Since I’ve belonged the ARTTAG group, a subset of the NCWCA (Northern California Women’s Artist Caucus), I’ve been motivated to work with different materials and to branch out and experiment. The ARTTAG process allows each artist to be the inspiration for another artist. Working with a theme, we create a piece and then mail it to an artist to be their jumping off point to create their own work to send to another artist. A game of ‘telephone’ of sorts. After three rounds the artists gather for a sharing of food and art revealing and discussion. Often it is surprising how many threads tie the works together, even though there has been no written or verbal crosstalk during the creation process.
A theme we recently explored was Presence/Absence. I received a jacket embellished with photographs of a lifetime from another artist. Each photo had writing identifying the people and sometimes some background on what was happening at the time. This art piece was a poignant and beautiful tribute to the full lives of the artist and family members and friends, and their connection to the person who once wore this garment.
As I sat with the art piece in my studio for a couple of weeks, I decided to challenge myself to still focus on a garment, but to do the opposite of embellishment for my response art piece. I wanted to see if I could remove parts of a garment as a way to express memory and connection.
I opened my cedar trunk to pull out a kimono that was given to me by a friend who got it at a used clothing store. I have received a few kimonos from people who thought maybe I could do something with them. I also have family kimonos that I treasure and want to keep intact. These other kimonos I do not have a tie to, I have no idea who wore them or what their history is. So I decided to take this very culturally symbolic garment and experiment with it.
The first cut into the kimono was a difficult one. I felt as if I was violating a sacred article of clothing. I even talked to a fellow NCWCA member who grew up in Japan and she said something like ‘no problem, do it.’ So I proceeded to cut all the embellishment out of the kimono. I cut and cut and cut the orange flowers out of the fabric for 3 days. And it felt great. It was meditative to sit with this task and only this task for hours. I got into a rhythm, not unlike when one sews or knits.
While I was deconstructing this kimono I had many thoughts. Who was this woman who wore this? Was she alive? How did she feel when she wore it?
Memories came up. I had been dressed up in a kimono for Obon Odori a few times as a child. This is a special festival to honor ancestors who have passed on. People, mostly women dance in a circle with fans and umbrellas and rhythmic hand instruments. As I found out, kimonos are not comfortable to wear. They are very restrictive for walking and breathing. I recall sucking in my breath while being bound around my waist and chest with beautiful ornate thick fabric (an obi) wound around and around me. The obis were cinched so I could only walk with very short small steps. I felt beautiful but not very pleasant in my exotic garb. At 10 years old I already knew this wasn’t something I wanted to wear daily.
So while I was cutting away the beautiful flowers from the kimono, I had nostalgic thoughts. The kimono for me was a tie to my Japanese culture that is so easily slipping away from me. I no longer live with anyone who speaks Japanese and I of course do not know the language. I rarely cook the cuisine, let alone make gohan (rice) and tofu for every meal like we used to eat as children. My family elders are passing away. This cutting ritual became an honoring of my cultural loss and memories.
I left a few orange flowers on the band that goes around the kimono neck and the rest of what was left was just the creamy ivory skeleton. It had a web like quality. I had transformed this cultural icon into something new. The removed flowers now lay at the feet of the kimono. The piece resembled a tree that had lost its leaves. The remaining kimono still held it’s simple yet strong shape – it would never lose its beauty and it’s form.