Most artists find their way into art gradually. Their interest develops over several years, often early in their lives.
I didn’t arrive at art quite so gradually. In fact, I regarded fiber arts as a not-terribly-important hobby until December 1995. Then a friend handed me a copy of Smithsonian Magazine, saying, “I saw this article and thought you’d find it interesting.” I opened it, and was floored by a photo of the most amazing art I’d ever seen. It was a kimono, Burning Sun, by Japanese artist Itchiku Kubota.
At that moment, I knew that what I wanted to do with my life, more than anything else, was to make something as beautiful, powerful, and technically masterful as that kimono. It had never occurred to me that fiber art could be art before – I’d been spinning yarn for sweaters and designing interesting quilt tops, which people thought were artistic. But in my mind, they weren’t art. Kubota’s kimono could stand against the most masterful painters and sculptors. They opened my mind to a whole new world of what could be done with textiles.
Alas, Kubota’s work normally resides in Japan, at the Itchiku Kubota Museum. A trip to Japan was on my bucket list, but it didn’t appear likely to happen anytime soon.
So when I found out the kimono were on exhibit at the Textile Museum of Canada, well…
…that’s me, standing next to the artwork that inspired my calling.
It was amazing to see Burning Sun in person. Many artworks don’t live up to their photos when viewed in real life. But Burning Sun’s photos didn’t do it justice – not even close! – because an image of the full piece can’t capture the intricate detail.
For example, here’s an closeup near the bottom of the left sleeve:
At this distance, you can see some details – stitched-resist (shibori) dyeing, delicate brush painting, and embroidery.
Getting closer, though, you can make out more:
Now you can see that there are two kinds of embroidery thread – rough silver thread at the middle right, and a smooth, glossy thread at top right. You also get a glimpse of the wonderful textures created by the shibori stitching.
And if you stick your nose right up against the fabric (don’t worry, I didn’t touch it!):
Now you can see that the base cloth isn’t plain weave – it’s woven in horizontal ridges punctuated by irregularly placed floats, creating a textured fabric with floating flecks of light.
I spent two days in the exhibit, from opening until closing (though I did take a break for lunch on both days). I took 1,297 photos of the 40 kimono – though I wish I’d taken a few more, since I’ve found some gaps already. The first day I ran madly about documenting/photographing EVERYTHING, because I wanted detailed shots I could study later. Near the end of the second day, I had a few hours left, so I spent some time just looking at, and absorbing, the artistry in the kimono.
I would really have liked a third day (or another three weeks, months, years…), but two was enough to get most of what I needed. Kubota’s work is inspirational to me in so many ways – the sweeping vision, the incredible technical mastery (across multiple disciplines!), the integration of conceptually different design elements (physical texture, flat areas of ink drawing, shibori dyeing), and the ability to design at multiple scales, from the sweeping vista to tiny stitches. It is ambitious, masterful, and complex. I have never seen anything like it.
Here are some hopefully illustrative photos.
This first photo is of five kimono from the “Symphony of Light” – envisioned as a set of 80+ kimono depicting the seasons of Mt. Fuji and then expanding into the universe. (Kubota only finished about half of the Symphony before he died.)
As you can see, when lined up next to each other, the kimono form a single sweeping image.
In fact, this set of six kimono is actually part of a much larger set, that all merge into a single image. Here is a panorama with 13 kimono (you’ll have to click in to see the larger version; it’s hard to make out details if you don’t). You can see how the seasons merge into one another, late summer to fall to early winter.
I believe that all the kimono of the Symphony of Light can be lined up in this way. What a breathtaking vision!
But wait! That’s not all! Each kimono also stands alone. Let’s look at just one kimono – Hin (Nostalgia). It’s the fifth one from the right:
While it was designed as part of a larger set, it also forms a complete composition when viewed by itself.
But look a little closer. See that boring-looking dark brown section in the bottom right corner of the left sleeve, just above the “cloud” at the bottom? This is what it looks like from a foot away:
Wow! That boring brown spot is really interesting! The variety of textures is amazing – the smoothness of the “fog” drifting through the bottom, and the longer, sharper creases traveling in different directions on the right side, to give motion to the misty tendrils. The trees are composed of delicate ink painting in the center of each brown area, outlining the trunk, and horizontal ridges suggesting branches. (And if you look to the left, in the medium brown area, you’ll see some very light brush painting suggesting more trees hidden in mist.)
Further up the sleeve, there’s another great set of textures:
I love this particular section because it’s almost all texture – but texture used in a deliberate and astoundingly precise manner to create movement, depth, and patterning. There are four textures just in this small section! And the textures are coordinated with subtle dyework to create the impression of layers of mist shifting over the mountain.
What blows my mind isn’t just the technical excellence of the work but the multidimensional expertise needed to envision it. Each of the design components Kubota is using – texture, color, line – is created using a different kind of surface design technique. Each of those methods “thinks” differently. It’s hard enough to design using even one of those three methods, which is why most textile artists work inside a single branch of surface design. But here Kubota is integrating three very different methods in a single piece, combining them into something far more powerful.
Here’s a shot from near the bottom of the kimono that shows a similar combination of techniques:
Here the shibori ridges create earth and tree branches. To get crisp definition in the tree trunks – not achievable with shibori – Kubota uses ink pen. And, because neither of those techniques produces luster or luminescence, Kubota’s decided to embroider the tops of the trees with scattered stitches in smooth, lustrous gold thread. This gives the effect of sunlight glinting off the treetops.
Kubota’s work has had a profound impact on me because he worked the way I want to work, and his work shatters a lot of the constraints that were suggested to me as a budding artist. For example, I was advised to pick three or four techniques to work with, in a single medium. The idea is to achieve greater mastery by exploring one area deeply rather than trying to integrate a lot of unrelated methods. Kubota works with just a few techniques, but drawn from vastly different areas of surface design. It’s inspiring to me to see that this can work – because my natural inclination is to work across multiple disciplines. Trying to focus in a single area felt terribly limiting.
I’m still processing all my thoughts and feelings about the exhibit. Seeing Kubota’s work has helped me recognize some of the limitations I’d imposed on myself, and reassured me that there is enormous potential in my multidisciplinary approach. The design philosophy embodied in his kimono is making me think deeply about what it means to me to be an artist, what I want to strive for in my work, and what I want to learn. And, of course, I’m also learning a ton about design by examining the work of a master.
Kubota’s work is also making me feel enthusiastic about weaving again, which is great after a nearly two-year hiatus. I was seriously wondering whether I had made a mistake buying a jacquard loom, because I felt like I might be done with weaving. But seeing his work has made me think of some really cool stuff I could weave (and dye) – and I can’t wait to get started on it!
Over the next couple weeks, I’m planning to write a series of blog posts about some of the thoughts the kimono have inspired – both philosophy and design. Stay tuned!