A Way with Writing | Akiko Crowther | Yū Yū Japanese Calligraphy School
Via a Skype call all of the way from sunny Nelson, Akiko Crowther’s warmth and kind heartedness radiates so strongly that by the end of the interview I wish I could reach through the screen and hug her farewell. But, for all the laughter and self-deprecation, as New Zealand’s only Japanese calligraphy grandmaster, Akiko’s art is serious stuff.
As well as her solo works, Akiko creates pieces with her artist husband, Tim Crowther, adding her signature swirls alongside his abstract strokes. I ask if they discuss the theme of their paintings beforehand.
“Sometimes we talk about it,” says Akiko, “about what Tim is feeling about the painting or about a particular message, or sometimes a customer will request a certain word. We also discuss colour and the positioning of the symbols.”
Akiko’s most recent exhibition, Shōdō: The Way of Brush, comprising solo and collaborative offerings, was a smash hit, attracting more than 250 guests on the opening night (a gallery record) of its three-week run at Nelson’s Refinery ArtSpace (“a big success!”), and at the end of August, she was honoured with an Ambassador’s Commendation Award for her contribution to promoting Japanese culture in New Zealand (“a big surprise!”). Akiko spent the level 4 lockdown writing rows of sutras (Buddhist prayers) in the hope of a swift end to the pandemic. They will be sent to a Japanese temple to be burnt and released into the ether “to become part of nature”.
Akiko also runs the Yū Yū Japanese Calligraphy School that caters to students aged six through to 60, mainly Kiwis, but from all corners of the globe, too. She sends her students’ work to Japan to be graded (like the various belts, or dans, in karate), where her countryfolk, she chuckles, are surprised by her “blue-eyed” calligraphers. But such is the high standard that they been invited to exhibit their work in Japan also.
“I love teaching,” beams Akiko. “I feel so lucky that there are so many people here that wish to learn calligraphy. I love watching the students evolve and seeing the joy in their faces as they realise their development.”
Though Akiko has always been a teacher, she hasn’t always taught calligraphy. She credits Tim with encouraging her to pursue the artform while they were living in Vienna and Prague in the 1990s. The couple, who celebrate their 22nd wedding anniversary this year, moved to Nelson 15 years ago, and sadly, Tim suffered a stoke five years later, paralysing his right side. Akiko helped him learn to paint with his left hand, with much support from the local community throughout. Akiko admits to being initially apprehensive about her move to Aotearoa but was soon won over by the Kiwi charm.
“The only thing I really knew about New Zealand was that there were lots of sheep, and not so many humans,” she giggles. “But I fell in love with the country very quickly. Everyone was so friendly, people asking me how I was doing, but I didn’t even know them!”
Akiko was just five years old when she first began learning calligraphy in her hometown of Tottori. She didn’t enjoy it initially, not until she won her first award soon afterwards. But calligraphy courses through Akiko’s veins—her grandfather was also a grandmaster, and several other family members are highly skilled calligraphers, too. But, she laments, with the ever-digitising world, it is fast becoming a dying art in Japan. She is thrilled to have been invited to exhibit her work in Tottori next year for the first time in her hometown,65 years after she first picked up a brush—and it will also be the year of her 70th birthday. A double celebration then, I say.
“Yes,” says Akiko. “I am koki.”
What does that mean, I ask.
She smiles her infections smile and replies, “Rare.”