For now, I'm following the mud. I'm creating a project to link more people with the Japanese plastering tradition. The end goal; making earthen plasters a regular ol' choice alongside your typical stuccos and paints. Can you dig it?
In the past...
I fell in love with earthen plasters in 1999. My humble off-grid home-hut needed finish plastering. By making plaster from sand from the near-by arroyo, dirt and broken car window glass from the land, I brought sudden and deep comfort to my nights. The sponged wall sparkled like a starry night in our lamp-lit mini earth ship on the Taos mesa of Two Peaks.
Once I started learning about permaculture, I was drawn particularly to the idea of natural building, where the materials used are as raw and local as possible. Wanting to learn more, I landed in Crestone, Colorado, to learn straw bale building for the first time from Paul Koppana. On one of those jobs I met Tracy Vogel, now Tracy Thieriot of Tactile Plastering. Tracy has been a spearhead of trustworthy earthen plasters in the young natural building industry of the west coast. Back there, in Crestone in 2002, she infused me further with the idea that plastering with earth honors the earth. By honoring the earth, it honors life. It. feels. so. good.
When I moved to Japan in 2003 to teach English, I had no idea that I was reentering a land with an ancient and living earthen plastering tradition. I grew up there, born in Tokyo, living in that city on and off for seven years before graduating high school. It never occurred to me that all the castles and temples and tea houses I had seen in my life were made of solid, earthen walls. They don't make shadows from earthy undulations. They're not cave-y. They look like dry-wall and paint for peets sake! But no, they are earthen. True. Through and through. I wanted to know how they did it. I spoke rusty fluent Japanese then, and somehow found connection after connection, which only further fueled my need to properly train.
It was very difficult to find someone to learn from continuously. Each project I came upon would end, and the plasterer would always claim that they would be lucky if they touched clay for work again in their lifetime. Though all elder plasterers I met trained in earth, the demand for vinyl houses, fueled by changing laws and regulations, had made the need for commercial earthen plastering obsolete.
I kept searching, wanting to learn only with natural materials. And then...Eureka! Kyoto! The ancient capital, proud with traditions. It gave birth to the tea ceremony, the tea house, and myriad creative earthen walls which developed with sukiya-style architecture. Mind you, all of these walls are still flat, as is demanded by Japanese structural aesthetics. But the finishes....oh my, the finishes....
I was able to spend six months at the Kyoto Plasterer's Guild academy, where they teach just using earthen materials, which smells awesome throughout the narrow, five story building. There I met the man who would become my master, Yuzo Asahara, of Shikkui Asahara. Unfortunately, my fast and furious training with his crew only lasted three months -- visa restrictions required I leave the country. Big boo.
On the other hand, returning to the US allowed me to write a book to introduce the West to Japan's amazing array of techniques and tools regarding earthen plasters, Japan's Clay Plasters: A Glimpse into their Plaster Craft. Through this book, (which took off with a life of its own while I honed my skills in urban homesteading in Southwest Colorado), I've learned just how widespread a hunger there is for the traditional knowledge current in the Japanese art of earthen plastering.
By continuing to draw out these skills and connecting Japanese practitioners with their counterparts across the globe, I see the benefits as being threefold:
One, a waning, and supremely important, tradition is highlighted and spread. Gyaku-yunyu, reverse-import, is a term used for conditions where something Japanese goes overseas, then comes back to gain popularity in Japan after being forgotten here. This could happen for earthen plaster work. Where earth plasters were once the norm, may they become so again, with contemporary architects incorporating them into their current designs. May home-owners favor them for their awesome benefits.
Two, Japanese gardens and Japanese style architecture outside of the motherland will be enhanced, gain authenticity, and be more nurturing. When the garden structures are plastered with natural, or at least natural-looking, materials, rather than with commercial western finishes as they often are, the gardens will be ever more inviting. My relationship with the North American Japanese Garden Association allows me a platform to spread this understanding -- that the admired garden structures in Japan are, in fact, built with earthen walls. The same is true for practitioners of Japanese-style joinery. These carpenters want to see their work highlighted in their deservedly beautiful ways, and they understand earth finishes do that. There just needs to be labor that can achieve the aesthetic.
Three, as alluded above, the global natural building community gains access to techniques and tools which will help to take earthen architecture mainstream. Earthen finishes are the easiest way to gain immediate access to the beauty of building with earth. They can be applied to any existing wall. The flat Japanese aesthetic is familiar, and appeals to a wider audience.
Linking Japanese traditional earthen plastering knowledge with modern building practices will make an impact on both human and environmental health. While cities are growing, with 80% of the world population projected to live in cities by the year 2050, people are becoming further and further removed from the essence of all life -- the earth from which we come. Without knowing why, many feel detached from life. Bringing earth closer to people, via wall finishes, just may alleviate some distress caused by our distance from nature. In addition, the reduction in environmental footprint that results from using earthen plasters versus manufactured paints or cementatious stuccos is quite large. Multiply that with the scale of a city in mind. Such a seemingly small reduction, on such a massive scale, would allow a huge alleviation for our toxic impact on the planet.
So, I work to make my dream a reality. If people don't choose earthen plasters or paints, that's their choice, but it must become a regular choice. If nothing else, people deserve to be surrounded with beauty and comfort, like the kind that soothed me on those cold, hard nights on the Taos mesa.
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