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Listen to the Snow

Last fall I visited with Noriko Maeda in her beautiful Waterloo home. The Japanese calligraphy artist is known around the world for her spare, modern styling. She has many students in Hamilton from her ongoing classes taught through the Japanese Cultural Centre. This is a story I wrote for Grand Magazine.

Noriko Maeda’s contemporary Japanese calligraphy is seen around the world in galleries, corporate offices and private collections

Noriko Maeda:Listen to the Snow

Kathy Renwald

  Noriko Maeda meets me at the front door of her Waterloo home. She is wearing a flowing black dress like a graduation robe, and red shoes as sculpted as ballet slippers.

  We stand for a few minutes in what she would later tell me is the grey zone. A space that belongs to both the outside and the inside. It is airy and plain with a random flag stone floor where shoes are removed in the Japanese way.

The living room looks out to a beautiful garden

  The path to the front door is under a covered walkway.

Long, shallow stairs are lined on one side by bundles of kindling and open on the other side to a shady, cool garden.

“It’s very Japanesesy,” she says with a lilting laugh. “You are protected from the rain or the snow, it’s practical.”

  Noriko Maeda is a Japanese contemporary calligrapher. The simplest way to explain what she does is to explain what she doesn’t do.

  “I don’t write wedding invitations.”

  Her work also called Shodo is expressive but spare, modern and contemplative.  It is a language expressed in black, white and grey, that most of us don’t understand. There are symbols or characters, some specific, some not. It is an ancient art where the blank space is as important as the brush stroke.

Empty space is as important as brush strokes

  “You have to understand the void,” she says.

  Her wonderful home in the woods would seem to be the perfect place to display her art. There are a few pieces on view yes, but the house has the same reverence for unoccupied space that underpins Maeda’s calligraphy.

The kitchen is carefully arranged for people who like to cook and entertain

  It was 1992 when Maeda moved from Japan to Waterloo. With her husband Haruki, they raised two daughters in this house.

  It was designed in the 1960s by Sherman Wright, the architect who with the firm Jenkins & Wright also designed the site plan and some early buildings for Waterloo College which became Wilfred Laurier University. Maeda’s house in Waterloo was his only residential project.

  “He designed it for himself when he was very interested in Japanese culture,” Maeda says of the house that faces southeast, a position of good luck in Japan.  Odd numbers also play a role in good fortune, according to Maeda, noting that the windows are placed in groups of three, five and seven.

  “When we moved in my daughter looked around at the windows that go to the ceiling and said  ‘We can enjoy the moon in many places.’ ”

  The house has a good flow. It can be seen in Maeda’s movements as she appears to float from room to room, with her black dress swaying like a dancers.

 We pass through the living room home to a grand piano, a table full of orchids and big cushion stools that face a wall of windows.

  To talk we sit at a small glass table lit by a suspended fixture with the fluid lines of a sail. The table faces a narrow deck that seems to disappear into the woods.

The deck flows into the woods

   “My daughter and her husband are architects in New York and they designed this. Their idea was the boardwalk into the ocean. It is very plain and imaginative. You can imagine  not only a boardwalk, but someone’s Japanese Zen garden or your mother’s striped tee shirt. It is simple, and it expresses a void, that is a part of calligraphy too.”

  Studying calligraphy is an essential part of education in Japan. Maeda fell in love with the art when she was 10 and continued to study intensely, learning how to move the brush, work with ink, express emptiness in her work and always admire, appreciate and respect her teachers. After graduation she worked as both a copywriter and calligrapher in Tokyo using words and her brush to express ideas.

  Now her broad portfolio shows the breadth of her talent. She teaches, she has gallery shows, does commission work, and particularly loves to work with companies on calligraphy that expresses their image.

  “My specialty is working with architects.”

Her work is carefully integrated with the kitchen

   Her work can be found on Sake bottles, Shiseido cosmetics, in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in Tokyo, and on the signage in the new addition to the Japanese Cultural Centre in Toronto. She is currently working with a hospital in Japan on calligraphy for a cancer treatment waiting room.

   From the little table with the view of the boardwalk, Maeda moves to the other side of the house where glass doors look out to a picnic style table, partial sunken into the patio, as one might find at a Japanese restaurant. From the table there is a view of a work by Maeda painted on an exterior wall.

Maeda’s calligraphy has space to breathe on this outside wall

   She worked with her architect daughter on the design. At first Maeda was thinking of soft and delicate lines. She sent sketches to her daughter in New York.

  “ Rejected, rejected, rejected,” Maeda says with a laugh. “My daughter said, ‘Mother, this wall faces a big tree, we need boldness, strength, this character of yours is talking to the tree, that conversation is important.’ ”

  It’s not the easiest thing for an artist to take rejection, to have their ideas discarded, but Maeda seems to thrive on collaboration, while still advancing her ideas firmly.

  That was evident in the story she tells about the redesign of her kitchen. It is the only room that has been changed in the house, a sign of how much the family respects the original design by Sherman Wright.

  The original galley kitchen was just a little too small for a woman who loves to cook and entertain. Guests were invading her space. As we talk she even takes me by the shoulders and directs me to the other side of the counter away from the work triangle of sink, stove and refrigerator.

The chef stays on one side of the counter, guests on the other. Do not cross the line

  Maeda worked with the German company Bulthaup on the new design. Antje Bulthaup, the granddaughter of the company’s founder came to Waterloo from Toronto just to watch Maeda cook. She wanted to see how Maeda moved.

  “She even asked me if I cooked a turkey. When I said no, she was very happy I didn’t need a big oven and they could design an efficient, beautiful small kitchen.”

  A new island with cherry veneer and stainless steel countertop was built with dimensions that protected the chef’s space and made a corridor for guests. A floating cabinet holds the microwave and oven, and five stainless steel shelves display glasses, a grouping of Maeda’s framed calligraphy and vases with cuttings from the garden.

  “I knew that you liked gardens, so I ran outside and collected hosta leaves and hydrangeas and flowers.”

  At a big table where she teaches her students she shows me the graceful movements of her brush work.  Light from the garden washes across her hands as she shuffles pages of work that formed her recent book Noriko Maeda:Foundations.

   “This is wind, this is waves, you see it moves off the paper, the white space is as important as the black.” The strokes are bold, strong, and sometimes wispy when she uses feathers or twigs to make marks. Canadian nature informs her work.

   She describes a visit to Yellow Knife where she gathered in the expanse of Great Slave Lake.  The vastness of white, the lines made by the shifting ice. These enlightening moments she depicts in her calligraphy.

  “I used to be a city girl, but here I listen to the sound of snow.”

  Her schedule is full, between teaching, commission work, and working trips to Japan. She’s also involved in the Japanese Calligraphy Competition at the Japanese Cultural Centre in Toronto this November.

  Learning, teaching, observing, creating,  it is the busy artistic life of Noriko Maeda.

  I ask her when is the peak of a calligraphers career?

  “When I die, that is my peak.”

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