I recently received (from Amazon) an utterly fantastic book, Kimono as Art: The Landscapes of Itchiku Kubota. If you are a dyer, or a textile artist of any form, do not walk, RUN to Amazon and pick up a copy. It is inspirational.
Itchiku Kubota was a Japanese artist who used brush painting and various forms of resist dyeing on silk to create fabulously beautiful kimono. (This is roughly like saying Van Gogh was a guy who used a brush with oil paints on canvas.) I first became aware of his work when I was visiting a friend and happened to glance through a copy of Smithsonian, the Smithsonian Institute’s magazine. In it was an article about Kubota, and photos of the most beautiful textile creation I had ever seen. I took one look and said, “I have seen the face of God”.
Possibly a little over-dramatic, but I mean it: in that kimono, I saw the face of my Muse, and the kind of work I would spend the rest of my life striving to create. Kubota’s work, at first glance, is a gloriously beautiful dyed piece. But as you move closer up, you can see the incredible detail of his work: tiny shibori stitches, delicately brush-painted flowers, flowing shades of dye. What I love about his work is that it is complex and detailed- you gain more by seeing it closer and closer, and one piece has enough to keep you occupied for a long time.
A Google image search produces quite a few of his works, but the particular one that convinced me I’d seen the face of God is this one:
The photo doesn’t do it justice, though: it was the closeup that made me gasp. A better idea might be gotten by looking at this kimono:
(click through for the larger version)
At any rate, Kubota for me signifies what I seek in my work: harmony of color, incredible detail, perfect workmanship, and a broad sweep of ambition: his Symphony of Light series was meant to be 80 kimonos, but he died after the completion of only 40. His son and his atelier continue his work today. (A single kimono is so intricate that it can easily take a year to complete.)
Kubota’s work also represents dedication. He spent nearly fifteen years researching and experimenting with dyes before producing his first kimono. He started his atelier at age 44, but it wasn’t until he was 60 that he had his first show, with a relatively simple version of the kimono you see above. He studied many different arts to produce his work. It is that singleminded dedication, that commitment to follow the Muse, that I strive for in my work. I will probably never achieve his mastery, but on my deathbed, I’ll still be trying.
The other thing that catches my eye about Kubota’s work is its level of detail. If I have a single criticism of American fiber artistry, it is that it tends to lack detail. It’s made for speed, in a land of bustling efficiency and instant gratification. I don’t see the level of focus needed to achieve mastery; that Olympian-athlete attitude, patient and eager both at once, that creates true masterworks. I wonder if my focus comes from my Asian heritage (which would be funny, since I don’t think of myself as particularly Asian). The book on Kubota reads,
Kubota spent more than twenty years attempting to perfect his version of tsujigahana, and during that time he did not show his work publicly. In 1980, he said, “Those years were a succession of experiments in dyeing, of failures and disappointments, with a new method conceived from the very next day and a new start made from scratch.” This perseverance when confronted with repeated failure was one of Kubota’s strengths; it was reinforced by the fact that he learned his meticulous and time-consuming craft in the Japanese apprenticeship system. As an apprentice, he would have developed patience while kinesthetically absorbing technique; neither the idea of efficiency nor the concept of “short cuts” exists in the world of traditional Japanese crafts.
My observation of Japanese crafts, such as origami and Japanese knitting, is that they have a level of intricacy and detail that is seldom found in American craft. I’m not saying that it’s universally true: the origami work of Robert Lang and John Montroll is precise and beautiful, and there are certainly American knitters who do intricate knitting, tapestry weavers that work in fine detail. But as a whole, American craft strikes me as larger-scale, lacking the detail and delicacy that I see in Asian art. It has its strengths in other areas, but it is Asian art that most inspires me. Kubota expresses the Muse with incredible power and delicacy, and it is his spirit and dedication that I aspire to in my work.