Friday, 18 January 2013

Motohiko Katano: Shibori Genius Extraordinaire

Geiger was pawing through my recently acquired postcard books on my Japanese craftsman hero, Katano Motohiko. He could instinctively know how much these meant to me and didn't nose them off the chair before he alighted. 

Tohei made these lion dogs years ago. They hang out as a group on tables and window ledges throughout the house. Sometimes paying homage to Hiro's flower arrangements  or eyeing a bowl of tangerines. What were they up to staking their territory on these particular postcards? Someone was trying to send me a message.

The lions on the postcards brought back memories of how I started with indigo in the first place.
The message might have been: Revisit  roots.

I studied Japanese ink painting for a few years when I came to Japan 24 years ago. Selling my first painting I figured it was a pity purchase.  A few dozen paintings later purchased by people I didn't even know made me think. It dawned on me that it was possible to make a living as an artist/craftsman of sorts one day.  It troubled me that I wasn't working at something that would not become a life project in my early twenties.

I was not cut out for painting by the simple fact that I didn't love it. I met an order for paintings with dread and grim resolve to do as well as I could. The process of creating the paintings was new. I enjoyed the isolation and weeks of focus watching the paintings evolve. But dread of not being able to get it right was something I felt I would never get used to. (Looking back twenty years I probably would have gotten used to the fear etc.)

After reading, The Unknown Craftsman by Yanagi Soetsu everything changed. Drooling at the thought  of  being a master craftsman of something Japanese.  I had to choose a path. The thought of becoming a potter or a carpenter was forefront.

In a bookstore one day I picked up a book on indigo and shibori. After looking at a few photos of Katano Motohiko's indigo shibori work and a description on how to grow indigo and ferment it into a dye I had a little epiphany in the grungy old Kinokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku. Knowing exactly what I was going to do with the rest of my life,  closing the book and grinning I walked to the counter to pay for it.

To be an indigo dyer and work with textiles and use my indigo and textile experiences to be my own self-styled cultural anthropologist felt perfect. As my wallet opened and my hand pulled out the 5000 yen I smirked...what an investment. I get a lifetime of direction for the price of a few beer.

I found indigo seeds within a few weeks and I was on my way.   No dread.

To be a well-rounded indigo dyer in Japan you have to know how to dye yarn and cloth of all shapes sizes and material. You have to know how to do a variety of shibori shape resist techniques and dye them well.  (Katazome is more complex. I think very few indigo dyers really go deeply into this technique.)

With a general increased interest in clothing craftsmanship techniques, there has been a minor shibori boom in the past few years. Magazine articles, websites and books delving to different depths of shape-resist dyeing are easy to find. 

Shibori has a certain affinity with indigo as the oxidation part of indigo dyeing process can be played with to create subtle bleeds and nuances of blue in the folds and creases of shape-resisted work.
It sounds rather negative to say but the enthusiasm for the possibilities of shibori often outperform the technical prowess of the indigo dyer.

It is easy to liken shibori to haiku poems. Too much or too many makes you regret you ever even heard the words.  Yanagi Soetsu the founder of the Japanese folk craft movement asked Katano san to burn some Arimatsu shibori and from the ashes create a higher standard of shibori work.

The resulting shibori work of Motohiko Katano (1889-1975) is in a class by itself.  From 1957 until his death in 1985 he produced shibori work that was complex, subtle, proficient, distinctive, enchanting, intriguing, with no gimmicks and with intonations that can be so gentle, tasteful and subtle. (This sounds like a description of Jimmy Page's guitar playing.  The commonality of music and textile design is intriguing.)

It is a new year. Fifty is only one year away. Glancing to the side of life, certain walls are closer while others are farther away and warped in ways not noticed before.  With a break in carpentry work on the house, there is time to think and reflect and slightly adjust the trajectories of the various activities I juggle. Since revisiting Katano Motohiko's work that inspired me to work with indigo in the first place twenty years ago, I can't wait for the ice on the indigo vat to melt and get back to dyeing.

Tine and I were looking through the postcard books the other day and noticed that there was one technique that wasn't immediately apparent. We looked and speculated and started to sketch and stitch cloth and dye samples to figure out how he had done it.

Try number one was a failure, number two was getting somewhere. Try number three was dive bomb. (It reminded me of that old film on the first airplanes attempting to fly. They never took off and some comically folded on the runway. ) We will have them figured out in the next few weeks.


  1. your post is so timely! question. do you ever get used to the fear of not getting it right? whatever right might mean.
    loved the jimmy page reference esp. now that he's become a venerable gentleman

  2. Yes. I will have to face the terror of uncertainty and doubt when I seriously start preparing for an exhibition in Italy next year.

    I always saw Jimmy Page as bigger than life when I was young. Things haven't changed. I have a difficult time seeing him as a mortal.

  3. The fear is going to be there. Like in Dune, I let it go through me and when it has gone through me I try to figure out what it wanted.

  4. --"self-styled cultural anthropologist" still seems perfect

  5. ha! you two are funny. i was just writing to a friend about the terror of putting a stack of moro-shifu shape-woven pages that i'd made for an artists' book, ALL of them, in a dye bundle in a pot on the stove--no idea if the combination of dyestuffs would work that way. and i had to leave them in their bundle after heat for hours before i dared open them.

  6. The risks are sometimes worth it. But the whole bundle!

  7. yeah, about 20 of them--hours and hours of work if i counted that. i was very confident until it came time to actually warp that bundle up! and i kept no notes, so i don't know how long they were THAT'S fear (and denial)

  8. Interesting post, I came to my 'eureka' moment a lot later than you, it's only been 9 years for me and I get to 50 this year! I still feel 'the fear' each time I start a new piece, some less and some more, perhaps as I get better at my embroidery it will get less each time.

    1. Hi Jane,
      I think it get's easier. I still hope for a few more Eureka moments before the game is over!