vol.027 - An interview with research fellows visiting NIHU – PhD candidate Jo McCallum

An interview with research fellows visiting NIHU – PhD candidate Jo McCallum


We asked PhD candidate Jo McCallum, a 2016 International Placement Scheme (IPS) fellow of the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), her research interests and her fellowship experience at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) in Kyoto. Jo is currently on her way to complete her PhD in the Centre for Future Timber Structures, University of Queensland, Australia.


What are your research interests and what projects you are working on now?

Having trained as an architect and a basket maker, I have an inherent interest in the relationship between craft and nature, especially common patterns and forms found in weaving and nature’s structural processes (symmetry, spirals, hexagonal forms, branching, etc). I use film, photography and 3D modelling, alongside traditional craft and design techniques. Currently, I am exploring the common language between basketry and biological growth and form.

Looking at nature’s structural processes, alongside Japanese bamboo weaving techniques and traditions, reveals new physical and digital ways of making architecture. Imagine large woven timber structures, like Shigeru Ban’s La Seine Musicale. I am documenting and collating these techniques, patterns and forms into a visual language – a pattern formation language.


How did you become interested in your research field?

In 2011 I travelled to San Francisco to attend a wedding. I spent a few days exploring the city’s museums and galleries. I was looking for a new direction; I found it in the de Young Museum. It was quite a poetic experience: I saw a shadow cast across a wall – a complex, curved form, made of many different strands. When I turned the corner I came upon Aurora, 2006 (madake and rattan) by Honda Syoryu. I immediately viewed this piece, this practice, as a method for modelling architecture.

From the de Young, I went to The Asian Art Museum, where I viewed the Cotsen Collection, including a range of baskets and sculptural forms bequeathed to the Museum by the philanthropist and patron Lloyd Cotsen (1929 – 2017). I returned to the UK and began researching Japanese bamboo weaving. I also enrolled in a two-year qualification in basket making.


Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years? 10 years?

Finished my PhD and on the way to publishing a monograph based on my practice research, and the work of the Japanese bamboo weavers. These unique craft makers are so skilled – they are the keepers of a great deal of tacit knowledge – but like so many practical disciplines their tradition is dying out. Through my work I hope to raise the profile of their craft in both the UK and Australia.

There are many makers and organisations I would love to be able to work with on a long-term basis, and I am currently seeking grant funding to develop a number of collaborative projects bringing academics, architecture students and bamboo weavers together.


What was your most memorable moment during your IPS fellowship in Japan?

This is such a hard question to answer because the entire four-month trip was filled with moments of unbelievable luck and opportunity. Living in Kyoto afforded me a freedom I’ve never known before. Having time and space to explore was wonderful.

I was thoroughly supported by the staff at Nichibunken, including my supervisor, Professor Shōji Yamada, PhD candidate Masumi Oishi, and Professor Patricia Fister. I read so many books; the Nichibunken Library is cavernous and very well staffed. I regularly made models at the desk in my little apartment, eating okonomiyaki, serenaded by the cicadas.

My fieldwork in Beppu, southern part of Japan, also gave me far more than I could have hoped for. I had planned to meet three makers during my trip, I met 17 in all. I was very lucky to be guided by three very generous makers, Jiro Yonezawa, Kenichi Otani and Takayuki Shimizu, all of whom shared their time and their expertise. They invited me into their homes, their workshops, and their community. Jiro also asked me to join him at the 2016 Nitten Exhibition in Tokyo, where he introduced me to many great makers, including Honma Hideaki, and the revered Tokuzo Shono, son of the first Living National Treasure in bamboo arts, Shounsai Shono.

To say that my journey was serendipitous and rich is an understatement; it was undoubtedly one of the best times of my life.


What is your advice for students or early career researchers considering to do research in a different country or culture?

Don’t hesitate to apply, in fact start the application now.

I am not fluent in Japanese, far from it, but as a practice researcher my language was weaving. If you don’t speak Japanese well, don’t let that stop you from applying. Explore and identify your own universal language. That said, the library at Nichibunken is excellent; I found many rare English language books.

Be proactive – set-up as many introductions as you can before you go - and be sure to include a formal translation. Be open, talk to people, persist, and use Google Translate if you need to. Random encounters will lead you to contacts with an interest in what you do, they will introduce you to others, and very quickly Japan will open up to you.

Plan your trip meticulously. Make sure you have the right visa in place, then double check it with the Japanese Embassy. Buy the longest Japan Rail pass you can afford. Book your accommodation early – Nichibunken is very reasonably priced, so save your IPS money for travel. Pack light, very light (you will discover new books). It is easy and affordable to send things back via Japan Post, so buy research materials, books, artefacts, and tools. Document your trip, every day, with photos.

When you arrive, abandon all your meticulous plans and follow the research. Submit to the journey.



PhD candidate Jo McCallum
Jo McCallum is a PhD candidate and transdisciplinary practice researcher based in London, United Kingdom. In late 2016 she spent four-months living and working as an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) International Placement Scheme (IPS) fellow at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken), Kyoto, Japan. Whilst there, she researched the relationship between affect and environment in the craft of Japanese bamboo weaving. During her time in Japan, Jo completed extensive fieldwork with bamboo weavers, woodworkers and architects.

Jo is completing her PhD in the Centre for Future Timber Structures, University of Queensland, Australia, but began her doctorate in the AHRC-funded 3D3 program. She is also a member of FoAM – Grow your own worlds, a transdisciplinary laboratory operating at the interstices of art, science, nature and everyday life.

In 2001, Jo graduated from the School of Architecture, University of Queensland with first class honours. She also holds a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) in basket making, the last accreditation of its kind in the UK. For the past 17 years Jo has lived and worked in London, gaining professional experience in a range of sectors, including architecture, the arts, craft and policy development.

Instagram @thefabricatedframe
Twitter: @fabricatedframe


Beppu Study 01: Exploring Altered Ecologies (2017)
Digital Photo Render by Jo McCallum, b. Zimbabwe, 1975