Mottainai: The Fabric of Life
Lessons in Frugality from Traditional Japan
Art in the Garden Fall 2011
November 4-27, 2011
Included with Garden Admission
This exhibition of antique Japanese folk textiles from the Meiji period (1868-1912) is comprised of selections from the private collections of Stephen Szczepanek (suh-PAN-ecks) of Sri in Brooklyn and Kei Kawasaki of Gallery Kei in Kyoto. The exhibition demonstrates the remarkable ability of the Japanese to not only make do with the very little they had, but to make art with it.
For generations before the “Economic Miracle” took place in the decades following World War II, Japan was a poor country. People recycled everything. Nothing was wasted, and the word “mottainai” (waste nothing!) was a ubiquitous exclamation used by every frugal parent to warn children about wasting a bite of food or a scrap of cloth or paper.
All of the textiles and garments on view were made from bast fibers foraged from the forest, or patched and quilted together from second-hand scraps of cotton garments of city-dwellers who traded their hand-me-downs with the farmers for rice and vegetables.
The exhibition represents a wide variety of traditional textile making and decorating techniques, including sashiko stitching, bast fiber weaving and dyeing, and patchwork quilting, the latter referred to as boro.
“Boro is a term now widely recognized that describes these patched and mended fabrics,” said Stephen, who is clearly awed by the ingenuity and beauty of these pieces and has written articles for Selvedge, Hali, and Cover magazine about them. Hanging like abstract art on the walls of his Brooklyn loft are a boro indigo futon cover and a boro yogi, or sleeping kimono. He contends that these were never intended as works of art, though collectors from New York to Paris now seek out these modest garments for the remnants of the spirit of rural Japan they see in them. “What I love,” Stephen says, “is that there is so much history in every piece.”
His small Brooklyn loft is both show room and home to Stephen, whose Sri has been featured in the New York Times as a fascinating destination for those who love the real thing. According to one New York Times article (2007): “A resident of Brooklyn for the past 22 years, Stephen finds sanctuary in the cloth of another culture, which allows him to travel to a faraway time and place without having to leave home (although he does go to Japan on buying trips twice a year, visiting dealers and temple markets in Kyoto).”
Stephen’s colleague and friend in Kyoto is Kei Kawasaki, whose Kyoto gallery is known internationally as a source for museum-quality bast fiber garments and fabrics. Interviewed last year at Gallery Kei on Teramachi Street in Kyoto, Kei explains, “The old adage about saving patches of cloth large enough to wrap 3 beans came from a time when all textiles were precious. People in pre-industrial Japan would patch together various bits of cloth in long rolls. Until the modern era, cotton was difficult to come by in rural areas, especially in northern Japan. Farmers’ clothes were made from hand-spinning such things as linden bark, wisteria vines and kudzu vines. Used washi paper was also cut into strips, hand-spun and woven with cotton to create shifu, an excellent light textile with subtle black highlights from the sumi ink inscriptions written on the paper during its earlier ‘incarnation.’ Nothing was wasted.”
Both Stephen and Kei will travel to Portland for the opening of the Mottainai exhibition on November 4. Don’t miss this opportunity to meet the collectors of these remarkable recycled treasures.
Supported in part by the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation, the Regional Arts & Culture Council and Work for Art, Wessinger Foundation, and by Katherine and Mark Frandsen.