Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Winter 2005, vol 3 no 4

Interview With Kazumi Cranney
by Robert D. Wilson

RW: You are well known for your haiga, Kazumi. Success, of course, doesn't come overnight. Tell me about the journey you took to get where you are today.

KC: I arrived in the U.S. in 1972 and studied art at California State University, Hayward and UC Berkeley. For any graduate in Fine Arts, it takes time to find one's place in the art world; but being a foreigner, I especially struggled with this issue. Gradually, I came to realize how important my Japanese background was to me, even if it did not fit neatly into American art culture. I began to develop my work along traditional Japanese lines rather than in the Western tradition that I studied in college.

In recent years, I have settled on haiga as my main artistic endeavor. In this medium, the artist's haiku poems are written out in Japanese calligraphy and illustrated with simple watercolor paintings. I have tried to spread the word about haiga and have made presentations and demonstrations of haiga to groups such as the American Association of University Women, the National League of American Pen Women, and other local groups and art galleries. My work has been displayed at several venues in the Bay Area, including the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California and Gallery Voyage in San Francisco, Berkeley Art Center, and San Ramon Community Center. And my poems have been published in several collections of Japanese poetry.


RW: Sumi-e represents not only a unique and beautiful form of art, but a philosophy as well.

KC: The philosophy of sumi-e is to capture the "ki" of the subject. "Ki" in Japanese or "chi" in Chinese means life spirit. Sumi-e aims to depict the spirit rather than the outward shape of the subject. In creating a picture, the artist must grasp the spirit. Concentration and self-discipline are essential. It is important that you cultivate a habit of capturing the ki of a subject in everyday life.


RW: Can you explain for our readers how sumi-e relates to haiga? Is there a connection? Its history, in brief.

KC: Sumi-e was introduced to Japan in the 7th century from China. Over time, it became popular among Japanese Artists, and in the 15th century, Sesshu established what was considered the first purely Japanese-style sumi-e, "suiboku-ga".

Meanwhile, the beginning of haiga is not clear. According to one theory, haiga was started by Nonoguchi Ryuko (1595 - 1669). Another theory names Watanbe Kazan (1584 - 1654). If we assume that Ryuko and Kazan started haiga, then the history of haiga starts roughly from the 17th century when Basho (1644 - 1694) also contributed to the development of the art on the strength of his position in haiku. So it can be considered that connection of sumi-e and haiga begin in the 17th century.

The development of haiga has been influenced by the traditional Japanese painting schools, "yamato-e schools", as well as sumi-e, especially "nanga" known as bunjin-ga or literati painting. But it was the haiku poets themselves who gave special characteristics to haiga as they endeavored to create a new style of painting in its own right. Buson (1716 - 1783) and Issa (1763 -1827) were both well known for their delightful haiga as well as their haiku.


RW: Do you find sumi-e, as a process, meditative? And as a follow-up question: Do you have a ritual that you follow to prepare for the painting of haiga? What do you do to get into the right mind-set?

KC: I try to get into the right mind-set through a brief meditation. The purpose of the meditation is to concentrate on clearing out everyday thoughts from my mind. I meditate while I rub an ink stick on the ink stone to make sumi ink. It's very short time, may be 5 to 7 minutes, but it helps to soothe my mind and draws me into a world of nothingness. The state of nothingness is important, since it helps to set my mind to focus on my work. Then I start drawing.


RW: Do you have an overriding philosophy that guides or directs your art?

KC: Yes, I do. The philosophy is to have peace of mind, to have a peaceful mind through haiga. It is not only the viewers but also I as a painter who try to find a peaceful and quiet mind in the haiga world. You are able to find the essential features of haiga, namely simplicity, economy, humor and modesty, through a peaceful mind.


RW: How does your Japanese heritage influence your haiga and poetry?

KC: I grew up in Japan until I was in my late 20s. My younger days were fully exposed to the Japanese culture, tradition and the cultural climate through daily life. This Japanese heritage exerts a big influence on my haiga and haiku. Japanese culture emphasizes the four seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter. In haiga, various themes of these four seasons are always depicted. Take for example the traditional event of "blossom-viewing" in the cherry blossom season. Every spring, my family went to see cherry blossoms at a nearby park. There, many people gather to enjoy the blossoms. We would spread a mat and sit under the trees. We would eat a special "jubako" (three nested wooden boxes) lunch that my mother prepared. Pink flower petals would fall on us in the breeze. The children would play under the blossoms. You could hear people's happy voices and laughing. This is just one little example, but this kind of experience has had a great influence on my haiku and haiga.


RW: You write beautiful and evocative haiku, Kazumi. What is it about haiku that first attracted you?

KC: As you know, haiku poetry is a very short form. Haiku poets' thoughts and minds are expressed in only 17 syllables. I was attracted to this shortness, because a mere 17 syllables can make you cry, laugh and move your heart. Isn't it amazing?


RW: What do you draw from for inspiration when you create a haiga? Which comes first, the painting or the haiku?

KC: I work both ways. For example: suppose I think about my deceased father on Father's Day. I remember that my father loved fishing. So I first write a haiku about his fishing, then I add the picture. In this case, the haiku comes first. Take another example: suppose I see some beautiful red roses in a vase on the table. I first sketch them, and then compose the haiku. I do it both ways.


RW: Is it always your own poems you use or do you sometimes do haiga for others' work? Yosa Buson, as you know, did haiga for Basho's Okuno Hosomichi.

KC: I always paint haiga using my own haiku. In other words, all haiku are my own in my paintings. I have adapted myself to haiku since my childhood because of my mother, who is a haiku poet. I have written thousands of haiku. I have been painting the pictures for these haiku for the past 30 years.


RW: Why did you choose to do traditional haiga versus modern haiga?

KC: Because I love to practice calligraphy and sumi-e. I love the smell of the sumi ink. It soothes my mind. In Japan, calligraphy itself is considered an art form, "shodo", so the quality of the calligraphy is important in haiga. Japanese calligraphy has a very old tradition that was carried over from China. You have to practice for years to get better. It is same with sumi-e. Its origin is in China, and it takes a long time to master. I have enjoyed putting in the years of effort and practice it takes to explore haiga in the traditional way.


RW: Do you find it constrains your expressiveness to adhere to the old sumi-e techniques? For example, when painting petals, leaves, bamboo, etc.? Or do you find this a satisfying limitation to work within? A challenge?

KC: My answer is yes and no. I'm usually satisfied with the traditional sumi-e style, but I'm sometimes frustrated in painting a full description. That's why I studied "nihonga", to get different techniques and to cultivate my skill in observing a subject.

Nihonga, like sumi-e, are done with a brush and "sumi" ink. In addition to this, a special kind of paint, called "gansai", is used for coloring. The pigments of gansai are coarser than western watercolor paints. I have been studying nihonga with Shimpyo Katsuta, who teaches part of the year in San Francisco. He carries on the tradition of his father, the famous painter and illustrator, Shinsui Itoh (1898 -1972).


RW: Do you foresee yourself at some point venturing into a more 'modern' style of haiga?

KC: No, I don't think so. Nowadays, it has become possible to expand the form of traditional haiga painting with the use of computers. A search on the internet will show many contemporary explorations of haiga form, such as the combination of photography or computer graphics with printed text. While these modern variations of haiga can be rewarding, and indeed a new kind of art form in themselves, I have enjoyed practicing haiga in the traditional, challenging way.


RW: I am curious, Kazumi: you sign your paintings with a traditional stamp. What does it say?

KC: All it says is my name, "Kazumi", in stylized characters. The seals are called, "rakkan" in Japanese. I use several rakkans that differ in size and stylization. Which one to use is based on the size and the theme or content of the paintings. The rakkan is not just to show the artist's name but also to enhance the painting. So you need to consider what size to use and where to place the stamp on the painting.


Kazumi Cranney Kazumi Cranney was born in Japan, but moved to Berkeley, California, some thirty years ago. Since that time, she has been working in watercolor and other media.

Her paintings have been displayed at various locales in the Bay Area, including the Japan Cultural Community Center and Gallery Voyage in San Francisco, the San Ramon Community Center, the Berkeley Art Center and the Berkeley Civic Center.

Her poems have been published in Peace Poetry, Heiwa, University of Hawaii Press; A Collection of Japanese Poems, Sanda International Poetry Committee, Japan; and Poems from Mainichi Haiku Contest, Mainichi Newspapers Co., Ltd., Japan. Recently, one of her haiku was selected by the Japanese Overseas Newspaper and Broadcasting Association for its first annual poetry competition. It was published in a collection, Poetry From Overseas Japanese.

Examples of her haiga may be seen at:
Simply Haiku, Traditional Haiga