Curator steeped in Japanese culture
- BARBARA BLOSSOM ASHMUN
- Portland Tribune - Features
Climbing the hill to the Japanese Garden always feels like a pilgrimage to a sacred place. But on this cold day as I crunch up the gravel paths, inhaling the damp air and eyeing green ferns glittering with raindrops, I'm especially excited at the prospect of meeting Diane Durston, the new curator of culture, arts and education.
Her small office in a corner of the pavilion is warm and cozy. A bamboo bucket on her desk, made for flower arrangements, holds a single stem of lilies, with one flower open and many buds to follow.
Handmade by a Japanese craftsman, the bucket is held together without any glue or nails. It's one of the many crafted objects that Durston admired in Japan.
'I was fascinated by the attention to detail - all of these same things that are part of the Japanese garden - which reflect years and years of such meticulous care,' she says.
The Zen practice of raking the sand, gravel and stone gardens is just one example of this same kind of mindful attention. The actual activity of raking is considered just as important as sitting in meditation.
Durston lived in Kyoto, Japan, from 1977 to 1995 and is fluent in Japanese. She traveled there to study painting with a master painter.
'A wonderful old man taught me privately, for free,' she says. 'I was fascinated with how things were taught in Japan - it was not about technique, but about the spirit of the thing, and this spirit was transmitted from teacher to student.'
Although she began by studying painting, Durston became a writer. She began researching the hundred-year-old shops selling traditional products from bean cakes to bamboo basketry.
Her first book, 'Old Kyoto,' labeled 'a classic' by The New York Times, tells personal stories about the craftsmen and business owners. In 'Kyoto: Seven Paths to the Heart of the City,' she writes about the traditional way of life in seven historic Kyoto neighborhoods.
Durston's most recent book, 'Wabi Sabi: The Art of Everyday Life,' is filled with wisdom for living each day well.
Durston comes to the garden with a wealth of experience. Her countless accomplishments blend a love of art, culture and education. She served as curator of education at the Portland Art Museum, director of Asian cultural programs for the International Forum, and consulting producer for the National Gallery of Art.
Bubbling over with enthusiasm, Durston is delighted to enjoy the garden's beauty continuously.
'My first morning here was very cold and damp, with mist hanging in the conifers. Now each day I can step out in the garden, and each day the experience changes,' she says.
She's eager to expand and improve programs at the Japanese Garden, especially for families and children.
'The garden can be difficult to tour in the rain, so we're working on Suitcase Gardens to bring the Japanese Garden to the schools,' she says.
Starting next fall, garden educators will bring portable materials to classrooms - transparencies of Portland's Japanese Garden, miniature garden models, natural materials and hands-on activities for students.
The presentations will help prepare students for future visits to the garden. Materials also will be offered to teachers on topics such as sustainability, natural science, social studies and basic horticulture.
For example, the way that Japanese culture embraces recycling is a lesson in sustainability. The concept of mitate means to see something anew, and is practiced by using old materials for a new purpose.
Belgian stone used as ballast in old ships was recycled to pave streets in downtown Portland. When downtown was remodeled, the pavers were recycled again - now they beautify the floor of the Japanese Garden's wisteria arbor.
In Japan the garden is an art form, with the same aesthetics as in Japanese painting. By studying the garden, students can learn the underlying principles of design, such as asymmetry, empty space and 'less is more.'
Durston is thrilled that the Japanese Garden will be featured from May 26 through Oct. 8 in A Sense of Place, an outdoor exhibit at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., showcasing the diversity of public gardens in America.
A patron tour will visit the exhibit and outstanding Japanese gardens in Chicago and the District of Columbia; visit www. japanesegarden.com for information.
Whether you travel or stay at home, the Japanese Garden is ours to enjoy right now.
'I highly recommend that people come up in the winter when it's quiet. For a moment, step out of the chaos of everyday life and restore your spirits,' Durston says.
• Northwest Hosta and Shade Garden Society presents Confessions of a Shade Plant Serial Killer, by Vanca Lumsden of Whidbey Island, 7 p.m. March 19, SMILE Station, 8210 S.E. 13th Ave., 503-643-2387, free.
• Al's Nursery presents Don Sprague speaking on 'Moles and Gophers: Problems and Solutions,' 1 p.m. Saturday, March 10, 16920 S.W. Roy Rogers Road, Sherwood, 503-726-1162, free.