From the moment I first saw Torii on the Djerassi website, I was hooked. Not only because I’m attracted to Japanese things but because Torii seemed to have a special meaning with roots in northern California—a meaning that became clearer and deeper during my artist residency in May.
As I walked from my Diane Middlebrook studio up a steep hill, I passed the “Yield to Whim” sign and the phone bench. Small brown rabbits with white cotton ball tails hopped by me. I meditated on each step and each breath in the early morning fog. Next, I observed a landscape of rolling green hills as a family of five deer leaped into view. I worried that I disturbed their privacy, and stopped in my tracks to await their passage. They danced across the road and up to the next hill, heading southeast with a fawn in tow. There were two more hills ahead before reaching the gate near Bruce Beasley’s silver metallic sculpture, Aristus. As I walked, I noticed the flowers and met other wildlife along the way. This journey became my daily pilgrimage to visit Torii. I wondered about its presence and definition in America.
In the Japanese language, Torii is pronounced with a long “EE” sound (TOH-REE) and is represented by a combination of two characters or kanji. The first kanji means bird (TORI), pronounced TORY while the second is a picture gram of a perch or abode or gate (I), pronounced EE. Since I practice the daily art of Japanese calligraphy, I discovered that Torii can be a catalyst for creativity and inspiration using calligraphy brush, ink, and rice paper.
Every day I approached Torii, I contemplated its significance. In my view, Torii represents a gateway to a sacred space. It is a living entity and a form of generative art. Torii at Djerassi has been an example of generative art for over thirty years. Generative art isn’t something we build with definitive plans, materials, and tools. It’s grown; much like a tree is grown. It’s organic and emergent. That’s how I felt when I visited it each day. I saw patches of lichen thriving on one side of the structure. Next to the lichen, I noticed a weathering of the old growth redwood that revealed textures of rough waves made by the artist’s chain saw. On another morning, I witnessed two black ravens perched on the top looking out to sea. One foggy day at 8 o’clock during my second week, I came upon the gray mist and fast moving cumulus clouds which seemed to enter and flow through Torii as it stood tall against the wind and cold, ever so stable and present. A variety of lizards and insects made their home at its base.
I had to find out more about the artist who made it. This led me to Bruce Johnson, a sculpture artist from the Bay Area who settled in Sonoma County with his family. In the 1980s, Bruce travelled to Japan and was inspired by Japanese architecture, woodwork, and poetry. On May 15th, Bruce returned to the ranch to re-visit Torii, and we spent two days together.
According to Bruce, Carl Djerassi saw several of Johnson’s salvaged old growth redwood sculptures at a gallery in Oakland and was struck by the size and enormity of the pieces. Even today, Bruce only uses salvaged redwood because the heart of his sculptures are old grown chunks that come from trees a thousand years old or more. He sees his work as small acts of preservation. The gallery owner put them together, and they began a correspondence from 1983 to 1984. Carl commissioned Bruce to build a redwood sculpture in honor of his late daughter, Pamela, and offered a residency at the ranch. Because of the necessary tools at his studio, Bruce decided to work at his yard instead of at Djerassi. He did visit the Artists’ Ranch to ascertain where to install Torii, and he remembers hiking around the grounds—Carl with a life-sized silhouette of Torii—while they took snapshots of each other at various prospective locations. When Carl initially saw Torii, it reminded him of the symbol of pi.
I asked Bruce, “Now that you have seen Torii in 2017, what is its legacy; what would you like future generations to know?” Bruce, now is his 70’s, paused, then said, “I like the idea of the unknown craftsman, so in a sense, I’d like the future generation to have their own experience.” He looked out the window, and added, “Torii has done well for over thirty years—I hope it will be infinite.” Indeed, Torii is an American interpretation of a Japanese Shinto art form and structure.
I want a convincing description for myself, one that I can share with those who haven’t yet explored the area or those who deny its importance. I seek a definition because as an educator in Asian American Studies it has become a habit to defend forms of art, because I am a fifth generation American of Japanese descent who has lived in Japan, and because Torii may be lost and gone away someday.
Djerassi Resident Artists Program was my first and only artist residency. Attending Djerassi was a meaningful experience for me. The gift of time helped me to grow in strength as a writer. Torii inspired me to see what I can create through the use of this eternal symbol.
Today, on my desk in San Francisco sits a wooden replica of Torii that Bruce and I constructed in the workshop; it stands next to a pile of dried lichen and forget-me-nots.