in the eyes of an artist

Published: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 1:27 a.m.

Art bridges cultures. And the Japanese become fast friends.

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In his home studio in Keystone Heights, Robert Ponzio puts the finishing touches on one of the paintings now on exhibition at the Art Department Gallery at Oak Hall School. During his gallery talk at 7 p.m. Friday, he'll share his artistic process and talk about his experiences in Japan.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/The Gainesville Sun

That's the gist of what Robert Ponzio learned on his three-week visit to Japan last October.

Ponzio, chair of the Art Department at Oak Hall School, traveled to Japan with a select delegation of American K-12 teachers via the Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program sponsored by the Japanese government (www.iie .org).

Unlike typical tourists, Ponzio's sampling of Japan extended beyond temples and gardens. It was more of a research trip. He roomed with a Japanese family in Okinawa, visited schools and fish markets, watched traditional musical and dramatic performances, hobnobbed with Japanese officials and tracked down authentic geishas. Wherever he traveled, he viewed Japan with an artist's eye and passionate curiosity.

"Rob's very, very intent on involving the community in art - the whole community," said Richard Gehman, headmaster of Oak Hall School. "He is an absolute sponge. He experiences things as deeply as anybody I've ever known."

When Ponzio applied to the Fulbright Memorial Teacher Fund, he proposed that his post-visit project be an art show he could share with his students and the community at large.

He kept a riveting journal/sketchbook on his trip filled with paintings, drawings and musings. He glued in snippets from brochures, ticket stubs and postcards. The collection became the basis for a body of paintings he created upon his return.

"Traditionally my work has been very aggressive, angst-filled and angry - rough," he said. "I have always admired Japanese wood block prints, their sense of beauty and quietness. I was looking for a way to introduce Japanese art to my students and to allow myself to make something beautiful."

Upon his return, he created nine large expressionist paintings and 14 smaller ones - all in acrylics - in just two months, painting feverishly in the studio of his Keystone Heights home. His vibrantly colored show, "A Ponzio in Japan," runs through Feb. 13 at the Art Center Gallery at Oak Hall School. On Friday evening he'll give a gallery talk and Power Point presentation at the exhibit's reception.

"I think the students have a real connection to his experiences over there. His show captures the highlights of what he saw on his tour and offers the kids a chance to share in that, but it's all through his artistic filter," said Oak Hall art instructor Gary Bone.

  • Lost in Tokyo

    Ponzio flew into the frenetic, buzzy energy of Tokyo on Oct. 7 after an 11-hour flight. If you saw Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in "Lost in Translation," you can imagine his experiences navigating Tokyo's neon maze.

    He went to dinner with a Fulbright alumnus on his first night in Japan, bravely plunging into his cross cultural experience with a bowl of eel and noodles at an out-of-the way noodle bar. He was too excited to sleep, so he walked the streets of Tokyo far into the night.

    An excerpt from his journal: Lost in Tokyo. Today (tonight) I got lost. I left Shenjuki Station and once I was turned around, the fun started. Signs are no good. I asked one guy directions to the Keo Plaza Hotel and he misundertstood and sends me deeper!

    On one early-morning foray, he wound his way into the bowels of a Tokyo fish market where he saw giant tuna auctioned for tens of thousands of dollars each. Restaurateurs and grocers sniffed and poked, tasting tiny slivers of flesh from the tails, and inspected the innards with flashlights.

    From Ponzio's journal: The Fish Market was huge and incredibly busy. An endless assortment of fish of all types were being prepared for sale. Hundreds of workers scurrying about on motorized carts hauling everything and anything around. In the rear warehouses we saw the prize tuna before and during auction....The market's size and energy was impressive and inspiring.

    Usually for half the day he'd meet with teachers and education officials to discuss the Japanese educational system. One man said a major issue among Japanese students is a "lack of creativity."

    Ponzio said Japanese kids must take two tests - one in 9th grade, which determines the high school they qualify for, and another in 12th grade. That one determines if students can go to college. The pressure is enormous; there are no second chances. A person's future career hinges on these tests. "It's a very unforgiving system," he said. "They have these giant red signs in the school hallways: 'X amount of days,' counting down to the test." In preparation, kids attend "cram schools" after their regular school day ends.

    One of the schools he visited, Kaiho Senior High School, is considered the jewel of the Japanese educational system, Ponzio said. It's a public boarding high school designated as one of Japan's 23 "Super Science" schools. Students choose from science or fine art majors and enjoy a teacher to student ratio of 1:7 and state-of-the-art facilities.

  • Kyoto, a city of temples and shrines

    In Kyoto, two hours from Tokyo aboard the Shinkansen bullet train, he found more than 2,000 shrines and temples and "exquisite" examples of old-style Japanese architecture. He visited Rokuonji Temple - The Golden Pavilion - and Higashi Hoganji.

    The pavilion is an architectural jewel covered inside and out with 22-carat gold leaf. It was such a peaceful site, he imagined swimming in the water surrounding it. That was the inspiration for his painting, "Soaking It All In."

    Another famous Kyoto landmark, Nijo Castle, is set behind two moats and high walls with floors built to "sing" when stepped upon, to protect the Shogun from assassins. "The sounds are very pleasant and harmonious, so they got the name, 'nightingale floors,' " said Ponzio. Nijo Castle was the inspiration for a second painting.

    A third temple's construction also impressed him:

    Higashi Hoganji is an amazing Buddhist temple. It is also the largest wooden building in the world. The massive elm pillars could not be moved because the ropes kept breaking. Women from the region cut their prized long hair to form huge ropes which had the strength to haul the wood. The ropes are a powerful metaphor for strength of the human spirit and illustrate how great things can happen when we work together.

  • Peace in Hiroshima

    Ponzio's visit to Hiroshima centered around the Peace Park and Peace Memorial Museum, a touching, vivid memorial. As he drew the Hiroshima Peace Dome, the skeletal remnant of a building decimated by the 1945 atomic bomb blast and left as a memorial, a crane gently landed on the structure. It reminded him of the book by Eleanor Coerr, "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes."

    "The crane is a symbol of peace utilized by many as they send in chains of 1,000 (origami) cranes to the peace memorial there," said Ponzio. "It felt like someone was trying to tell me something."

  • In Nago, Okinawa

    Ponzio and some of his American colleagues flew to orchid-studded Okinawa among the Ryukyu Islands, at the southernmost tip of the Japanese archipelago. In the city of Nago, he stayed with Tokuya and Narumi Oshiro and their five sons ages 1 to 6.

    "The parents were about my age. Being with their kids made me miss my own young sons," he said. He met their extended family members. Takuya's mother treated him to a private demonstration of a traditional folk dance late one night after drinking Awamari, a local libation made from fermented rice. The American teachers went to industry meetings, craft demonstrations, an aquarium, and met the mayor of Nago. A story about their visit ran in the newspaper.

    "We were treated like honored dignitaries," said Ponzio.

    As he was leaving, Tokuya Oshiro presented him a San Shin, a traditional three-stringed Okinawan instrument similar to a banjo.

    "Oh Man! I was touched," Ponzio said. He had admired the instrument earlier but didn't purchase it because it was too expensive.

    When he protested that it was too extravagant a gift, Tokuya said: "You spread Okinawan culture." Ponzio made a small painting of the Oshiro home and plans to send it to Japan after the show.

    The American military has a huge presence on Okinawa, and its bases take up 20 percent of the island's land. Ponzio said a group of school teachers was perhaps far less intimidating than American soldiers.

    "I was happy to hear from several locals how we were not what they expected," he said.

  • Friendships abroad

    Oak Hall junior Arthur Edwards, 17, a student in Ponzio's drawing and painting class, said his teacher's Japanese journal inspired him to keep a journal on a recent school trip to Savannah, Ga.

    Arthur hasn't yet traveled in a foreign country, but he'd like to.

    "It makes you feel that the world is a lot bigger and there's more to learn," he said.

    That's the idea, said Ponzio.

    "We need to learn about and appreciate each other's cultures," he said. "Asia's not going away. We might as well all get along."

    Ponzio grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a garbage collector, the first in his family to graduate from college. As a child, he thought "art" was the graffiti-decorated subway cars roaring through his neighborhood.

    Who knew that someday that little boy would grow up to be a cultural ambassador.

    "If everybody traveled the way Rob did, it would be a very different world," said Gehman.

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