This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of Centrepiece.
Born and raised on a small farm in Burgin, Ky., Jay van Arsdale ’70 comes from three generations of village blacksmiths. “Lifelong learning and personal transformations give your life the adventure it deserves,” he believes. It’s a creed that led him to a unique career in the specialized form of Japanese carpentry called daiku.
“My parents were dumbfounded that I did not plan to become an engineer or scientist,” he says. “They couldn’t understand what I would do with an art degree.”
It turns out that he has accomplished a great deal.
His foray into art began shortly after arriving at Centre in 1966. By his sophomore year, he realized that he didn’t belong in a physics lab and changed his major from physics to art.
Working as the assistant to Centre art and sculpture professor John Somville, he helped to construct the iconic statue The Flame. The project left a lasting impression on him, and he recalls it as one of the highlights of his Centre experience.
“I grew up around craftsmen who taught me about materials and the importance of doing good work,” he says. “However, working on The Flame filled the gaps in my art background.”
After Centre, van Arsdale drove to Oakland, Calif., where he earned an M.F.A. at Mills College and supported his art habit with odd jobs and the occasional painting sale. One day in the mid 1970s, he noticed a flyer for a demonstration by a Japanese tea-house carpenter, Makoto Imai. Curious, he decided to attend. The decision changed the trajectory of his artistic life.
“Five minutes into Makoto’s demo, I was completely hooked by the tools, techniques, and his graceful movements,” says van Arsdale. “For the next three years, I apprenticed under Makoto and followed him to jobs and workshops. His work is sculpture in action—useful and based on a reverence and respect for nature.”
Daiku—traditional Japanese carpentry—is a method that dates to the sixth century. It is not the easiest or fastest way to join wood members together, van Arsdale admits, but he believes it is still the best way. “I use the same historical hand tools and joinery techniques in all of the work I do today,” he says.
The organizing principles of daiku guide his life and teaching. “The demand of the carpentry builds character and respect,” he says. “It challenges you to keep improving and to be present in your work.”
For nearly 20 years, he has been an adjunct professor of traditional Japanese hand tools and joinery at Laney College in Oakland. He is the author of Shoji: How to Design, Build, and Install Japanese Screens (Kodansha, 1988) and has appeared on both Japanese and U.S. television. He is a founding member of www.kezuroukai.us, the only group chartered outside of Japan that uses traditional Japanese joinery construction methods. When he is not teaching or woodworking, he enjoys bonsai, shakuhachi music, writing poetry, and spending time with his wife, Karen, and 21-year-old daughter, Suki.
Although he reports discovering a new life through Japanese aesthetics and wood-working discipline, he credits Centre as the catalyst for his intellectual and artistic pursuits.
“Centre was a great place to be challenged, to push yourself past your tipping point, to find the path that lets your light shine,” he says.
by Elizabeth Painter ’94, who works at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta
October 22, 2018