No Paint Used
The first thing that artist Barbara Harmer says about her work is there is absolutely no paint in any of it — no acrylics, oil, or watercolor. “And that stops [people] cold,” she says.
Incredulously, admirers of her art ask what she’s using.
Her medium is called washi —traditional Japanese handmade and hand-dyed paper. By tearing and collaging washi paper of different colors, weights, and textures, Barbara creates art known as Chigiri-e. In Japanese, “chigiri” means to tear or shred, and “e” means picture.
What is Chigiri-e?
Barbara learned this art form in the 1990s while teaching English as a second language in Japan. There, she happened upon a flier for Chigiri-e lessons. There was only one problem: the instructor didn’t speak English, and she didn’t speak Japanese. Barbara learned by watching.
As she started dabbling in the technique, she was continually amazed by the beautiful washi and the long process to create and dye it. She saw first-hand how painstakingly the papermakers processed the fibers, purified the pulp, and hung the sheets to dry. She began collecting washi paper, and colleagues gave her more as a gift.
Washi quickly became Barbara’s obsession. “Oh my god, I’m in love, are you kidding me?,” she beams. “I’m addicted to paper. I can’t stop spending money on washi paper. I mean, I’ve got paper that I haven’t touched yet because it’s so beautiful. But I wanted it, I needed it, I had to have it!”
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Artist Barbara Harmer creating Chigiri-e.
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Though she enjoyed crafting before living in Japan, Barbara didn’t yet consider herself an artist. Upon returning to the U.S., she kept experimenting with Chigiri-e and added to her burgeoning washi collection by finding sources online. “I learned by trial and error,” she remembers. It seemed no other Americans were doing or even aware of Chigiri-e at that time. “I just had to observe, look at other paintings, and figure it out myself.”
In the early 2000s, Barbara began posting pictures of her art to an online community of local Houston-area artists. “Every time I posted a photo, I had to say it was all handmade Japanese paper only — No paint used. It got to be a joke,” she laughs, “I was ‘no paint used’ Barbara.” Her online community soon grew into her circle of artistic peers and friends.
Since then, Barbara has continued to adapt and modernize this traditional technique. Though she has created Japanese-inspired scenes of geishas, cherry blossoms, and dragons, Barbara also explores scenes of nature, animals, abstract colorscapes, and even Day of the Dead imagery. “I’m just amazed by the different things you can do with it to create anything you want to, whether it’s soft or hard, or colorful or just in black and white. You name it, you can do it with Chigiri-e.”
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The tool set and wash paper used to create Chigiri-e.
When embarking on her time in Japan, Barbara never imagined she’d return home to life as an artist. “[Chigiri-e] changed my life,” she says. “It opened a lot of new avenues, new windows, new friendships… if I hadn’t taken the Chigiri-e lessons, I probably wouldn’t have continued doing art. I couldn’t see myself coming home and being an artist. Chigiri-e was a stepping stone, and it just opened all kinds of avenues to my world.”
Now, Barbara’s studio is filled with baskets and baskets of washi she has collected over the years. She exhibits her Chigiri-e at festivals, creates commissioned Chigiri-e art, and gives lessons in Chigiri-e.
An Approachable Art Form
Barbara has taught the technique to children as young as seven years old and retirees in their 60s. “There’s really no age limit,” she says, and emphasizes how easy it is to learn. She encourages students to choose a finished piece of hers to replicate. “They’ll come to me and say, ‘I don’t know if I can do that,’ and I’ll say, ‘Yes you can. We’re not going to start from 100,’” she reassures students, “we’re going to start from 1.”
At first, Chigiri-e students may feel overwhelmed, but they quickly become comfortable with the simple step-by-step process of tearing and pasting.
“When they put that first piece of paper on there, and they see how easy that is, and how I’m going to guide them, they’re fine with it,” she says. And that’s when it really starts to be fun. Each student quickly discovers how to collage in the Japanese way and leaves the lesson proud of the beautiful painting they’ve produced together. Barbara remembers fondly how an elementary school boy couldn’t wait to show his Chigiri-e to his art teacher. “Anyone can learn to do it,” she says.