Moya Bligh: An Appreciation

BEFORE we decide on the road we want to travel in life, the family we are born into and the people we meet en route guide us …

BEFORE we decide on the road we want to travel in life, the family we are born into and the people we meet en route guide us in ways we may not realise at the time.

Moya met her first teacher, Rita Harte, to whom she expressed an interest in painting, when she was about eight. Her parents, Adrian and Nin Bligh, were active in the formation of what is now the Butler Gallery and the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, and her uncle was a commercial artist. Her studies at NCAD in Ireland, a summer school in Italy where she encountered woodblock printmaking and Japanese friends in Ireland who encouraged her to study in Japan all contributed to those first steps towards what would be a fulfilling life, both personally and creatively. Kilkenny city was her birthplace and she returned there regularly.

I first met Moya when I was a student at Dun Laoghaire School of Art and Design in 1980, when she came to teach a course in Japanese woodblock printmaking (Mokuhanga). She was home from Japan, where she had completed her Mombusho (Minister of Education) scholarship at Tama Art University in Tokyo. With her she brought some of the tools of her printmaking trade, including beautiful handmade Japanese paper (Washi, made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree), woodcutting tools, soft brushes, a bamboo “buren”, plywood and pigments. How natural and delicate these items seemed in our modern print room.

When Moya began to work with these tools, the real delicacy and finesse of her hand became evident. She didn’t rush or get flustered but showed us how to work in a very calm and considered way. As we worked we spoke of her time in Japan. She had fallen in love with a fellow student, Junichi Sato, at Tama and was considering settling there. She was excited, if a little anxious about the prospect of this momentous change in her life, but her courage and tenacity were already firmly in place to sustain her as she decided to return to Japan and marry Junichi. I was inspired by her then, as I continued to be inspired by her through our friendship.


I once shared a studio with Moya in an old traditional house near the famous Ryoanji Zen Garden in Kyoto. Her work is unflinchingly abstract, decidedly geometric in form. The colours, textures and shapes in Japan are a revelation to a foreigner and her keen observation allowed her to transform these minute insights on to paper with great skill. The softness of the colours she chose hinted at an ephemeral quality so well understood in Japanese culture. The prints are supremely delicate but never sentimental. Moya’s wit and dry humour would never allow her to go down that road.

Before moving to Kyoto she had lived for many years in the countryside with her husband’s family where she had fully immersed herself in Japanese life and language. She embraced the arts and crafts of Japan but brought a fresh modern eye to how she used them. During her life there she studied flower arranging (Ikebana), calligraphy (Shodo) and tea ceremony (Chado) and in recent times she had begun to write Haiku poetry. She formed bonds with other foreign artists there and exhibited widely. She curated exchange exhibitions between Japanese and Irish artists. She taught woodblock printmaking at Seika Art University in Kyoto and had a continuing relationship with her mentor, Mr Akira Kurasaki.

Moya was a great ambassador for Ireland and when her son Ronan was old enough she brought him home every year to expose him to Irish culture. The hurling matches at Croke Park when Kilkenny made the final were a fixture in her calendar. When she was home she not only spent time with her family and friends but also continued to explore her artistic aims, gathering ideas and making notes, especially from some of the great medieval buildings around Kilkenny and on visits to other places in Ireland of great historical and cultural interest. She had a continuing interest in the origins of the Celtic people.

Likewise, when Irish people landed in Kyoto she was always at hand to take them to visit a hidden gem of a restaurant or a traditional garden or simply to sit and chat. As she basked in the company of fellow Irishmen and women she remained truly loyal to her adopted country. Her love of Japan, its people and its culture remained constant and her quiet strength helped many others through times when life there was tough.

Moya had a great sense of self and a great sense of place, and she will be greatly missed.

Crisp frost underfoot

sun on the rim

still, the sacred place.

(– Moya Bligh at Newgrange)