Gen Saratani: Spreading awareness of Japanese lacquer painting

Patience Kayira ‘20
Assistant Arts Editor


The Smith College Museum of Art had the privilege of hosting Gen Saratani, a Japanese lacquer artist and restorer, on Thursday Sept. 21 and Friday Sept. 22. 

On Thursday, Saratani gave a lecture on the development of Japanese Lacquer art from the 16th Century to the 19th Century in the Brown Fine Arts Center. Friday’s events emphasized the practice and future of Japanese lacquer artwork. 

Beginning with a demonstration of lacquer work, Saratani enabled viewers to witness the meticulous process of lacquer painting. Ending with an hour-long presentation, Saratani contextualized the practice of Japanese lacquer art, describing the precarious condition of this ancient art-form. 

With both events attended by a considerable crowd, Saratani’s artwork and talk held audience members in transfixed silence. The demonstration carried an air of quiet excitement and intrigue. Despite the room’s set-up of chairs neatly arranged in a semi-crescent, people gathered around two long rectangular tables, covered in brown paper-bag like material. 

Keeping a respectful distance from the artwork, so as to not intrude on the artist’s space or risk contact with the potentially rash-inducing paint of urushi, the crowd observed Saratani’s work. As calm music played, genuine questions about brush preservation and design implementation filled the room.

Saratani, a young man in his mid-thirties, sat behind the two rectangular tables in a peach button-down and denim jeans. With a thin red lacquer brush in hand, Saratani took questions one at a time, multitasking between addressing queries and modeling a design on a dark shiny two by four square. 

When asked how long he has been studying lacquer arts, Saratani paused briefly. With his brush in mid-air, he said, “A long duration. That’s a hard question as I grew up in a third-generation lacquer-practicing family.” 

From a young age, Saratani was exposed to lacquer art, and he attended the school of lacquer arts at the age of 15. Despite Saratani’s years of experience, he continues to practice his craft to maintain the relevance of his work. 

 “Urushi,” Japanese lacquer art, involves the application of varnish, usually lacquer-based, to a wooden or metallic object. In “urushi,” the varnish is created from the sap of a lacquer tree, Rhus vernicifera. In the matter of creating designs, “You can design patterns on a piece of paper then transfer them to the lacquer,” he said. The pattern then becomes embedded into the lacquer with a coat of paint. 

The noon-hour presentation served as a contemplative counterpart to the early morning demonstration. Held in the Campus Center, the audience sat silently with interest as Saratani presented. Saratani stood at the front of the room, explaining in greater detail the practice and implementation of urushi. Images of different powders and tools used in lacquer art filled the screen, giving the public a comprehensive view of the components of urushi. A particularly useful tool in Japanese lacquer painting is the cylinder, a hand-made wooden instrument similar in size to a pen. The cylinder has an opening at one end which enables artists to sprinkle powder onto their lacquer sheets to add 3D-like effects. 

Saratani ended his presentation by speaking about the future of Japanese lacquer painting. Saratani describes urushi as a “passing technique.” Saratani attributes the decline in Japanese lacquer painting to the shift towards westernization in Japan. 

Despite the survival of certain techniques, the traditional materials and tools have been replaced by synthetic brushes. Being one of few artists practicing this art of painting, Saratani expressed his mission to “spread this culture.”