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!
John Oshaughnessy says
Thanks for this post Tien. It’s amazing ,
Isabella Z says
These are beautiful! Hope I can catch the exhibit somewhere some day as well.
I’m usually a silent reader/observer, but have been wanting to comment for a long time to say thank you for inspiring. You’ve put into words the exact same feelings and thoughts I had when I first discovered you and your work, through Sarah Resnick’s Weave podcast, and then through your blog posts and online tutorials, and now finally the book that I’m slowly making my way through. It’s probably presumptuous of me to think of you as a mentor, having never met you, but I’ve learned so much, and coming from IT/online communications background, having found someone who has similar thought patterns when it comes to fiber arts, to name just a few.
Thank you, Tien, for your work, and for being so open and for sharing.
Tien Chiu says
Wow! I’m glad my work has inspired you, and that you’re finding the book useful. With your IT background, you might also find a new blog interview with me interesting – it’s on Sara Nordling’s excellent design blog: https://www.saranordling.com/single-post/2018/05/02/Designing-Weavers-Tien-Chiu
Oh, thank you for that! I so love your rejection of right/left brain false dichotomy. I feel practically amputated when I am forced to work only on one plane or the other. And it’s interesting that the people who do the most interesting work (to me) in my guild are also often old IT nerds.
Isabella Z says
Thank you for the link, Tien! Saved it for weekend reading!
Martha Town says
I was in DC in the late 90’s and just happened to walk into a “textile” exhibit at one of the Smithsonian museums. It turned out to be a large room with a full display of one of Kubota’s multi-kimono landscapes. The pure surprise and incredible beauty quite literally made me cry! I was so moved, I will never forget that moment. I spent as much time as I could, bought a large book about his work and life, and right now have two framed postcards of his kimonos in my work cubicle.
Tien Chiu says
That was my reaction as well! I’m so happy you got the postcards. Amazing work.
Wonderful post, Tien! I saved a few images and spent some time zooming in. Incredible! On the shibori work (embroidery-on-trees, for example), the shibori stitches were removed, but the texture remained, right? Just trying to puzzle out the how…
Tien Chiu says
Yes, that’s right. The final round of shibori is not pressed flat but kept for the texture. I think there are multiple rounds of shibori with dyes applied, then flattened, ink painting and embroidery applied, then stitched up again for texture.
Louise Yale says
More info on the Textile Museum of Canada, please.
What a fantastic experience. I have also loved his work from afar. I found a book of his work that his son published and have spend hours looking at his spectacular work. How wonderful to see them live and close up.
Tien Chiu says
They’re in Toronto! http://textilemuseum.ca
Beth Donovan says
Thank you so much for sharing your visit. I had no idea that such a thing was possible to create. The kimonos are really gorgeous.
I’m just a crafter who happens to own angora goats. I spend so much time taking care of them that I don’t get much spinning in, and I have never tried weaving.
I really enjoy all your posts, you have opened my eyes to possibilities.
Wow I wish you posted this one earlier. I to have wanted to see his work in person so much!! I wish I had know it was there. Going to see if I can make it happen but it is a big reach. If I was you I would get lost for years in the colors the warp and weft make together. The two tone hand-woven dupioni silk create such an interesting color in light. Now add in you can change the weight of the materials. I never get around to finishing anything. So thou my tool box is open I’ve closed my I do down so I finish a few thing.
Tien Chiu says
It will be at the Munson Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, NY next – maybe you can go see it there? (but their policy is no pictures, which is why I went to TMC!)
Sharon Gardiner says
Tien, I was just doing a little catch up on FB and came across your blog on TMC. Esther Budd and I are just back from a memorial (for many reasons) day trip to the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto. Amazing exhibit. Your visit and praise for the exhibit provided the impetus needed to travel down the road to see it. I had hoped to see it Easter weekend but it didn’t work out. But your description and enthusiasm was the push to try again.
The kimonos are amazing, with not enough words to describe them. They are beautifully displayed, some with a bit of space between kimonos that blend together in the series to paint an overall picture. And others close together with the joining of images even more obvious.
Colourful and dramatic kimonos displayed first was a wise move as they were so overwhelming they would not have been appreciated if they were at the end. By that point it is almost visual overload.
I wanted to touch and feel, as with any textile display. I can fully understand the number of pictures you took Tien. While I went the opposite direction and did not take any pictures as they would not do the work justice. Bought the book instead.
Does anyone know if he mentored/taught others his techniques? I would love to know more about his design and dye/stitch techniques. I doubt I will ever get to Japan to the museum of his work, but if I do, it will be at the top of my must see places.
Before going to the textile museum I made a few purchases at G & S Dye which is just around the corner…..should have done it after the Textile Museum. I would have bought silk crepe to do some experimenting on to see if I can figure out how he did the kimonos.
Tien Chiu says
I know Kubota had an atelier with a bunch of other people working in it, but no idea if it continued after his death. The method, as far as I know, is several rounds of traditional shibori (stitch, draw up stitching, apply dye, steam, rinse, press flat), followed by applying embroidery and pen/brush drawing, followed by stitching again, drawing up stitching, steaming, but NOT pressing flat – the final round is just to create the textures. The kimono is assembled either just before or after the final step, not sure which.
Deborah Chiarucci says
I am so grateful for you sharing your journey to see Itchiku Kubota’s amazing life’s work. It is inspiring and humbling at the same time. Plus, brings me a little Joy :).
Michaela McIntosh says
Thank you so much for sharing this incredible body of work. These look like they would take a lifetime to do. I want to hop on a plane and go see them, if only I could. How wonderful that you got to see them and share them. The detail is overwhelming. Thank you so much
I went to DC to see the exhibit when it was there so many years ago. I knew it would be stunning, but I had no idea how much it would move me. I stood in the center of the large U-shaped display of kimono (was it all 40? Maybe)… and I wept. I still feel close to tears remembering the majesty, the power, the beauty…
I am not surprised his work inspired you. It is, literally, awesome.
Thank you so much for this post! The pictures and descriptions allowed me to have a special class today, sitting at my computer.
Hope the tomatoes and kitties are doing well. I starting giggling at the description of Tigress and her amazon order in an earlier post. My husband and I refuse to get an ECHO or anything that our furry housemates aka overlords could use to purchase items that catch their fancy.