Quilt Artistry
Yoshiko Jinzenji
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Buy *Quilt Artistry: Inspired Designs from the East* online

Quilt Artistry: Inspired Designs from the East
Yoshiko Jinzenji
Kodansha International
128 pages
February 2003
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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A piece of fabric is the pulse of life as written across our eyes by drape, shape, texture, and hue. Art forms, and perhaps art itself, have their own genetic codes -- forms of doubling and redoubling that, as DNA does with the cell, determine a look, a feel, a character, an emotion. Lucky, then, are the pieces of fabric doubled and redoubled by the eyes and hands of Yoshiko Jinzenji (www.YoshikoQuilt.com and www.thejapanpage.com). A few snips of color and weave become a mix of art and the irrepressible urge to adorn that make you want to dive off this world and into what you see.

She best articulates the origins of all this in her book's Introduction:

"I have a very clear memory of my first encounter with quilts. It was in Toronto in the winter of 1970, in the furniture section of Eaton's department store downtown. There, surrounded by standardized fluffy bedspreads, were two handmade quilts draped over wooden racks. I went over to them as if drawn by a magnet and took them in my hand, wondering what on earth these handmade quilts were doing in the middle of a display of manufactured goods. The oddity of the combination was stunning. The quilts were made by joining together many small pieces of cloth and then covering the whole with fine hand stitching. Each had a price tag, and I was stunned again to see that they were not much more expensive than the manufactured spreads. Who could have made these, I asked myself, and what had inspired their beautiful handwork?"
Her book Quilt Artistry is the unending result of an apprenticeship that started at Kyoto Women's University, learning from the Canadian Mennonites (whence the inspired moment above) and Amish in the USA from 1968 till 1980, then back to Japan to form the Yoshiko Jinzenji Quilt Group. She sponsored a quilt exhibition in Jakarta, exhibited for a near-decade at the Needlework Japan Exhibition, and in 1991 founded Studio Jinzenji Grass House in Bali. Not content merely to create, she has published a variety of works, including Quilt Quest: A Profound Journey Thread by Thread, and now this book.

If any artist's work is validated by its results, surely it is Yoshiko's. Visit the website https://artmuseum.heartquilt.com/english/data/ga_h.html and you will find some of the most provocative and lovely contemporary Japanese art, presented on one of the most interesting showcases for specialty art on the Net. Yoshiko Jinzenji is there, as are a number of other practitioners such as Emiko Toda Leob. Art these works unequivocally are; they just happen to be made by an assemblage method called quilting.

This is a very personalized book; Yoshiko's fingerprints are on every page. On page 66, for example, is a lovely montage of images taken at her Grass House Studio on Bali. Fruit and stone textures are there, flowers, two chickens strutting out a door, Yoshiko herself -- and a quiltwork hammock fit surely for a snooze in paradise. Only the two of the images do anything to advance the text. Not many publishers would allow an author to so tangentially personalize the subject.

Yoshiko's work is a textile manifestation of the preoccupation with ante-antique and avant-garde that characterizes so much of Japanese culture today. On page 40 she recounts the symbiosis of ancient textiles in the tea ceremony; a scant seven pages further on we are suddenly confronted with a work made of some of the most interesting cloth ideations of Jun'ichi Arai. Jun'ichi is arguably the most innovative and certainly the most influential textile creative artist working today -- the textile equivalent of Issey Miyake's fabrications in his heyday of two decades ago. Jun'ichi has taken the marriage of technology and history further down the road to progeny than any other designer. He also is an astonishingly good and sensitive writer, and his Foreword to Yoshiko¹s book is so good that it is reproduced below.

Yoshiko, like Jun'ichi, is nothing if not a creative technician who happens to make art. Her text and caption content sums to an amazingly low overall word count given the amount of detail and philosophy it conveys. One reason is the lush plates -- many so good they could be enlarged and hung in a gallery devoted to contemporary fine-art photography. Then there are the dozens of step-by-step how-to diagrams that guide the home quilter through the process of emulating Yoshiko's pieces. The readers need not be especially accomplished sewers, either, for despite their complex look, Yoshiko's pieces are really composed of fairly straightforward elements lines and patterns; there's just a lot of them. Any who would re-create one of her works at home needs patience more than proficiency.

Yoshiko is generous enough to pass along step-by-step instructions for a dyeing method she found via experiment in order to accomplish what must be the ultimate coals-to-Newcastle notion in textile history: dyeing white material white. That might seem an exercise in conceit, but the reason goes far back into the wellsprings of Japanese aesthetics. As she tells it,

"I had been making quilts for years from fabrics that I dyed myself with natural dyes when I had a kind of awakening. It was during an exhibition where my work was being shown together with that of a lacquerware artist. When I looked at his pieces, with their simple and beautiful form and their quiet sheen achieved by applying lacquer in careful layers, I thought, what kind of fabric could I make that would have the same sense of power? Finally it came to me, I wanted to find a natural dye that would dye cloth white. . . . In the field of natural dyes white was the one color no one knew how to obtain. For me white was suggestive of the fusuma and shoji sliding doors used to separate Japanese-style rooms, as well as the traditions of sumi ink drawings and calligraphy and even the white sand of Zen gardens."
Cloth can of course be made white by bleach, but that process brutally strips all color, and the fabric's life along with it. Yoshiko's process is of gently adding the color-within-no-color called white. The difference is the same as that between ejecting a thought from your mind and meditating it into non-thought. She puts it this way:
Finally I hit on the idea of trying that strange combination of tree and grass, bamboo. Two or three hours later the cloth had been transformed. It was if the silk was a prism sparkling with colors like pink, yellow, and green. It was a white with depths.
In thinking of her discovery as multicolor within noncolor, it's nice to recall that meditation, too, is a state of all-mind within no-mind.

It is interesting to compare Yoshiko¹s work with another dye and fabrication artist whose work likewise explores the ineffable. The Taipei designer Sophie Hong works with exactly the opposite color -- near-black -- yet achieves a similar resplendency of minute gradations. Sophie works with tea dyeing, the oldest known dyestuff produced by boiling and one of the most time-consuming to do. Each piece of cloth is dyed a minimum of thirty times in a fresh batch of tea before the requisite darkness is reached, but the result shimmers with deep mauves, browns, blackberry, burgundy-purples so saturated it seems as if the tiniest bit of extra tint would wipe out the color altogether. This is exactly the opposite effect of Yoshiko, and interestingly, is turned into a very different use: high-fashion garments.

Yoshiko's book is a combination of high art and ladle-in-the-dyebath practicality. The many full-plate and even more part-page pictures amply illustrate the first. The drawings and text take care of the latter. With so many active quilters and societies all around the world these days, few would argue that quilting isn't an art form. With Yoshiko's book in hand, anyone interested in quilting, textiles, home design, or fashion design will be inspired to make art of their own. Her ninety specific projects, clear design patterns and detailed instructions can guide just about anyone with enthusiasm and patience to make quilts, pillows, clutch purses, mandalas, spreads, wall hangings, and even a hammock to end all hammocks. Yoshiko's work is a rarity even in the world of art-to-wear and its nonwearable textile art relatives: utterly unique. No one else does what she does.

For those who wish to know more, here are a few useful websites:

At this point it is worthwhile to break somewhat with book-review tradition and include two long extracts directly from the book. Jun'ichi Arai's Foreword and Yoshiko's Introduction shed so much light on her ideas and work that this review fades by compare.

© 2003 by Dana De Zoysa for Curled Up With a Good Book

=Jun'ichi Arai, Textile Designer

Yoshiko Jinzenji's life is marked by discipline. Her freedom is a freedom of the will, and her creations are reflections of the way she lives. The high artistry of her quilts derives from freedom employed within the bounds of a rigorous discipline.

Her quilts are simple and to the point. They contain no foolish chattering. They are magnetic, with an appeal that is strongly sensuous. Open your heart to them and they will induce a delicious intoxication.

The quilts she makes are never uneven. The slightest variation in technique becomes a mirror image, inverting and about-facing again and again as it continues to chant the endless rhythms of life. The quilts beckon us to a world of wide-open spaces that are bounded by a fierce passion held in check. There we wander idly, finding not only joy and elation but also whispers of grief and lamentation, perhaps even low cries of despair.

I associate Yoshiko's work with the world of the primitive. We (I take the liberty of speaking for others as well as myself) revere primitive work. Things created by nameless artists let out their voices, singing vigorously of life and revealing to us a world of calm and ease. Such works are universally beloved. The spirit of their makers takes them over and dwells in them, living on and on.

Works of concentrated strength and seeming artlessness have a spirit of impromptu prayer that draws on the energy of nature. Impromptu creations can come about only through such prayer. There is no greater power on earth than that of prayer invested with the whole heart and mind and strength. Such prayer is life itself.

The best primitive works are brimming with life, radiant with youth. They have an unassuming strength, peace and freshness. They are ever new, as if brought into being only yesterday, yet lacking the sense of peril in things of today. Yoshiko's work has undergone many stages of evolution, while always remaining fresh and original. Her work shows the power of her tenacious will. Like primitive peoples, she embraces materials that lie near at hand, along with the tools to match them. Out of those natural juxtapositions are born new discoveries that go on fostering new creations.

Fashion authorities were unanimous in calling Yoshiko's discovery of bamboo-dyed white a tremendously difficult technical and creative feat. The application of bamboo dye to almost any fabric gives it a beautiful, completely new complexion. When I was shown that even fibers of type 66 nylon film could take on a gorgeous flesh tone, I felt I had been made witness to a kind of twentieth-century magic.

In this way, Yoshiko's secret processes have opened up new realms of the unknown and unseen. Her world is like the paradoxical world of the primitive -- springing from the bowels of the earth and connecting our lives with the people who lived before us and those who will come after.

In choosing to use innovative contemporary synthetics at times and at other times to weave and even dye her own cloth herself, Yoshiko has set a new aesthetic standard as a quiltmaker and a maker of cloth.

What is it, I wonder, that anchors and sustains Yoshiko, free-floating spirit that she is? At a temple in the ancient capital of Nara I witnessed the uninhibited freedom and stillness -- the serenity -- of her flower arrangements. Viewing them was like sipping fragrant tea before a piece of calligraphy by a master, or reveling in the simple goodness and sheer delight of a home-cooked meal.

I am convinced that Yoshiko Jinzenji's achievements in establishing a new genre in quilting will never be forgotten.

=Yoshiko Jinzenji

For me, quilting and natural dyeing are complementary elements in the same act of transforming cloth.

The quilts that initially inspired me to begin quilting, and that continue to fascinate me, are antique Amish and Mennonite works. After I began quilting about thirty years ago, I traveled many times to Indonesia, eventually establishing my studio there, and at one point I encountered the Indonesian selendang, a striking traditional shawl that very much resembled the Amish quilts that I already loved.

I wondered what it was that these two forms had in common, since the selendang is not quilted or pieced, and then I realized that they both were dyed with natural dye. This drove home to me the power of dyeing cloth with natural materials.

Quilting, dyeing, and the combinations of textures in the cloth itself -- all are elements that alter the surface of cloth, adding shadows and shapes that reflect light in different ways, and creating a pleasing rhythm of alternating tension and relaxation.

In addition to natural dyeing, I have often made quilts from the extremely innovative synthetic materials made by Jun'ichi Arai, one of Japan's best-known textile designers. In any case, no matter what the material, what I am striving for is to bring out and add to the essential textures of the cloth, to create shadows and light, and to find a balance between minimalism and a sense of richness.

My work has always been a natural progression from one interest to the next -- one adventure or experiment after another -- and this book is basically a record of that adventure.

I have received so much inspiration from traditions that arose outside Japan -- primarily from the quilting of North America and also from Asian dyeing and weaving traditions. I hope that by publishing this introduction to my work in English I can give back to the quilting world a little bit of what I have received.

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