Twenty-five years ago, Marian Plumb Miller donated 105 miniature masterpieces carved from ivory, wood, and antler, making Portland Japanese Garden home to a collection of netsuke. Netsuke (pronounced nets-keh) were personal fashion accessories that also served a purpose: overcoming the lack of pockets in traditional men’s clothing by helping hang small items from a kimono sash. What started as simple accessories evolved into beautiful and complicated sculptures created in a variety of exquisite materials over a span of more than 200 years during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868). Once the practical considerations were met, artisans had diverse subject options for their netsuke carvings, drawing ideas from plants and animals in the natural world, scenes from daily life, and popular stories featuring historical heroes, folklore characters, and magical creatures.
In 2022, the Garden’s collection dramatically expanded with a generous gift of more than 200 pieces from The Netsuke Collection of James R. Coonan, Denise C. Bates, and Lurline C. Menzies. With so many tiny treasures to share with the public, the Garden sought out Peter Doebler, the Kettering Curator of Asian Art at Dayton Art Institute, to curate an exhibition featuring both never-before-seen netsuke as well as pieces not displayed since 2010. Our winter exhibition, Masterpieces in Miniature: The Art of Netsuke Sculptures explores new stories and subjects to deepen our appreciation for these little wonders. Doebler notes:
“Whenever I encounter netsuke, I end up with a smile on my face. It is easy to overlook netsuke since they are so small, and having an exhibition dedicated to the subject encourages guests to really pay attention…Gazing closely at a netsuke, I often sense the artist grasped the essence of the subject and distilled that into a piece of wood or ivory smaller than a golf ball, creating a unique object that has a life of its own.”
Japanese aesthetics often strive to communicate the essence of a thing. The artist or craftsperson trains for decades to work in harmony with their materials. Japanese gardens, with the gardener’s careful attention to each plant, have this quality, incorporating both calculated and accidental growth to highlight the natural essence of the landscape as a whole. Doebler observes, “I admire Portland Japanese Garden’s intentional efforts to weave visual art exhibitions and other cultural activities into the fabric of the Garden, because you see that some of the spirit that inspires it is also manifest in other forms of Japanese culture, like netsuke.”
Portland Japanese Garden receives support from the Oregon Arts Commission, a state agency funded by the State of Oregon and the National Endowment for the Arts.