Netsuke is a form of carving developed centuries ago in China and Japan. Pronounced, “netskay”, it evolved from simple wood or stone toggles — used to suspend a pouch on a cord when tucked under a belt — into elaborately detailed, very small works of art and craftsmanship. If you’ve never seen it, the elegant work of master carver Janel Jacobson is a good place to start.
Janel was introduced to netsuke years ago, while taking classes from a master potter who lived north of the San Francisco area. During her free time, she stopped in at the De Younge Museum in San Francisco, and saw a room dedicated to netsuke.
“I was fascinated by the small and very detailed sculptures, bought the little show catalog, and then continued down the path with my pottery.” Janel recalled, “Then 12 or 15 years later, I found my work was evolving beyond the shallow relief carving and celadon glazed work I was doing with porcelain. I wanted my frogs and leaves to take on a three-dimensional form. I remembered the small, all-around sculpted netsuke and started to teach it to myself.”
Still a potter at heart, her initial efforts involved carving porcelain clay. Then she attended her first netsuke collector’s convention in 1993, met other netsuke carvers, and learned about handling wood. In 1995, she switched over to wood. Compared to the cold, pale and fragile porcelain, she found she preferred wood for carving. It added a warmth and vitality to her subjects that comes from within the material itself.
Unlike traditional Netsuke, which often illustrated people from folk tales or jokes, Janel’s work is based in nature.
“It’s hard to say where it began, Janel recalled, “I’ve always enjoyed looking at nature, discovering the relationship of what is sitting on what and how each creature exists. Interesting surprises stick in my mind … like discovering it was a katydid that was making the noise … or seeing a little tree frog sitting on a raspberry leaf and wondering how it got there. I choose to carve things that interest me and my goal is to share a moment of quiet pleasure with the person looking at it.”
Janel usually works on one piece at a time. When a piece involves using a complex process, such as creating the amber eyes of a frog, she may begin another piece while taking on the various steps of the process.
“When I am ready to begin a new carving, sometimes I look through my collection of small pieces of exotic hardwoods and see what kind of subject might fit within one of them,” she explained. “And sometimes I start with a firm concept … then I might use boxwood since I have larger pieces and can make an idea fit.”
Though it helps to see the animal move, Janel refers to books and photographs, and collected specimens of insects, leaves and sticks. For detailed information, she’ll sometimes look on the Internet for images. Her animals are a little stylized to fit the form, but she tries to use distinct characteristic of the subject for accurate, recognizable representation. Frogs and toads are a favorite. They’re readily available in her back yard, and she’s even raised a few tree frogs and toads in a terrarium.
Janel uses a variety of wood and other materials for her carvings. She likes boxwood, because it can take some color and be stained. She sometimes uses a stain she made from boiling pecan shells, which gives a warm, medium brown color to boxwood. African Blackwood is another favorite and woods that have a dark and light definition between the heart and sap woods. And she’s even tried her hand at ivory … from a woolly mammoth!
“A dealer in legal mammoth ivory in Alaska selected a long, beautiful piece of tusk which was found in sand and gravel. This piece has a more pleasant odor than pieces which are found in the vicinity of the dead animal. Carving ivory is more of a filing, scraping, sanding and polishing procedure, and since it takes a high polish you’ve got to work hard to eliminate scratches.”
Janel is continuously experimenting with different finishes.
“I once tried an almond luster spray-on furniture polish from Homer Formby,” Janel recalled, “But it raised the grain, which I didn’t like. So, I sprayed it into a jar and as the moisture evaporated it separated into an oil and a paste. I use the oil on African Blackwood which darkens the wood temporarily. But when it dries, the oil leaves some protection. And sometimes I’ll use the paste which I believe to be wax, rub it in, and then when dry I will buff it.”
A true netsuke must have two holes, himotoshi, for the cord that originally held the pouch. Janel prefers to create natural holes around an arm and leg for instance … though it’s technically more difficult. Every once in while, she just doesn’t want to put holes in a piece. She then proclaims it an okimono, a convenient term for a scholar’s object that sits on a desk for contemplation.
When they gather for netsuke collector shows, some of her fellow contemporary netsuke carvers object to her okimonos and encourage her to put himotoshi into the pieces. But a pure, contemporary netsuke collector is a rare person, and the wider group of wood collectors are the ones who buy her work. Because of that shortage of collectors, and with more and more carvers, the field has become increasingly competitive in recent years. One of Janel’s frustrations about her field is her isolation from other carvers. The fact that many are now reluctant to share techniques — even when they are together — makes the seclusion even more frustrating.
Aside from one or two shows a year, Janel finds marketing her work to be a challenge. On her website, she presents her carvings … pieces currently for sale and those no longer available for sale. She works in the Sunrise, Minnesota studio she shares with her potter husband. Pricing is another complicated challenge. Since she can put up to 100 to 200 hours of careful work into some of her pieces, Janel charges thousands of dollars for a single netsuke.
She loves what she does. Her website makes her feel more connected to others who are interested in netsuke and netsuke carving. She enjoys meeting those rare individuals, her buyers, who have such a passion for netsuke. And, with those who are open to it, she loves to learn and share ideas with other carvers. What more could you ask from life?