Debbie, what is etegami?
Etegami is first and foremost a kind of mailable folk art ("e" means art; "tegami" means letter). It consists of simple hand-painted images accompanied by a few hand-written words, usually on a postcard. The Japanese have a long tradition of sending greetings to one another in the form of hand-painted greeting cards with brief (often formulaic) phrases deemed appropriate for the season or purpose. What differentiates Etegami from the more formal arts using similar tools and inks, such as Haiga and Sumi-e, is that it is more spontaneous, more colorful, and it depicts ordinary things from everyday life.
Etegami are almost always painted on postcards of 10 cm x 15 cm (roughly 4 inches x 6 inches) in size. But Etegami supply shops will occasionally sell cards that are up to twice as long, or twice as wide, or more rarely, cards that are irregularly shaped and which must be placed in envelopes if they are to be sent through the post.
Etegami is not Fine Art, and originals are not normally bought and sold. Printed postcard sets or printed calendars of the works of popular etegami artists can be purchased fairly cheaply.
When did etegami gain the popularity it has now?
In the 1970s, the artist Koike Kunio popularized the Etegami motto that translates roughly to: "Clumsy is not a problem. Clumsy is actually an asset in Etegami." This way of thinking made Etegami fun and accessible to people who didn't have the time or inclination to take on a hobby with lots of rules that would take ages to master.
This sounds unlikely; how is clumsiness is a virtue?
Leaving something less than perfect/complete is desirable in that it leaves room for growth. And anyway, the idea that man would try to create something perfect smacks of unbecoming pridefulness in a culture that traditionally values humility.
Celebrating clumsiness is a bit unusual to hear. Is waste ever a worry? Do new etegami students express concern about "messing up the card?"
I haven't had much experience being among "students" of etegami, but I can tell you what my own concerns were when I was a beginner. I had been taught that there was no such thing as a failed etegami and that I must mail off every card I painted. This was difficult for me, not because I compared my work with other etegami artists, but because I compared each of my pieces with the image I had in my head-- how I had wanted it to end up looking. I did, however, mail each of my pieces-- even the ones I wasn't happy with-- usually to other etegami artists, who would give me valuable feedback and encouragement.
I think waste, when your budget is limited, can be troubling. Also, some of us grew up with "waste not, want not." It's deeply ingrained. My own mind, and my work, changed when I decided that less glorious results were not "trash," or a waste, but the mother of my success...in some ways more valuable than beautiful pieces. Not seeing mistakes as trash changed how I used my materials and also gave me lots of freedom to try anything. I don't know how other people leave the place of worrying about "waste," but for me, waste ended as a concept when all the work became "good."
That is close to what I was trying to say. Except that, strictly speaking, we're not even supposed to think in terms of success. There is no "failure" in etegami.
Wow...an art form valuing clumsiness, that has neither success nor failure as guidelines, is very challenging, and thought-provoking.
One thing that always speaks to me from your work are your cropped images--that you let a portion stand for the whole. Can you say something about the freedom to fill the whole space, and STILL not "finish" the picture? I think this is really challenging, but so important. Overworking a piece is counterproductive, and even more so in such a small space. How do you know when you are finished?
I've already addressed the issue of "when is the painting finished?" in previous responses, but to repeat an important factor, the traditional Japanese aesthetic has always valued minimalism and just-short-of-completeness, so an etegami artist who has any appreciation for traditional Japanese art will recognize this, and it will affect the way he paints. I was taught to use no more than three colors and to leave the background of the image blank. I've noticed that many etegami artists do use lots of colors and will fill in the background, especially if they're painting a scene, rather than an object. But in my opinion, it makes the work appear like any other watercolor painting, rather than an etegami.
Sometimes I think the freedom to leave “unfinished”, or to crop, has to do with getting away from the (concrete) idea that the picture is really the object (which I think is behind the "completeness" idea that requires the whole item to be shown) and grasping the idea that the picture is a suggestion of... many other things, sometimes the object , but often an idea or a feeling.
You expressed it well. Etegami is the suggestion of something (an experience, a thought, an object) that extends beyond the painted image. Just as Haiku suggests in a few lines a much bigger situation or feeling.
Many thanks, Deborah. You've already given me a lot to think about over the last months. Now, I will be pondering the restrictions that can be engendered by my concept of success!
Deborah Davidson is a professional translator and Etegami artist based in Hokkaido, the gorgeous northernmost island/prefecture of Japan. Her series, Humanizing the Quake, is a particular favorite.