In April of 2013, Jane Heald, a resident of Pleasant Hill, Tennessee, and friend of Janell Landis, took to Google for help on information about Japanese art. By chance, she stumbled across What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?, a blog run by Paula R. Curtis, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan working on the history of medieval Japanese artisans. “Can you help us find a home for a beautiful collection of Japanese Edo Tops?” her email began.
Jane explained that her neighbor and friend Janell (88) taught at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University in Sendai, Japan for over thirty years (beginning in 1953), and during that time was apprenticed to Mr. Michiaki Hiroi, an artisan who specialized in Edogoma 江戸独楽. Edogoma, a particular style of traditional wooden spinning top, have a long tradition in Japan. As it happened, Janell collected over a hundred of Hiroi’s tops over the course of her time in Japan, and though she hoped to find a museum to donate her collection to, thus far they had no luck. “Could you recommend another museum that would like to receive her donation? Or advise us another way to proceed? These beautiful objects shouldn’t be suddenly shoved into storage on short notice,” Jane wrote.
In full agreement, Paula contacted several colleagues, but worried about the time it might take to find a museum willing to accept the donation. She then contacted public historian Malina Rose Suity to discuss the possibility of an oral history project that would both preserve Janell’s unique history with the collection and promote it to potential museums. In October of 2013, Paula and Malina were invited to Janell’s home in Pleasant Hill, where they conducted interviews with Janell over the course of three days and were introduced to her beautiful top collection.
Janell, determined to travel to Japan one last time to see her many friends and attend her homecoming at Migyagi Gakuin, invited Paula and Malina to join her so that they could interview Hiroi in person and share in the Japan side of the collection’s history. After several months of funding inquiries and a successful Kickstarter campaign, Paula and Malina were able to travel with Janell for a week in May of 2014 to northern Japan with the support of the University of Michigan’s Center for Japanese Studies and Kickstarter contributors. There they visited Hiroi at his home in Akiu kōgei no sato 秋保工芸の里 (Akiu Craft Village) and were introduced to his artisanry in person. In August 2014, Janell traveled to Delray Beach, Florida, to the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, which offered to accept her collection.
Although the primary goal of the project was accomplished with Janell’s successful donation, the Carving Community: The Landis-Hiroi Collection archive is the culmination of the underlying goal of sharing Janell and Hiroi’s wonderful story with a broader audience around the world. Presenting the account of Janell Landis’ apprenticeship and the extraordinary cultural exchange embodied in the collection’s history represents a spirit of friendship and understanding between distant communities. Janell was Hiroi’s only foreign and only female apprentice (most artisan professions, wood-working in particular, have long been male-dominated); during her apprenticeship, Hiroi encouraged her to also produce tops that dealt with themes related to American folk culture and lore that reflected both her background and the art and culture of her new home through traditional Japanese crafts. Janell’s desire to see his work in a museum is as much a product of her respect for her teacher and fondness of her time under his tutelage as it is for her wish to bring the two cultures together by offering an American community a valuable glimpse into the beauty of Japanese art. We aim to expand Janell’s goals by offering a bilingual archive that can be enjoyed by both Japanese- and English-speakers who are unable to see the collection in person.
In her October interview, Janell stated, “A museum, having some of these wonderful creations, could understand genius in a woodworker’s life.” Janell’s deep respect and love for Japan and the traditional art that Hiroi taught her shines through in this collection as it bridges gaps across time, culture, and community.