Noboru Sawai (1931-2017): A unique artist
by Grace Eiko Thomson
Noboru Sawai, was a rare artist in our midst, a cross-cultural post-modernist, who, in fact, contributed greatly to contemporary Canadian printmaking. I had heard about him when I was working as a contemporary art curator in Winnipeg (Gallery 1.1.1., University of Manitoba) while acting as art advisor to Inuit printmakers in Baker Lake, NWT (1980s). I visited him in Vancouver, and asked him to come to Baker Lake to teach the printmakers of Sanavik Cooperative the art of woodblock printing. I felt in watching the Inuit printmakers work with stone how dangerous this was to their health, as without ventilation in the studio room dust was always in the air.
Noboru Sawai passed away on April 23, 2016, at age 85, here in Vancouver. His biography, told by his daughter, Naomi, at the Celebration of Life gathering at his studio, offers a difficult but a very interesting and passionately focused lifetime. Born in the port city of Takamatsu (Shikoku), as a young man he was sponsored by a church to study in San Antonio, Texas, in the United States, however, upon arriving, he had to overcome tuberculosis and did so successfully living up to his name (noboru, to rise above). After much struggle he resumed his studies to eventually receive a Master’s degree in Fine Arts in 1969, from the University of Minnesota. Soon after, he returned to Japan to study traditional woodblock printmaking at the Hanga Academy in Tokyo, under the renowned printmaker, Toshi Yoshida. He says in his written documentation of his experiences, “from this period on my principal concern has been how I can synthesize the traditional method of executing Japanese woodcut with the techniques of European (i.e., Western etchings) thus establishing an amalgam of two diverse culture approaches to the art of printmaking.”
From 1971 to 1993 he taught printmaking and drawing at the University of Calgary, then moved in 1981 to Vancouver, where he established Sawai Atelier, a publishing studio, specializing in combining intaglio and relief printing following Japanese woodcut techniques. He says, “Through trial and error, I have developed techniques whereby a synthesis is possible,” and “for inspiration, I use images from the history of art…taking various images together in collage fashion…”) He blends Japanese (including shunga (pornographic) and Ukiyo-e woodblock images) and Western images (Western masterpiece and Inuit art sources) in his compositions.
He notes “since I was born in one culture and matured in another” his work, he says, are described by critics in contradictory terms, from being put down as “rude” and “obscene”, but characterized by others as “complex”, “unique”, “beautiful” and “near genius.”
I agree with the latter characterization.