Monday, December 11, 2017

2017 - a hectic year of TRYING

Wow, how is it already December!?

Apologies to my sadly neglected blog but this year has been a heck of a ride.

In looking back over all the things I've done and struggled with this year, I suddenly had a (mildly incensed) urge to write it all down and make sense of it before another year rolls around.

Let me paint a picture of the hectic year just gone.

→ I dyed a commissioned noren (split curtain) for an Australian Tea-master who lives up in Newcastle with his own tatami-floored tea-room. It's a homage to spring with magpies, which also happen to be the emblem of the area where he studied Tea.

privately commissioned Noren featuring Australian magpies

→ I started making textile jewellery that I've called tameshi, using trial dye samples and un-used edges from dyed works. These have been proving popular and I feel good about the fact that they are mini artworks in themselves and re-use fabrics that I would have thrown away or put in a box somewhere.

Tameshi jewellery - tameshi means sample or test. Available through stockists in Canberra and on my etsy store

→ I sent work to a group show by dyeing artists in New York. As the only artist out of the group who wasn't Japanese, apparently people said mine looked the most Japanese! With all the deadlines for later in the year, I didn't manage to get to go the US to see the show but still, it felt like an achievement.

My series of 6 yuzen/katazome dyed works on display as part of "Wafting II" at Medialia Gallery in New York, June-July 2017

→ I participated in a four-day residency out at Tidbinbilla nature reserve thanks to Craft ACT. Four of us selected artists got to stay in a newly renovated cottage inside the reserve and spent four lovely sunny days at the tail-end of winter hiking in the bush, sketching, writing and sharing tales over cheese and wine.

The delights of early spring at Tidbinbilla - Gibraltar Peak, Early Nancy, Flame Robin.

→ I travelled to Japan and held a solo exhibition in Galerie H20 in Kyoto. My first solo show there in 4 and a half years, always a joy to be there and to catch up with so many friends and new connections.

entryway and Japanese garden at Galerie H20 in downtown Kyoto

view of solo show at Galerie h20, October 2017

→ Whilst in Japan I made time to visit and interview a bunch of great humans, friends new and old who are doing innovative and interesting dye-work. The plan is to write up a series of interviews from all the meetings and I've created a new project Somé 20:20 to house them and to move forward with. It's a reference to being able to see clearly - without acknowledging tradition how do we move forward? and how will dyeing art survive into the future, 2020 is just around the corner. A work in progress, my new website for the project is over at

the wonderful people who agreed to be interviewed for my Somé 20:20 project.

→ I came back and setup another solo show at ANCA gallery in Canberra! The theme of my works this year have been "beautiful weeds", and I managed to create some new works that are really where I've been wanting to head for a while now; layered and sheer works that are a new form of collaged landscape.

Solo Exhibition "Naturescapes" at ANCA Gallery & Studios, Canberra, Oct-Nov 2017

detail of "The Beautiful Weeds of Canberra" series, on show at ANCA Gallery, Canberra

→ I ran workshops and demonstrations in dyeing at the 2017 Canberra-Nara Candle Festival. For the demonstrations, I dyed a massive 9 metre length of resist-printed cotton in one go while a crowd watched and revealed pattern and birds and text as I went. The workshops saw nearly 100 people dye their own kata-yuzen bookmark using pigments and stencils.

Kata-yuzen workshops and Hikizome demonstration at the Canberra Nara Candle Festival, October 28, 2017

→ I ran another afternoon of workshops on the last day of my exhibition, dyeing katazome postcards. Participants could dye pre-printed washi and wash away the paste to reveal the patterns. We had great warm weather and it was a lovely bunch of enthusiastic people who came along.

wonderful postcards dyed by participants, drying on the outside windows at ANCA

→ I even had an article published in the Kyoto Journal, on katagami stencils.

Kyoto Journal, a volunteer-run publication, making a return to print from this issue.
It's great! you can get your hands on a copy here


What this run-sheet doesn't show is the sleep-deprivation, self-doubt, expenses, rejection letters, missed deadlines, extensive preparations, hours spent at a day-job and the constant juggle.

On paper, (or in digital text, I suppose) this looks like a hugely successful year. In a sense it was.
But it was also really, really hard.
I don't think this level of productivity is sustainable, or even very enjoyable.
I also didn't really sell much art. Not through exhibitions.
Where I really made progress and, to some extent, a profit, was through connecting with like-minded people, through making custom pieces, through sharing affordable things, and through trying to promote the unique genre of Somé.
Which has me re-thinking my approach to all of this.

Given that my work places me in a sort of odd position in between ART, CRAFT & RESEARCH, (odd in the sense that I don't fall neatly into funding categories or job titles) I'm thinking that instead of struggling against that and trying to slot myself into prescribed categories, why not embrace it?

Can I be a CRAFTIST?

I'm tired of feeling like my specialties (being able to dye pictorial textiles, being interested in craft, being knowledgeable about tradition, having Japanese abilities -though not bilingual by any means, being interested in smaller, affordable art) are a liability, or something I need to adjust so I can be in the same game as everyone else. And of feeling like my particular set of skills don't add up to anything. When in fact they do! and they are a killer combination despite what the grants categories, arts bodies, or professional membership organisations would have me think.

So consider this my personal passion project for 2018; finding a way to be my own kind of craftisan, pursuing research and researching through making.

Thank you for putting up with the silence on this blog but do feel free to check in over at my website and project site to see what things I get up to in 2018.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"Translating" a Technique in a Different Country - Katazome in Australia

It's been 8 years since I first tried to replicate katazome resist dyeing in Australia. After spending a year on exchange at Kyoto Seika University during my undergraduate studies, I'd come back with a burning enthusiasm to try and see if the same technique could be achievable with local supplies. It turns out, yes - but with much modification.

When you start to look at traditional crafts without applying the lens of "sacred and untouchable", you find at the core of it all a basic process that utilises a series of specific tools and ingredients to achieve a beautiful end result. The gadgets and materials that have come to be synonymous with a particular traditional craft (think shibugami stencil paper with katazome) have only obtained that status because they've developed over time in line with that culture and with other industries developing simultaneously.

What I mean is,
Dye brushes at Kuriyama-kobo, a katazome company
on the western edge of Kyoto
why would katazome use deer-hair brushes? Probably because 1. there were deer around and 2. an industry already existed making deer-hair brushes for use in traditional painting. Why would one utilise thin rods of bamboo with sharp spikes at the end to stretch fabric taut? Presumably because bamboo was already being formed into products for other purposes at the time. Katagami stencil paper could not have developed without the existing Japanese skills in washi papermaking - from which the stencil paper is made.

Very traditional stencil paper - shibugami
The thing is, if we look at the technique of katazome as it stands now, there is a very polished, established and institutionalised way of practicing it. It is basically understood to involve a set of specific tools and materials (mochi rice flour, komon rice bran, stencil paper, soybean & seaweed derived fixative). These are presumed to be the ultimate, most refined and correct way to achieve the best results. Of course it is fair to think that. These are not tools and materials that are used by accident - they have gone through a few hundred years of use and modification.

Whilst there is now some deviation from these very traditional and quintessential ingredients and processes, like a modified plasticised stencil paper or a chemical pre-dye fixative, there is still a very set way of doing things.

Newer plasticised stencil paper
How about if you want to use katazome in a country where those quintessential tools and materials are not only unavailable, they're simply not part of our culture. Bamboo, deer hair, rice flour and washi paper have only, if at all, recently been part of our vocabulary let alone available to purchase. They simply aren't part of our natural environment or resources.

Applying shinshi stretchers to long narrow fabric

So okay, why not seek to uncover what function these ingredients and tools perform within the katazome process and utilise something locally available to perform the same task?

Instead of lamenting that shinshi (bamboo fabric stretchers) are unavailable in Australia (they have no reason to be; historically we've never needed to be able to stretch a narrow kimono-width fabric out to dry) why not consider what function they are performing (stretching the fabric taut whilst leaving the back side accessible) and seek to replicate that function? A wooden frame with pins to hold the fabric out taut performs the same function. Of course, this is not as flexible as the centuries-tried-and-true shinshi approach but it is a workable solution.

Funori - looks natural and traditional, I guess
Manutex - not pretty but same stuff on the inside
Alright, what about the funori  - a seaweed derived gloopy thickener used in the pre-dye fixative? Well, if you get down to the nitty-gritty of what's actually in that stuff, you'd find that it's the same seaweed gloop that we use as a food thickener in Australia and it also already exists as a substrate for use in screen printing. Powdered "Manutex F" does not have the same natural look or roll off the tongue as nicely as funori, sure, but it performs the same basic function. 

And so you can continue with all the necessary tools and ingredients in the hallowed katazome tomes and see what can be used to achieve the same result.

For some ingredients the swap is simple. Others are proving more difficult. Soft, dense dye brushes, fine de-fatted rice-bran, water erasable ao-bana ink.... But it is really just a matter of thinking outside the box. To be able to source tools and materials locally would be the ideal situation. Not to remove the technique from its Japanese roots entirely, but to make it viable.

There are many specialised businesses in Kyoto, for example, which have operated as family-run enteprises for some hundreds of years. They each have their own niche of the textile process to support; the nori (resist paste) manufacturer and shop, the shinshi (bamboo stretcher) specialist, the kimono-width silk salesroom, the specialised craftsmen making circular punches for intricate stencil carving...More and more these businesses are struggling to survive. With the demise of the kimono as daily and common wear, these businesses that thrived and supported the kimono industry now have little patronage to subsist on. If I were still in Kyoto, I would continue to support these businesses with my own hard-owned yen and utilise them in my artwork but I fear even that is simply not enough.

Just one example of the many kimono industry support businesses that are often now finding it hard to stay afloat

If, and it would seem likely, these businesses continue to shut-down, there is no-one left to make the traditional katagami, to bulk-produce batches of nori paste, to make specific lengths of shinshi, to craft tiny sharp circular punches. Like any loss of knowledge and skills, this is tragic, it really is. But this is the way it goes. Crafts are only in demand so much as they are an active and necessary part of our daily lives. Without that demand, they become obsolete. There are many example of innovative companies and individuals who are thinking outside the box to continue supporting Kyoto's craft industries and make them relevant to today's society (these are something I plan to touch on in future) but I think we also need to be realistic. Whilst continuing to support traditional industry where possible, I think we need to start accepting that there are alternatives, so that the techniques can actually survive - even if some of the tools cannot.

It seems to me that in the end, even if it means modifying many of the components of the technique, having the ability to actually practice the technique at all, and see it survive into the future is the best way to honour tradition.

A tradition is kept alive only by something being added to it. - Henry James

On that note, I'm off to continue testing out new resist-paste recipes!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Somé - Dyeing the Australian Environment

In August/September this year I was lucky enough to be invited to hold a solo exhibition of my work at the Japan Foundation Gallery in Sydney. It was titled "Somé - Dyeing the Australian Environment".
It's been a long while coming but here are some images from the show.

I made some new work for this show, a large noren for the entry to the gallery space and a series of pieces called "The Beautiful Weeds of Canberra".

Entrance to the exhibition. "A Hearty Welcome" on left

I called the noren "A Hearty Welcome", referencing its function as a gateway to the exhibition. I dyed it using katazome on hemp fabric which I sourced in Australia. Previously I'd dyed several noren but on Japanese linens which have a certain stiff feel to them and are rather open weaves so that a glimmer of the space behind the curtain is also visible. I'm yet to find a fabric with similar qualities in Australia but the hemp fabric was a new experiment using a natural looking slubby cellulose fibre. It's a little softer than I would like, as it creases easily and softens in the washing stage of katazome.

The noren was tied back during the opening event - Photo by Document Photography
The imagery I used for the stencil was of the droopy branches of Eucalyptus Cinerea (Argyle Apple). I've used them as subject matter before because I love their dusty blue-green leaves with their almost circular forms. They really lend themselves to being carved into a silhouette-y stencil.

The other new work I produced was a series I've been calling "The Beautiful Weeds of Canberra". I've become even more obsessed with weeds since starting these pieces but the idea behind them is that our natural environment is a composite of all kinds of species native and otherwise. When you look closer you realise that a good many of them are actually "weeds" but to me they are familiar parts of the landscape and also quite beautiful in their own right. 

Keeping a little distance from the complex conservation and environmental problems connected with "weeds" I'm trying to just depict them in all their weedy glory - kind of weed portraits.

This is a series I will be further developing and expanding for future exhibitions but the initial weeds I've dyed are Wild Blackberry, Rosehip, Umbrella Sedges and Japanese Honeysuckle. For these pieces I used vibrant acid dyes to dye the weeds themselves - true to nature- and applied natural dyes as the background colour. I really like the russets and orange tones you can extract from local eucalyptus varieties and onion skins so I've used a combination of these against the vibrant colours of the weeds I chose.

Blackberries and Sedges - first trials in "the Beautiful Weeds of Canberra" series.

Japanese Honeysuckle - Beautiful Weeds of Canberra. A garden favourite in Japan but a creeping weed in South East Australia.

For future pieces I'm planning on featuring many many more beautiful weeds and trying to get even deeper, richer background colours. I've also started research for a series on "the Beautiful Weeds of Kyoto". It's interesting to see which weeds overlap with Australia; the weeds which we "share". It's also cool finding those species which are natives in Australia but invasive in Japan or the reverse. I think there's some deeper subject you could read into that if you chose to. 

detail of "Sedges" - Beautiful Weeds of Canberra Series. 2016
Anyway, back to my exhibition in Sydney, the general response from the audience was really good. I had never shown work in Sydney, let alone so many pieces all at once before, so it was great to come across all these people who I'd never have had the chance to meet. I held a floor talk and two workshops whilst I was there too. Both went really well. It was my first time to hold workshops with so many participants but everyone was very enthusiastic and got great results.
Each participant dyed two washi postcards using powdered pigments.

looking like a pro giving my floortalk for Japan Foundation Members before the opening

during the opening

the opening

workshops underway


Participants results from the workshops. really nice!!
It would be nice to do more workshops in future, maybe on less of a tight schedule next time!

Anyway, I'm now working towards new things for 2017. A few exhibitions on the horizon so I have to get making!