Diane Durston – Japanese Garden Curator

Diane Durston is not only an expert in her field, but also a published author who we are lucky enough to have right here in Portland as curator of the Portland Japanese Garden. The Santa Monica, California native grew up under the influence of her artist father and book-loving mother. After visiting Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, in San Francisco as an adolescent, Diane had an “almost magical” pull drawing her towards Japan. In 1977, she bought a one-way ticket to Kyoto to pursue art, and didn’t return until 18 years later. It was there that she learned her talent for writing, and now has published three books, two of which are about Kyoto. Now at the Portland Japanese Garden, Diane oversees programming, art exhibitions, cultural festivals, lecture series, and school programs. Diane’s work is meant as a sort of portal for those who see it: “my goal is first and foremost to enhance the experience of everyone who visits the Garden and increase their understanding of Japan and of the Garden by introducing the very best of Japanese art and culture to people…The Garden is a window onto another culture—it is a mind-opening experience.” Currently in the midst of writing her fourth book, Diane’s expertise and passion are a gift to the city of Portland as she continues to educate people on Japanese art, tradition, and culture.

What first brought you to Portland?
I first came to Portland in 1995 after moving back from Japan. One of my four brothers lived here and I had visited him off and on when I was traveling around the country on lecture tours when my Kyoto books were first released. I saw a similarity between Kyoto and Portland. My books on Kyoto are about old neighborhoods and the mom & pop multi-generational shops that make up the fiber of life in Kyoto, the only major city in Japan that was not destroyed in WWII. Just as in Kyoto, there are lots of tightly knit neighborhoods in Portland that have people living and working in small, privately owned shops and restaurants—older neighborhoods and buildings that make a connection with the past. Appreciation for the beauty of artisanal foods and handcrafted objects is everywhere in Portland. This is a creative place with a sense of community, which is something I have always loved. That’s why Tokyo people consider Portland to be the “it” city in the U.S. these days.

Tell me a little bit more about the books you’ve written and why you wrote them?
During my time in Japan, I worked as a freelance writer and eventually as a cultural program consultant.  I have written several books, including Old Kyoto and Kyoto: Seven Paths to the Heart of the City, and more recently Wabi Sabi: The Art of Everyday Life. The first two, I am pleased to say has been in print for over 25 years. The New York Times called them “Japan travel classics.” With my Kyoto books, I hoped to be able to introduce the culture and customs and people I came to love in Kyoto—the craftsmen, the shopkeepers and merchants that kept the city alive largely through their own efforts for 1200 years. I learned most about Japan from the many amazing people I knew there. I think what makes my books different from others is that, they were written for people who want to experience the culture through the eyes of its people—not for those who are there on a shopping spree. Wabi Sabi was written at the request of a publisher who was intrigued with the Japanese aesthetic notion that started being picked up in the media about 10 years ago by artists and designers in the West. The two words are difficult to define briefly, but essentially it involves attention to and appreciation for the passage of time in our lives. Life is short. It is certainly not perfect and we need to pay attention to the beauty of nature and the simple things in life. I used material from both East and West to show that such a concept can have meaning for all people, no matter where they were born.

What is your role as curator for the Portland Japanese Garden?
My official title is Arlene Schnitzer Curator of Culture, Art and Education at the Portland Japanese Garden. Mrs. Schnitzer generously endowed my position recently, which has done a lot to ensure the Garden will always have rich cultural programs, and that is a wonderful thing for the whole community. A famous Zen priest said what you get from a Japanese garden depends on what you bring to it. If you have no knowledge of Japan, the Garden nonetheless communicates a sense of tranquility and peace directly and without words. Learning a bit more about the history, art, culture and worldview that inform the Garden, however, takes it to another level and increases your appreciation for it.

I think my curatorial approach is different from others due in part to the extraordinary venue of the Pavilion in the Portland Japanese Garden. The room has glass doors on two sides, which is a huge challenge—but it also enables me to work with the interplay between the interior space and the Garden outside. Artists who have shown here are always amazed that it works, since most of them are used to showing in galleries that are completely enclosed within solid walls. Another unique aspect of my work is that we bring previously unknown Japanese art forms and people to Portland, and present them in a cultural context, people and work that has never been shown here before, which is very exciting. I am free to introduce both traditional and contemporary work there, too, which broadens the conversation. We program around themes that relate to the Garden—like the idea of “Living in Harmony with Nature” in which we explore the Eastern view of respect for nature…or the concept of the “Healing Garden” in which we discussed the importance of nature as a refuge from stress and tool for recovering from illness or loss. We take a year of programming around these themes with exhibitions and guest lecturers that speak to these topics. It helps us connect the Garden with the community and the community with Japan.

Why do you do what you do?
I feel compelled to continue to try to share the wonderful experiences I had in Japan with people here in the US. I want to give back to Japan, too, by helping people here understand its fascinating culture better. The Garden is the perfect vehicle through which to teach some of the positive messages Japan has to offer—about mindfulness, respect for other people and for nature—so many things.

What experiences within your career have been most rewarding for you?
The opportunity to work with some of the world’s great artists, craftsmen and scholars has had a tremendous impact on my life. In-depth experiences with other cultures—primarily Japan and China—have been the most rewarding part of my career. Living and working in another country opened my eyes to the fact that there is more than one way to think and to live on this planet. Earlier on, the writing and publication of my books were pivotal moments in my career. Writing is my passion, and perhaps my greatest skill.

Where would you like your career to go?
I am happy to say, that at this point, I just want to be able to continue doing exactly what I am doing now as well as I can for as long as possible. We have begun putting together cultural seminars at the Garden that I think will lead us in a great new direction, and I want to continue being part of that. Ultimately, I’d also like to get back to writing, which I don’t have enough time for now.

What advice do you have for others who want to go into your field of work?
There is no easy way to become a writer. No quick path I know to get published. I started out with no money and no mentor, and it was very slow and difficult. Start small and work your way up—one article at a time. Be patient and don’t give up. I believe in taking risks, in finding your passion and pursuing it against all the odds against you. For me, there has been no easy path to becoming a curator either. “Curator” is a word that has very broad meaning today, but for me, it means that after many years of experience I believe I am able to recognize that art comes from someplace deep in the human spirit, to see the synergies between people and things, and to delight in putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

Diane currently lives in Portland with her husband, artist Stephen Futscher, and keeps in contact with friends from around the world. Although she doesn’t have much spare time, she is incredibly thankful for what she does today, and says, “my work is life, and I don’t think it gets any better than that.” Her fourth book will be about the Portland Japanese Garden, portraying the wonder within the garden walls. As our interview came to an end, Diane left me with one last magical thought: “My favorite Buddhist saying is one inscribed on a stone water basin at Ryoanji, one of the most famous temples in Kyoto. The inscription reads: ‘Be content with what you already have.’ In the midst of striving to become something, someone, it is easy to lose sight of the wonderful things we already have around us—the trees, the birds, the people we love. I haven’t mastered that one yet, but it gives me something to work on.”


About The Author: Kaija Perkiomaki