A Baltimore-born Buddhist God

November 11, 1990|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Sitting on the studio floor, the sculpture's head alone is taller than and several times as wide as Yasuhiko Hashimoto, the Japanese sculptor standing beside it. And, while Mr. Hashimoto is so soft-spoken it's sometimes hard to hear him with the other sculptors chopping away in the background, the head looks as if, were it to speak, it would at least growl and probably roar.

Fudo Myoh-oh is a fierce looking Buddhist god. Don't be afraid -- he's on our side against the demons -- but he's probably going to look even fiercer next Sunday, with his head attached to his body and the whole sculpture raised upright for the first time to its full height of 33 feet. In honor of the occasion, five monks from Japan will lead a ceremony ending in a big fire to which we're all invited to come and bring our wishes.

Why here? Why is a team of Japanese sculptors creating, over a period of more than a year, the biggest Buddhist sculpture of its kind ever made, right in Baltimore's own front yard? Or to be specific, in the sculpture's own specially designed studio next to the Maryland Institute, College of Art's Mount Royal Station building?

First, the idea of building a bigger Fudo was something of a challenge to Mr. Hashimoto and his Japanese colleagues. Trained in the art of traditional Japanese sculpture, they previously made an 18-foot Fudo in Japan. "We wanted the challenge of getting bigger and more difficult," said Mr. Hashimoto the other day, speaking through an interpreter, as he paused from his work to explain the project. "We want to use our full ability."

They wanted to create the work in America, he said, because "It is the dream of all Japanese people to come to this country. The American people are curious about art and appreciate Japanese art. But, while the Japanese people have much information about this country, here there is not as much information about Japan. This is a way of providing information about traditional Japanese art. Maybe this is a tiny effort when compared with the whole relationship between the two countries, but it can be something like a bridge."

And, as if to be completely frank, he was careful to add the practical note as well. "Supplies are cheaper than in Japan -- the wood and glue."

That still doesn't explain why Baltimore, but Maryland Institute president Fred Lazarus did. "A friend of mine, Richard Lanier, is director of the Asian Cultural Council, based in New York, which facilitates exchanges between the United States and Asian countries, and he has worked with the institute on other projects. The sculptors came to Richard to see if he could help them find a place, and he called me."

That was in the spring of 1988. There was a lot to work out. The sculptors have a patron, Japanese businessman Koji Oshiba, on whose property they have a studio. He was willing to be a sponsor, but others were needed as well for a project that Mr. Lazarus estimates will cost somewhere between $250,000 and $400,000 before it's finished.

Over a two-year period they were found -- RTKL Associates architects (designers of the studio), Black and Decker (contributor of tools to make the sculpture), the Arundel Corporation, Howard Head, the Starr Foundation, the Japan Foundation, the Asian Society of New York. The sculptors arrived in April to start work in their newly created studio.

Right away, they ran into a snag. "They wanted white cedar, but it wasn't available," explained Mr. Lazarus, citing the somewhat ironic reason why: "All the futures in white cedar were bought up by the Japanese for sculptures and temple buildings." So they tried bass wood, but it was too knotty. In the end they decided on yellow cedar, which alone cost about $35,000. About 30,000 pounds of Alaskan yellow cedar was needed, though the finished product will weigh less than half of that -- an estimated 6 1/2 tons.

The wood didn't arrive until mid-July, throwing the project behind schedule by several months. Originally scheduled for completion next spring, it won't be finished until next August, Mr. Hashimoto estimates.

It's a long and arduous task to make a 33-foot sculpture, even with a considerable number of people working. (In addition to Mr. Hashimoto, the principals are Isao Yanaguimoto and Jinichi Itoh. Mr. Hashimoto's father has also come from Japan to work on the project, and institute students, staff and alumni have pitched in as well.)

First, the sculptors made a model in clay, and then one in polyurethane, 1/10th full size, which could be cut in strips like the pieces of wood used to make the sculpture. Using graph paper, the sculptors projected the model up to full size. Then they cut out sections in plywood, and then, using the plywood as a template, cut the sections out again in boards which they laminated into three main sections of the sculpture: the head, the left side of the body including one foot and the right side including the other.

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