William (Bill) H. Paden (1930-2004), an obituary by Yoshiaki Shimizu*

img411 (1).jpg

Photo by David Sellers.

Bill Paden, a printmaker who employed the techniques and materials of traditional Japanese wood-block printing (mokuhanga), died in New York City on August 6th, 2004. 

A long-time member of the Ukiyo-e Society of America, he organized several workshops for its members and held demonstrations of mokuhanga art at Princeton University, the Japan Society, Columbia University, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, to mention only a few. From 1979 to 2003, Bill taught relief printmaking at New York University off and on. He exhibited widely in this country and Japan over the past 35 years, was a recipient of a CAPS (Contemporary Art Print Society) Fellowship, and was a member of the Japan Print Association.

During the Korean War he served in the U.S. Army in Germany, where works by German Expressionists, particularly those of Max Beckmann, exerted a profound influence on his art. After military service, he studied at Indiana University, studying painting with Alton Pickins, Jack Tworkov and Leon Golub, and graphics with Arthur Deshaies and Rudy Pozzatti. At Indiana Bill also met Clayton Eshleman, a poet, with whom he maintained a long-lasting friendship and collaborated in publications of their art. Bill moved to New York City in the late 1950s, where he worked for a while at the frame shop Kulic. Years later Bill would often reminisce that his experiences at Kufic, where he practiced mat cutting, glass cutting and gold-leafing, had a direct connection with his later interest in the disciplined aesthetic and craft of Japanese mokuhanga that he would discover while in Japan. When Eshleman went to Kyoto not long after his stay in Indiana, he encouraged Bill to do the same. Bill then journeyed by boat to Japan in the fall of 1963 and set up residence in Kyoto, finding this ancient city rich with living artistic traditions. For an American artist from the midwest and New York City, life in Kyoto proved to be as fascinating as it was addictive. For a while he lived in a modest former ryokan situated south of Seikanji monastery, overlooking the mausoleum of Hideyoshi to the south Kiyomizu-derato the west. Bill would walk to many points in the city, sometimes bushwhacking along the lower ridges of the Higashiyama hills. He loved sento, frequenting one really old establishment off Shinkyogoku and Sanjo in particular, the plebeian bathhouse Sakurayu. He was also fond of Min-Min, an eatery specializing in gyoza. As Bill became more familiar with Kyoto, he would meticulously describe the directions one might take to get to desired places; in doing so he would be extremely methodical and precise in remembering names and directions, demonstrating a fussiness that was not unlike the one that characterized his tutelage of woodblock print students in later years. Bill met his wife-to-be Yoshiko Isa in Kyoto, where she had spent her entire life. Yoshiko, who hails from a family of textile designers in Kyoto, is characterized by both a traditional education and upbringing (she is an expert, among other things, in noh librettos) and a commonsense wisdom. Their marriage anchored Bill to a less peripatetic existence in Japan. The newlyweds moved to the western fringe of the city, Enmachi, and into a traditional Kyoto house, where one of the upstairs rooms became a studio for Bill. Meeting the printmaker Clifton Karhu in Kyoto inspired Bill to pursue a more focused artistic regimen. In studying with the American master of mokuhanga who had chosen Japan as his home, Bill’s lifelong predilection to curiosity, adventurousness, and methodical approach to everything converged with his artistic fascination with the process of woodblock printing, with all of its requirements for precision and control. Bill’s early prints show a thematic and stylistic connection with his earlier expressionism both in figures and landscapes. They employ strong colors like red, orange, yellow, blue and purple, as shown in “Fields,” one of the prints in Brother Stones (a Caterpillar Book, published in Kyoto in 1968 in collaboration with Eshleman), and “Meditation,” a print of figures ascending toward heaven, done around 1970. Bill’s other prints accompanied published anthologies of verse such as Sixteen T’ang Poems, translated with a poem by Gary Snyder, one of Bill’s friends in Kyoto, and published by Pied Oxen Printers, Hopewell, NJ, in 1993. A more recent publication, Nightwatch (1998), consisted of fifteen poems by the Chinese dissident poet Bei Dao, translated by David Hinton and calligraphed by Er Tai Gao, it is accompanied by two woodcut frontispieces by Bill, and was also published by Pied Oxen Printers in Hopewell, NJ.

Soon after their daughter Carie was born, Bill and Yoshiko moved to New York. His prints in the 1970s tended to favor images that were the direct outgrowth of his artistic experiences in Kyoto. Bill made a series of horizontally rectangular prints entitled “Walls,” mostly in warm, reddish brown, ochre, black and grey, deriving his surfaces from the textures and colors of Japanese residential house walls made of mud or Buddhist temple floors covered in slate. They invariably recall the visual impressions one receives from seeing the earthen walls of the Ryoanji sand garden and the slate-sheathed floors of Manpukuji in Uji. While teaching print classes at New York University Bill remained prolific, but commercial ambition was not one of his attributes, nor did he push himself to promote his work through exhibitions. Many of his students who studied during the past ten or more years remember Bill as an uncompromising perfectionist in transmitting the right way to do hanga. Elaine Chandler, one of Bill’s close friends, said of Bill that his knowledge of the art of woodblock printing was “vast, and he generously shared it with his students and serious printmakers. As an instructor Bill was not one to suffer fools or dilettantes; he zealously guarded the traditions of Japanese printmaking. His legacy is a cadre of talented printmakers in New York City who owe much to his teachings.” He continued to make prints, exploring different effects that the water-based woodblock printmaking technique would produce, often confirming the great ukiyo-e printers’ fascination with the way colors came out depending upon the different degrees to which pressure was applied through the baren and how one applied pigments on the brush with just the right amount of water. If Bill was methodical and precise with the process of cutting woodblock or printing, he was equally strict and disciplined in choosing materials and maintaining the tools of his trade. He was never patient with artists professing to be woodblock artists who kept rusted or chipped knives and chisels. He was very particular and choosy about what paper and pigments to get and where. At one time Bill traveled to a remote village in Fukui prefecture for the laborious papermaking method practiced there. He studied meticulously the ways papermakers enslaved themselves to their craft, even during the chill of winter in the Hokuriku region.

Throughout his thirty or more years with mokuhanga, Bill made volumes of notes that he began assembling and editing into a book manuscript entitled Notes to the Hanga Printmaker. It was left unfinished at his death. One student reports that in it Bill discusses subjects ranging from craft to history and even jazz piano. Perfectionist that he was in printmaking, he was equally methodical in preparing his favorite food and drinks. In life, as in art, there are indeed few truly determined and uncompromising individuals today, as Bill was, as a rara avis, one of them.

*Yoshiaki Shimizu is Princeton University Marquand Professor of Art and Archaeology, Emeritus.