Exhibit of Nisei fiber artist Sekimachi’s work weaves inner life and character


ON THE COVER: Kay Sekimachi, “Kiri IV,” 1993; Kiriwood paper, silk tissue, and chopstick; 7 x 10 in. Collection of Forrest L. Merrill. photo by Lee Fatheree

“Takarabako VI” (1999) and “Takarabako VII” (1999). photo by Lee Fatheree

BERKELEY, Calif. — Internationally acclaimed master weaver and fiber artist Kay Sekimachi loves playing with opposing forces: the soft and the rigid, inside and out. The 94-year-old Nisei is the subject of an exhibition entitled “Kay Sekimachi: Geometries,” currently at the Berkeley Art Museum.

“Geometries” includes more than 50 objects that were created on the artist’s loom, highlighting her innovations of form and materials. Sekimachi became nationally prominent with her woven nylon monofilament sculptures. Gossamer and fluid, made of equal parts light and substance, her work transformed the art of the weaver from a form restricted to utility and craft into poetic modern art.

After a year of COVID-19 lockdown, walking into a museum to luxuriate in art felt a little outrageous. Everything the eyes landed on was dense with texture and nuanced with color in ways that flattened pixels on a screen cannot convey. A selection of large, abstract sculptures swim from the ceiling, casting delicate shadows.

In the 1970s, Sekimachi concentrated on making linen weavings that began as 2D objects, but transformed into 3D nesting boxes, then began a series of origami-influenced vessels and experimental kiri wood paper works, which emphasize the genius of their voluminous, folded forms, the caress of threads and nubbiness of linen, the geometries in the warp and weft.

Her woven linen books were inspired by an object she treasured while incarcerated at the Topaz (Central) Utah concentration camp during World War II — a miniature book of woodblock prints by Hiroshige. The linen pages fold out accordion-style, are subtly “painted” using heat transferred color onto the warp threads and — according to the artist — are ideally held in the hand to be “read.”

The work is meticulous, yet as a viewer observed, it bears the marks of human touch and says so much about Sekimachi’s inner life and character.

Sekimachi was born on San Francisco Japantown’s Cottage Row on Sept. 30, 1926, to Wakuri and Takao Sekimachi, Issei from Ibaraki Prefecture. In 1929, her father sent Wakuri and the four children (her brother Koya, elder sister Yaeko, younger sister

Kazuko, and Keiko/Kay) to live with their grandparents in Japan, but tragically, Koya fell ill of dysentery and died.

At their mother’s insistence, the family moved back and settled in Berkeley, Calif. Her father worked as a gardener and at a laundromat; her mother took in sewing. When her father died in 1937, her mother found work as a domestic, earning 50 cents an hour.

“Wave” (1980). photo courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

She lived what she calls “an ordinary childhood,” playing kick the can, climbing trees with her sisters in matching red mohair sweaters, and painstakingly cutting dolls out of the Sunday newspaper, for whom Sekimachi drew an elaborate wardrobe.

Sekimachi has vivid memories of her mother’s kori (luggage,) which she opened once a year to air out her kimono and obi. They spoke Japanese in the house and, following public school classes, went to Nihongo gakko (Japanese school) at the Japanese Methodist church, where Sekimachi was introduced to shodo (calligraphy).

The family who lived next door were good friends with the sumi-e artist Chiura Obata, and they had two of his paintings hanging in their living room. So whenever the children went over to play, Sekimachi says she would take a good look at these paintings and admire professor Obata’s brushwork.

Sekimachi was 16 when the war broke out. The passage of Executive Order 9066 forced her family to get rid of everything with Japanese writing and leave most everything they owned on the floor of their home on Berkeley Way, to report to the Wartime

Civil Control Administration station on time. Fortunately, her mother worked for a family who offered to store some of their belongings; the first thing that Sekimachi put into a trunk for safekeeping was her collection of paper dolls.

Once they had arrived at Tanforan detention center in San Bruno, Calif., artists Obata and George Matsusaburo Hibi announced that they were organizing an art school, so Sekimachi and her younger sister painted every day and watched Obata demonstrate his techniques. Artist Miné Okubo and her brother Benji had lived across the street in Berkeley — Okubo had just returned from Europe — and was another influence in camp. Sekimachi remembers Okubo as a strong-willed woman who “walked around Tanforan and Topaz with a clipboard, and she drew every minute. I hung around her a lot.”

When the family was finally released, they landed in Cincinnati before returning to California. Sekimachi enrolled at Oakland’s College of Arts and Crafts, where she became captivated by the loom, and in the summer of 1954, she found her mentor Trude Guermonprez, which determined her path to become a weaver. With the last $150 she had, Sekimachi bought a loom and set it up in the family’s apartment, which was so cramped that she had to crawl under it to get into bed.

“Fiber is like clay,” said curator Jenelle Porter in an interview, “it’s one of the oldest human use materials, yet fiber as a material for art has long been confined by utilitarian status. Kay was picking up materials like latex, all kinds of forms and experimenting with its limitations.”

ON THE COVER: Kay Sekimachi, “Kiri IV,” 1993; Kiriwood paper, silk tissue, and chopstick; 7 x 10 in. Collection of Forrest L. Merrill. photo by Lee Fatheree

Sekimachi’s art brings so much pleasure, whether it is hanging on a wall, suspended from above, or standing of its own accord on the tensility of its fibers. There are persimmon and indigo checkered patterns and stripes that flow into loose knots, little skips of stitches. The show is a tight survey of her life’s work, and her Japanese American roots are evident everywhere, including the titles of her pieces.

She didn’t realize that both her grandmother and mother were skilled weavers until later.

“It turns out that during the offseason, the whole house was turned over to raising silkworms. My mother didn’t tell me that she was a weaver until way late and she shows me an obi she had made. My mother reeled the silk from four cocoons to make a single thread and then she woven and tie-dyed the cloth for an obi. It still has stitching lines she marked on the cloth with graphite, and I still have it. Then my mother pulls out samples that her mother had woven. Apparently, her mother was a good weaver, a good designer, and other women in the village would come and copy her patterns.”

“Curators make exhibitions for many reasons, among them to see art in person, to gather objects together in a gallery so that we might generate knowledge, context, and conversation,” said curator Porter. “Seeing Kay’s artwork in person after this long year of crises and closures will, I hope, be a kind of balm.”

Sekimachi loves to make art, and has become the art in the process, just as her grandmother once told her, “To be a good weaver, you have to be a thread.”

“Kay Sekimachi: Geometries” is on exhibit now through Oct. 24, 2021 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center St. in Berkeley, Calif. General admission is $10, free for BAMPFA members, UC Berkeley students, faculty, staff; 18 and under; one adult per child 13 and under. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Reserved timed tickets only. For more information, visit: https://bampfa.org/program/virtual/kay-sekimachi-geometries.

The Japanese American National Museum produced a short documentary in 2019 on Kay Sekimachi for their “Masters of Modern Design” project, which can be viewed online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch’v=DGt-CuCsabQ.

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