The Suitcase Lady


October 13, 2015, 11:06 pm

Japanese woodblock prints are among my favorite types of art. Two women are responsible for opening my eyes to the subtle beauty of these prints, and I am grateful to both of them.

My mother decorated the walls of my childhood home with reproductions by famous artists. She believed that art was meant to be part of the everyday environment. Like the pictures in a beloved childhood book, our household art was imprinted in my brain. And a small reproduction of a big wave made one of the deepest impressions. I was fascinated by Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa…the ornate wave rising over the tiny boat of cowering men.

When I was an eighteen year old college student, our art department took a field trip to Chicago. The famed Art Institute was the main focus, but our teachers also planned a stop at a tiny shop that sold handmade Japanese paper. Aiko’s Art Materials was started in 1953 by the diminutive Aiko Nakane (link to a startling bio) who became known as the “grande dame” of Japanese paper, or washi, in America.

The teachers wanted us to know of this treasure trove of papers which we could use in our art work. But I fell in love with the paper itself and only wanted to frame it (many sheets were enhanced with dried leaves or stenciled patterns) or buy prints by contemporary Japanese artists on washi papers. Aiko also had a small, exquisite selection of prints displayed in her store.

My husband and I frequently visited Aiko’s for decades and decades. We pinched pennies and through the years were able to buy several beautiful prints to mark the seasons. Aiko retired at age 94 and died a year later in 2004. The store closed in 2008.

Last Friday we were in St. Paul, Minnesota, and stopped in their big, new Goodwill Store. I was making a quick scan of everything including the framed pictures. And then I couldn’t believe my eyes. I spotted a print in a dusty frame with filthy glass for $2.99. The woodblock print itself was in good condition….a lovely fall scene by Kiyoshi Saito, a prize winning Japanese printmaker.

Thanks to my mother and Aiko, I knew what my eyes were seeing. If I believed in karma, I would have thought these ladies had brought me to the spot.


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