts like him. Trying to copy his style didn't work and neither did trying to imitate the way he cut into the wood, because as far as I could tell, he just attacked it in all directions at once. I pictured him making the chips fly. All that was possible was to try to figure out what he was thinking, how he looked at things. This went on for years. I kept the little book with me. I made lots of woodcuts and in any situation I would ask myself, what would Munikata do?

When I got to Japan I found out he was like Picasso over there. You had to know someone to hope to buy one of his prints. They were next to impossible to find and extremely expensive. But, I met Munikata. Not in Japan, in Brooklyn. I read in the paper that he was going to give a course in the Brooklyn Museum. I got all excited. And then I realized that there would be no point in taking the course. After all these years of thinking about his work, there wasn't anything left for him to teach me.

I went to the opening of his exhibit, though, and there he was in formal kimono. I went up to him, fat guy with thick glasses. Our eyes met. We both broke out laughing. I tickled his belly and he tickled mine. And, I own a Munikata print. I found it in a junk shop in Pickipsie. Cost me $15. I had it valued recently. It's a small, unimportant one, so only worth $2,500. It's hanging on the wall in my office now.

SIEGEL: Daniel Pinkwater's upcoming book is entitled The Neddiad. Although it doesn't reach bookstores until next year, excerpts from the manuscript are available now for free at pinkwater.com.

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