When Tom Gregersen retires this summer as longtime senior curator of the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, his first order of business, predictably, will be a plane ticket to Tokyo … to visit other museums.
"Japan still calls out to me," Gregersen says. "I haven't been back there in 20 years, and since then, there have been a tremendous proliferation of places like the Edo-Tokyo Museum."
But Gregersen, who worked at the Delray Beach museum for 35 years, doesn't intend to say, "sayonara" without leaving his stamp on the Morikami. "The Curator's Farewell Exhibition: Cool Stuff From the Morikami Museum's Collection," opening Tuesday, comprises 75 hand-picked images from the permanent collection, dating back as early as a 4,000-year-old ceramic vessel from Japan's prehistoric Jomon period.
"It's an eclectic group of objects for which I have a soft spot in my heart," says Gregersen, who taught conversational English to Japanese students before moving to the United States during the 1970s. "They're selected by me personally, and it delighted me to be able to trot out things we'd never shown to the public before."
Among his fondest and "most-innovative" pieces on display is a Japanese water wheel, or "fumi guruma," where farm laborers in post-World War II Japan would climb atop the spokes and, with forward momentum, pedal water through a sluice to irrigate rice paddy fields. By contrast, Gregersen says, some objects depict Japanese culture at its most-mundane: a ceremonial sake cask (called a "tsunodaru"), a picnic lunch kit (a "sagejubako") and at least two 100-year-old porcelain toilets, each hand-painted with a cobalt-blue underglaze.
An abstract monochromatic painting of a plum tree, created freehand during the late 18th century, is an auspicious emblem of well-being in Japan. Another symbol of well-being: the "Lion Dancer," a watercolor painting depicting a dancer wearing a horned, red-faced creature. Gregersen says dancers would perform the "exorcism-style" ceremony during the Japanese New Year to "chase away noxious influences."
"The lion is not native to anywhere near Japan, so the Japanese were at a loss to what it looked like hundreds of years ago," he says. "But it's still a really cool ceremony being performed today."
"The Curator's Farewell Exhibition: Cool Stuff From the Morikami Museum's Collection" opens Tuesday and runs through May 19 at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, 4000 Morikami Park Road, in Delray Beach. Tickets cost $8-$13. Call 561-495-0233 or go to Morikami.org.