While apprenticing with Martin Puryear in the mid-80s, David Jackson was browsing through the sculptor’s library one day and came across a book about the traditional Japanese cabinetry known as tansu. Though Jackson had studied sculpture at the School of the Art Institute, he had already developed an interest in Japanese folk art. “Joinery, teahouses, and now here was another aspect of Japan’s woodworking heritage to captivate me.”

Intrigued by tansu, Jackson soon let his sculpture fall by the wayside, and by 1990 was conserving tansu for a living. Now his interest has culminated in his exhibit Tansu Exposed: The Craft of Japanese Antique Cabinetry at the Graham Foundation. Along with mostly 19th-century tansu, the exhibit will include woodworking tools, wood samples, photos, and diagrams depicting the various trades involved in the craft. Other 19th-century imagery will provide a view into the social world where tansu had their place. “I wanted to organize something that would expose the beauty of this cabinetry and also celebrate the maker,” says Jackson. “I wanted to give the nameless craftsman a presence.”

What appeals to Jackson is the combination of function and form embodied in the objects, which could be anything from sea chests to kitchen chests to clothing chests to ingenious step chests–actual staircases and storage units in one that were often built into the home. “Tansu are like the best of Shaker [furnishings],” says Jackson. “Embellishment was basically downplayed. At the same time, they managed to be beautiful objects–what wood was all about came through, whether it was lacquered or not.”

Most tansu have asymmetric

Though Jackson has devoted his life to restoring and researching tansu, so far he’s only been able to make one trip to Japan, in 1992, but it was this trip that gave him the idea for the exhibit. “Tansu have only been shown generally in the context of other Japanese folk art,” he says. “It’s really high time the cabinetry is shown on its own terms.”

Tansu Exposed: The Craft of Japanese Antique Cabinetry will open Tuesday at 7:30 at the Graham Foundation, 4 W. Burton, and will run through May 16. Tansu scholar Ty Heineken will lecture on opening night at 8, discussing the Japanese cabinetry evolution as an extension of architecture and nature. The exhibit and lecture are free. Call 787-4071 for more.

–Karen Keane

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.