In Collaboration with Photographer, Helen Hasenfeld
© Photos by Helen Hasenfeld
By Steve Beimel and Rob Schultheis
Both Fukumotos work with high quality woven cotton from the Silk Road city of Turfan in far western China, but Shihoko also uses a variety of other materials: traditional fiber textiles, silk-covered washi paper, linen paper, gauzy hemp and woven pineapple leaf fiber. In one of her more exciting techniques, she alters orderly, loom-woven weaves by rearranging the fibers up and down with a brush while the dye is still wet, creating a delicately irregular texture.
Shihoko says that she innovates because "there are some tools which no longer exist and some new techniques and tools which are only now available. I couldn't be fully expressive if I didn't feel this freedom to explore and go beyond the traditional methods. And don't forget," she adds slyly, "all 'traditional' tools and techniques were inventions at one time."
Her creations include wall hangings, scrolls, costumes for noh theater and a three-dimensional tearoom that was just acquired by the American Craft Museum in New York. That spectacular installation consists of huge translucent ocean-colored panels of fabric on wooden frames; they shimmer like waves breaking in the sea, turning the interior of the room into a boundless space.
Although the notion to take up indigo dyeing came from a desire to connect with her native culture, Shihoko no longer works with the cultural connection in mind. Instead, she approaches her work with the freedom of a contemporary artist. "I want people to see my work as obviously Japanese," she says, "but with new, creative images rather than old, traditional ones. I think it is better to work directly with the indigo, letting my creativity manifest itself purely and straightforwardly."
Shigeki Fukumoto has a different personal style from his wife's: although on the surface he's soft-spoken and calm with quiet enthusiasm and almost child-like curiosity, his approach to his art is fiercer, with a spirit of unrelenting struggle.
It was out of duty that he returned to dye work. He was 26 years old when, after six years studying Western painting and his post-university trip with Shihoko, his father retired due to illness. Suddenly, Shigeki recalls, "I found myself back dyeing kimonos for the family's traditional business." He specialized in roketsu-zome, or wax-resist dyeing, similar to the techniques he learned as a youth; he also later embraced hiki-zome, in which dye is applied to cloth with a brush.
Shigeki was fortunate to have learned the craft young; it enabled him to jump right back in when he was needed. "If you faithfully study the established, traditional technique, you will have mastered it," he says.
"But," he continues, "you may also find yourself bound and restricted by it. The more perfected a traditional method is, the more powerfully it resists change." Shigeki worried that the return from high art to the family business might constrict him, limiting his personal expression. "If you want to paint pictures in freedom and comfort," he says, "there is nothing more thankless than dyeing." At the time, he rationalized that he could always return to oil painting as a fallback; yet luckily for us, he came to find that the "thankless dyeing process was of endless interest to me."
The difference between working with brilliant oils and "thankless" dyes is as elemental as the materials themselves. Oil paint stays where the artist puts it, but dye penetrates the entire cloth, and if it is not fixed it washes out when the cloth is rinsed. Dyes can change color during the drying process or blend with colors applied earlier. "In other words," Shigeki says, "dyeing requires a unique technical skill. It is inconvenient, tiresome and difficult, and if you make a mistake there is no erasing it or painting over it." Furthermore, he says, it can be physically demanding. "With the hiki-zome technique, the cloth is stretched horizontally and the work has to be done quickly and nimbly, in a bent posture. It is sweaty labor, but not a single drop of sweat must be allowed to fall on the cloth."
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