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Mint Museum's outdoor art offers a twist on bamboo

It's hard to beat bamboo.

You can use it for furniture or flutes. Pandas live on the stuff. Lowland gorillas even get drunk off its sap.

And this week, it will become the material for weaving an 82-foot-long outdoor tunnel in Charlotte.

Japanese artist Tetsunori Kawana, internationally known for his bamboo creations, will lead the installation at the Mint Museum Randolph, part of the institution's Project Ten Ten Ten of craft-and-design commissions.

Over the next three weeks, Kawana will create "Passages: Green Wall," twisting the pliable stalks into a contemplative nature escape on the museum's lawn.

"Visitors will be surrounded by bamboo and their senses will be attuned to the essence of the material," says Annie Carlano, director of the Mint's museum of craft and design.

"It's a very humble material - a weed essentially, but with the right care it can yield extraordinary results."

Favored since antiquity

Bamboo is one of the world's most versatile plants. It has been used to build houses, make paper, as food and for traditional medicine. Its use in art dates to ancient times in the Far East.

Technically a grass, bamboos are among the fastest-growing plants on the planet. Some species can grow 3 feet a day.

When Kawana visited Charlotte to discuss the commission, he was impressed with the city's lush landscape and thick tree canopy, Carlano said.

"He was drawn to the lawn outside the Randolph Road building," she said. "He loved the idea of people coming out of the building into nature and going from nature into the building."

Kawana wanted to use local bamboo for the creation, but the Mint couldn't find a source for all it would need. A bamboo grower in Georgia will provide the materials, including 550 bamboo poles 20 feet long, said Michelle Mickey, assistant curator for craft and design.

Assisting Kawana will be about 20 volunteers, she said, including UNC Charlotte architecture students and members of the Japanese Association in Charlotte.

Art inspiring feeling

Kawana moved from a background in ornamental flower arranging to large-scale set design in theater using natural materials. He has taught the craft internationally for more than three decades.

"He is able to integrate these large forms with the environment to celebrate the life force and energy inherent in all living things," Carlano said.

"Passages" will stand for a year, then be recycled back into the earth, she said. "It's not meant to last. It's really about the ephemeral nature of things."

On his website, Kawana describes the installation as highly symbolic in nature. "Every human being has a wall inside himself, like a castle these walls protect from enemies. So now to climb over my own wall, I am challenging myself, this first time, to create such a work," he wrote.

Kawana's passage will be the fifth of the Mint's Ten Ten Ten projects. It's part of a program celebrating the museum's new uptown home, which opened in 2010, by commissioning 10 high-profile international craft artists to create 10 innovative works.

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