ISFA News, Volume 11, no. 2 (September, 2005)

ISFA Publishes Eleventh Bulletin

Bulletin of the International String Figure Association, Vol. 11, is currently being mailed to members. The entire 288-page issue, dated 2004, showcases a huge collection of Japanese string figures assembled over a 30-year period by Tama Saito. In 1970 Ms. Saito quit her grueling job at a bustling Tokyo bookstore in order to fulfill her lifelong dream of traveling the countryside to collect traditional games and pastimes. The scope and depth of her string figure collection is unprecedented. Not only did she collect 273 distinct methods, she also collected hundreds of interesting titles and anecdotes. To illustrate her manuscript she utilized her calligraphic skills to create hundreds of charming brush, pen and ink drawings.

As stated in the article, string figures have been popular in Japan for well over 300 years, yet the designs have remained simple and elegant, much like Haiku poems. String figure enthusiasts first became aware of Tama Saito’s collection in 1982 when she published a series of three colorful picture books for Japanese children. Several years later, ISFA founder Hiroshi Noguchi translated some of her methods into English and included them in the fourth Bulletin article he wrote on Japanese string figures (No. 13, 1986). But neither of these published works included her beautiful drawings, her cultural notes, or her exhaustive distribution data. Realizing the immense value of her collection, Yukio Shishido of Kyoto spent five years preparing her manuscript for publication (translating the text from Japanese to English, compiling the synonym and distribution lists, scanning her drawings, etc.). Upon receiving the draft Mark Sherman and Joseph D’Antoni spent another half year copyediting the text, verifying the methods, enhancing the illustrations, and formatting the pages. Now, after more than 30 years, readers can enjoy the fruits of Tama Saito’s labor!

Twelfth and Thirteenth Bulletins

Although we try hard to publish one Bulletin per year, we are now a full year behind schedule, having mailed the 2004 issue in late 2005. This is largely because recent issues are nearly twice the size of early issues, and therefore require twice the work to edit and illustrate. So, in an effort to avoid further publication delays, the four major articles mentioned in our last newsletter (plus a few recent submissions) will be divided evenly between two smaller issues, the first being labeled volume 12 (2005) and the second being labeled volume 13 (2006). To help reduce expenses both will be printed simultaneously and mailed in one package, hopefully before November of 2006.

New Members

During the past six months the ISFA acquired 17 new members. However, 28 former members failed to renew their memberships in 2005. As a result, we now have 218 members living in 22 countries.

Our new overseas members are: Yuichiro Tamura, Tokyo, Japan; Mario Hilgemeier, Bremen, Germany; and Marion Langner, Bremen, Germany. Our new US members include: Colleen Kelly, Santa Clara, California; Jonathan Kelley, M.D., Sierra Madre, California; Thomas Rodgers, Atlanta, Georgia; Andrew Nejtek, Cedar Park, Texas; Douglas B. Caulkins, Roswell, Georgia; Jane Nelson, Lansing, Michigan; Eric Bergmark, Portland, Oregon; Jean Merritt, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Kathy Linsley, Murietta, California; C.J. Seig, Salem, Oregon; Gregory Boyd, Arlington Heights, Illinois; Leonard Mosesman, Lawton, Oklahoma; Steven Butler, San Diego, California; and Katrina Worley, Loomis, California. We’re glad you found us, and greatly appreciate your financial and intellectual contributions.

String Figure Angels for 2005

Each year in January we ask members to send us $25 to partially offset our printing and mailing costs (overseas members pay $35). For the balance we rely on the generosity of passionate and/or financially secure members. Although we greatly appreciate every extra dollar that members contribute, we like to acknowledge the generosity of large contributors by dubbing them String Figure Angels. By definition, an angel is anyone who either contributes at least $25 more than the requested amount, purchases a gift membership, or recruits a new member. Archangels are members who contribute $100 or more. The generosity of our String Figure Angels played an essential role in keeping the ISFA afloat in 2005. Without our Angels, the ISFA would have collapsed in 2005 due to rising costs and lagging membership. When groups are small like ours, even modest donations have a huge impact.

This year we wish to acknowledge the generosity of the following String Figure Angels: David Eisenberg, Joseph Ornstein, Lois and Earl Stokes, Kazuohiro Kawashima, Fred Alcantar Jr., David McDaniel, Catherine Salika, Tim Kennedy, Carey C.K. Smith, Pieter van de Griend, Michel Spira, Dante Carfagna, Ronald C. Read, James S. Cox, Dean Abel, Beth Anderson, Avery L. Burns, James Craddock, Clark Crawford, Frederick A. Dick, James S. Foerch, Anita Friedman, William D. Garrison, Michael G. Grigsby, Julie Hocking, Belinda Holbrook, Jeffrey F. Lipton, Daniel McCarthy, John Sigwald, Mike Sloey, Audrey C. Small, Rebekah M. Smith, Randy von Smith, Gelvin Stevenson, Mayme Strange, Allen Tans, John Pinto, Claire Miller, and Paul Power.

Our String Figure Archangels for 2005 are: James Murphy, Joseph D’Antoni, Will and Lillie Wirt, Tom and Karen Storer, David Parkinson, Joaquim Paulo A. Escudeiro, John Burnes, Lori Lachance Murdoch, Myriam Namolaru, Andrew Devalpine, Carole A. Graham, William H. Lawrence, and Mark Sherman.

Bremen’s String Figure Exhibit

During the summer of 2005 (May 8 - August 21) the Übersee Musuem in Bremen, Germany, hosted the largest and most comprehensive string figure exhibit ever attempted. Several members of the ISFA, including Philip Noble, Michael Taylor, David Titus, Audrey Small, Beth Anderson, and Martin Damus, contributed photographs or mounted specimens while others, including Mark Sherman, Sam Cannarozzi, and Lothar Walschik, entertained visitors and/or contributed to the exhibit catalog — a handsome, spiral-bound volume that included a loop of braided nylon string. In the following narrative storyteller Sam Cannarozzi Yada of Parcieux, France, offers his impressions of this once-in-a-lifetime event:

More than 15,000 Strings and as Many Smiles ...

As soon as I came across the mention of a string figure exhibition in the last ISFA Newsletter, I pounced on my computer and promptly e-mailed Anka Bolduan at the Übersee (literally “overseas”) Museum in Bremen, Germany, to propose some presentations of my performance called STRINGERIES, described in Bulletin of String Figures Association No. 19 (1993). A short time later she confirmed that the Museum would be inviting me for the exhibition’s final Sunday, August 21, 2005. Earlier in the summer, I had performed excerpts from the show at various venues in Norway, so I was warmed up in part for the upcoming Bremen trip.

In reality, the exhibition called Ein Faden Verbindet (A String Binds Us) was the brainchild of Lothar Walschik and his ABOINUDI (ABOriginal-INUit-InDIan) string figure group, certainly Germany’s — if not Europe’s — most prolific string organization ( Professor Manfred Polzin and students from the University of Bremen also participated by contributing to the exhibition catalog and offering lectures, as did ISFA director Mark Sherman, who contributed a section on Asian string figures and spoke in June on the history of the ISFA.

Front cover of the string figure exhibition catalog published by Bremen’s Übersee Museum in 2005

The exhibition itself was presented in two parts: string games and figures from Europe and string games and figures from around the world. In the European section you could watch video interviews of Bremen residents sharing memories of figures they had learned as children, admire Swiss coffee creamer lids that depict string figures (purchased on E-bay!), or play with fluorescent strings in a room illuminated by black lights.

In the international part of the exhibition visitors could stroll through five cube-shaped rooms, each measuring fifteen feet on a side and each painted a different color. The first room (painted yellow) was devoted to string figures of Africa, while subsequent rooms (painted red, green, blue and orange) featured figures from Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Arctic, and the American Southwest. Most of these rooms included video monitors showing ethnographic films of indigenous peoples making figures, as well as artifacts that illustrated what the figures of each region represent. For example, in the African room I saw an authentic Pangwe basket xylophone and a stuffed Blue Turaco, and in the American Southwest room I saw a hand-woven Navajo rug, backlit photos of constellations, and colorful mounted butterflies.

Throughout both sections, one could find pillars covered with photographs and instructions (courtesy of Lothar Walschik) explaining how to make various figures. That’s because each visitor, with his or her ticket, was given a string loop so they could attempt to make the figures if they wished — and many people did just that!

I was scheduled to perform my STRINGERIES show at noon and at 4 PM on the last day, in the Museum’s main hall — a forty-foot-high room crowned with a sky dome. For each session I entertained some sixty people, mostly adults, who showed up with a string in their hands or around their neck, raring to go.

Given such a captive audience, I “worked the ropes” for almost an hour, combining storytelling with figures and tricks that utilized fourteen differently colored strings, each of which became an individual tale or anecdote. My Pacific-island backdrop consisted of sculpted wooden masks measuring twenty-five feet in height, sturdy outrigger canoes with woven fiber sails, lush bamboo plants, and vibrant tropical flowers. After finishing a story called ‘The Council of the Butterflies’, a real butterfly appeared, which I took as a sign of incredibly good luck!

Hats off then to the gracious and competent museum pedagogue Anka Bolduan and her staff, and especially to the very serious but happy-go-lucky (and especially generous!) Lothar Walschik, whose Aboinudi Group was named in 2000 as Germany’s official contributor to UNESCO’s Culture of Peace program. During my visit Lothar wined and dined me all the way to the North Sea, where we exchanged string games and experiences over delicious fish and white wine. At last check, the Übersee Museum had distributed more than 15,000 strings to visitors, contributed by the local ropeworks factory.

The exhibition closed in August but will reopen at the Swiss Museum of Games on Lake Geneva later this year, where Lothar and myself hope to once again be...entangled. So if you plan to visit Europe around Christmas or soon thereafter, don’t miss this truly enchanting project, and let yourself be spell- AND string-bound by one of the world’s truly universal means of cultural exchange.

Spring String Gathering in San Fran

Upon returning from a recent origami conference ISFA member Ruth Stotter decided to organize a similar gathering for string figure enthusiasts. A string gathering is certainly overdue: our last official meeting was seven years ago in Winnipeg. Ruth Stotter is certainly qualified to organize such an event. For fourteen years she served as Director of Dominican University’s Storytelling Program, and for six years she hosted and produced “The Oral Tradition” on KUSF-FM. She is currently chairperson of the American Folklore Society’s Folk Narrative Section and the author of six books. She has an M.A. from Stanford University in Speech Pathology, an M.A. in Storytelling from Sonoma State University, and attended the University of California, Berkeley to obtain lifetime teaching credentials. Below is her invitation: If you love string figures as much as I do, plan to attend a String Gathering next Spring in San Francisco at Fort Mason. All stringers are invited and welcome. Come and share your string expertise and learn new figures, string stories, string stunts, and enjoy camaraderie and fun! Fort Mason has several lecture halls, including a small one that seats 50 and a separate house where up to 35 people can meet. Currently we are planning three sessions:

Saturday, April 1, 2006
9:30 - 11:30 AM and 1:00 - 4:00 PM
Sunday, April 2, 2006
9:30 - 12:30 AM

A nominal registration fee will be charged for each session, with a discount being applied for attending all three. Although the itinerary has not been finalized yet, I’m thinking that the first session could be open to the public. We could decorate the walls with photos of people making string figures, and show string videos on a TV monitor. Mark Sherman has already agreed to present a short lecture on the history of the ISFA. The first session would end with a hands-on workshop so that audience members could learn some basic figures. During the remaining two sessions (restricted to registered attendees) we could split into groups according to skill level. Each group, headed by a volunteer teacher, would spend 10-20 minutes learning a specific figure. For anyone interested in selling books, videos, strings, or other related items, a store would be available. Sellers would receive 70% of the sale price, while 20% would go to the store manager and 10% to the ISFA. Fort Mason is located near the Golden Gate Bridge (pictures and maps can be viewed at There is a Youth Hostel on the Fort Mason property and many motels nearby on Lombard Street. To receive further information, send your email and/or mailing address to:

Ruthie Stotter
2244 Vistazo East
Tiburon, CA 94920
(410) 435-3568

Last updated February 16, 2007
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