Masatoshi Izumi: Seeing the Soul of Stone
The latest link in an ancient lineage of stone sculptors, Masatoshi Izumi has become a master of his craft, in part by respecting his material.
Masatoshi Izumi is an internationally renowned sculptor. His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. He was the principal collaborator with Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) on the acclaimed artist’s stone sculptures and has created artwork for the Japanese prime minister’s residence.
Born in 1938 on the Japanese island of Shikoku into a family of master stone carvers, Izumi began apprenticing as a stonemason at age 15 and founded his own atelier in 1964. In 1966 he was recruited by famed Japanese-American landscape architect Isamu Noguchi to work on the iconic Black Sun sculpture, commissioned by the Seattle Art Museum. Izumi worked with Noguchi until the latter’s death in 1988, picking up many of the artist’s aesthetic philosophies. Working in granite and basalt, Izumi’s work juxtaposes the natural texture of the stone with areas of fine polish.
Izumi lives in the town of Mure on Shikoku, where he runs his family’s quarry and stonecutting business and coordinates the Isamu Noguchi Foundation of Japan.
Masatoshi Izumi is perhaps Japan’s greatest living sculptor. When it was time to make additions to the imperial chapel, when a world-renowned sculptor was in search of a partner, and when the Prime Minister of Japan needed sculptures for his residence, there was but one choice.
Masatoshi Izumi: I feel that stones are alive. They have souls. I feel that from the stones themselves but also, it is part of Japanese culture to treasure stones, to learn from stones. It’s part of our culture to love and revere nature, and stones are central to nature.
And so, too, are stones essential to the Izumi family legacy. Masatoshi Izumi was born on the island of Shikoku in 1938 into a long line of master craftsmen.
Izumi: This quarry behind me has been in my family for over 150 years. It has some of the finest granite in all of Japan. My first memories are being carried my stone cutters. I was raised by stone cutters and it was natural for me to think of myself as a stone cutter. I began practicing as a stone mason when I was about 15. For two years, I learned how to chisel the stone, how to polish it. I learned the joy, the fascination of splitting stone at that time.
Izumi soon developed into a very fine craftsman. Then in 1964, he met the celebrated Japanese-American artist, Isamu Noguchi. Two years later, Noguchi recruited him to work on the monumental granite sculpture, Black Sun. Initially, Izumi brought raw skill. Noguchi, an artistic vision.
Izumi: He was seeking to make heavy stones look light, hard stones look soft. Immobile stones look like they were in motion. I learned through him that approach to the stone. Isamu Nogachi often used to say to me that there were three things about me that were good. One was that I didn’t go to art school. The fact that I didn’t speak English. And the fact that I loved stone. He said, “That is why I want to study stone with you, “together.”
Izumi and Noguchi remained close collaborators up ’til Noguchi’s death in 1988. Their time together saw Izumi transform from a craftsman into an artist. Today, Izumi’s sculptures are highly covenant and widely exhibited works of art.
Izumi: You have this natural stone surface that is thousands of years old. It was shaped by nature, by the salt wind, by water. And then you have this modern surface that is polished. By juxtaposing them, I think that brings out that beauty for us to see. The beauty that is in the stone. It allows us to see it and be more aware of it. I want to treat the stone, even when it is removed from the Earth, as something alive. I make things from stone, but as I’m doing it, I want to treasure what is living inside the stone. And not harm it in any way.
Now 80 years of age, Masatoshi Izumi continues to take his work very seriously indeed, and himself, less so.
Izumi: Usually, I do not think of myself as a sculptor, but when I realize, oh, maybe if it was not for me, this could not have been done, that it would not exist. At those moments, I think of myself, maybe as a sculptor. Those are the moments when I realize that it is not my power that made this possible. It is some other power working through me that made it possible for this to happen.