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Iwami Reika (1927-2020)

I was so sad to hear from her niece that IWAMI Reika died on March 18th, 2020.

Diminutive in stature, she was capable of making powerful woodblocks which spoke of her love of nature. Reika-san lived most of her life by the seacoast at Hayama, and would frequently walk on the beach, collecting odd bits of driftwood and cast-off fishing nets that she inked and used in her work.

James Michener discovered her work in the 1950s and included her in his seminal 1962 book The Modern Japanese Print: An Appreciation, commenting on her beautiful use of texture, the vivid yet controlled coloring, and the wholly satisfying composition of her oeuvre.

When my parents opened their gallery in 1972, she was one of the first artists they represented. I was a young girl then and found it interesting that she had gotten into woodblock print making through Kokeshi doll carving. She also created intricately inlaid tea caddies in which to store green tea powder for traditional tea ceremony.

Our artists are part of our extended family, especially because our actual relatives lived in the US during the time that my sister and I were growing up in Japan. I therefore found it quite normal to be told, during my junior year abroad in Paris, that Reika san would be coming with my family so that we could all celebrate Christmas together. She confessed upon arrival that that it was her first trip to Europe, and I planned an exhaustive itinerary, knowing that as an artist, she would of course want to visit the Louvre first.

Paris in the winter can be cold and damp but we bundled up and sallied forth into the elements. I couldn’t wait to see her expression when she glimpsed the Mona Lisa, although I knew that, tiny as she was, the crowds might be overwhelming. Indeed, there were throngs in the gallery where the Mona Lisa is located and as I energetically pushed my way through the horde, I realized at one point that I had lost her. Frantically re-tracing my steps, I searched gallery after gallery but to no avail. After a few miserable hours I returned crestfallen to the apartment and announced to my family: “I lost Reika-san”. As we were discussing what we should do to locate her, and whether or not we should call the police or return all together to the Louvre and scour the adjacent streets for her, Reika-san returned, cheeks flushed, chattering away about her “wonderful stroll through the museum after she realized that we had been separated, and the walk home through the picturesque streets of Paris”.

That incident taught me early on that being petite does not mean one is helpless and made me appreciate the strength emanating from her woodblocks all the more.


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