The ancient Japanese art of Kobu, long ignored in this country, demands both an exacting craftmanship and the most profound philosophic reflection for its highest enjoyment. The combination of talents makes it the most difficult of arts and it has been little practiced outside of certain circles in Japan. About four years ago, however, a group gathered on Cape Cod whose happy union of philosophic and practical energy made possible the first International Non-Objective Kobu Art Association.
In its workaday side, Kobu is the art of polishing and shaping the unearthed roots of hardwood trees and bushes, of which cypress and cranberry roots are the best examples. Kobu is officially defined (by A. H. Eaton) as, " a curious, natural wood growth found in trees, usually about the roots . . . once the dead bark is removed the cherished Kobu is revealed, unusual in form, beautiful in grain, often rare in color, and no two ever alike." The Kobu artist then takes the root and begins a long and traditional pattern of hand rubbing and waxing (often with rare and expensive waxes) to bring it to a perfect finish. The preparation and mounting of a difficult kobu may take from six months to a year.
The present Association was founded in Truro (Cape Cod) in 1951 under the auspices of a root-polishing native who knew the technical aspects of the work, and a New York lawyer, Herman N. Finkelstein, who provided the philosophic leadership and subsequently became the Association's first (and only) president. During the summer the group flourished in the cranberry-laden countryside of the Cape, digging up roots and making the first steps in a highly complex art with improvised tools. When the halcyon summer days were over, the Association moved to New York, took on a Canadian member to become "International," and faced the sterner realitics of city living. A large studio on Fifteenth Street was rented, power polishing tools were purchased, and a professional wood finisher (whose services were often in demand by piano companies) was called in to deliver advanced lectures on waxes at the Association's weekly meetings. Since that enthusiastic winter the Association has become more respectable and less energetic; the studio has been moved to a sedate location uptown, and there is even a deficit from an over-investment in power machinery.
Although its activities have expanded, the Association holds with an almost rigid fanaticism to its original princpiles. Publicity is shunned. Entrance requirements are so rigorous that it is questionable whether anyone at all could now pass scrutiny of the members. And every year the group returns ritually to Cape Cod, laying by a store of precious kobus for the barren winter months in New York. Once gathered, the roots undergo a minute screening, for the Association prides inself on its phenomenally low production: in four years the whole group has made only twenty finished kobus and some of these are pocket sized.
With exclusiveness, there is some snobbishness. The Association regards driftwood gatherers and mobile manufacturers as philistines, beyond the pale of true artistic production. The essence of the true art is its non-objectivity, in the intimacy between man and kobu. "In a kobu," comments the president," every man sees what he wants or needs to see. With us, there is no restricting canon of 'proper' taste or judgment."