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ARTICLE ARCHIVE
Summer 2002

FEATURE

Hisako Sekijima: Explorer of Fiber Boundaries
By Nancy Moore Bess

Hisako Sekijima has led the sculptural-basketry movement in Japan through her experimentation with form and materials.

Hisako Sekijima, Interacted Holes, 2001; plaited walnut; 8 by 9.5 by 9.5 inches. Photo by the artist.

At her core, Hisako Sekijima is the quintessential basketmaker-sculptor. She says of herself that she has expanded "the boundary well beyond what I once thought of as the domain of basketry." In her many and multifaceted roles, she is at once a collector, a teacher, and a model. She gathers materials from nature; perpetually seeks new ideas, forms, concepts, and techniques; and attracts lifelong friends with warmth and caring. As a teacher, she is a sharer of techniques, provocative questions, and determined problem solving. And as a model, she is a much admired representative of the international fiber world-maker, teacher, observer, traveler, curator, writer, and conduit.

Hisako Sekijima, untitled basket (detail), 1989; hinoki bark; 13.75 by 13 by 4 inches.

Early Influences
When Sekijima first came to the United States in the 1970s, her work was recognized as highly skilled traditional rattan basketry. This form of basketry includes techniques, such as twining and wickerwork, that were already part of American students' working vocabulary, so they were able to assimilate and enjoy Sekijima's Japanese "skew" on this genre. Her first years in New York, however, offered much more than teaching opportunities. She met and worked with basketmakers such as John McQueen and Sandra Newman, who introduced her to new ways of thinking about basketry; new approaches to analyzing volume, mass, and space; and new insights on the work of earlier times and ancient peoples. Her interest in producing traditional forms and her own use of processed rattan materials were soon forsaken. Her professional life was forever changed.

Departing from Tradition
When Sekijima began to explore the use of natural materials in some depth, she was living in the Riverdale section of New York City and very near Wave Hill, an urban nature preserve. She asked the groundskeepers about gathering materials, and their positive response resulted in a 1984 exhibition, "Nature Transformed," dedicated to Wave Hill. Since then, her basketry has continued to depart significantly from traditional forms and now involves few of the techniques that are labeled in mainstream basketry books. In Contemporary International Basketmaking, by Mary Butcher (London: Merrell Holberton), she describes revisiting traditional techniques when she is "interested in re-examining or conceptualizing one of its natures." Most of her work, however, is constructed using natural materials in techniques that she has developed or adapted. When her work is described as knotted, it doesn't mean a traditional half hitch; her own methods are, as she says, "less regular and less economical," but she likes their "ambiguity."

Hisako Sekijima, Bound Space, 1997; knotted apricot; 18.5 by 14 by 3 inches.

Because she gathers her plants from the wild, she works with irregular, unpredictable materials. She is quick to point out that there are frequently "conflicts between my intent and what the material permits." It is her willingness to explore anew each material she works with and to utilize it to its best potential that characterizes the work she has produced during the last two decades. From that open, exploratory spirit, a wide variety of styles and forms have emerged. In From the Earth (1990), for example, she stitched varying-width strips of zelkova into open random plaiting. The vessels are organic in a way that a similarly constructed piece of bamboo or rattan would not be, and the lines are muted and less hard-edged. The four pieces are lively and energetic, whether mounted on the wall or displayed on a flat surface. The shadows that result when light flows through and over the pieces extend the work beyond its woven form.

It is important when viewing Sekijima's work, as it is with all artwork, to examine and absorb the work first, before reading her commentary or that of the gallery. It is also necessary to look at the work from varying distances and perspectives. For example, Bound Space (1997), knotted of apricot, appears flat from a distance-a series of varying-width diagonal lines that are balanced by geometric spaces of equal import. Seen in sunlight, shadows add a new dimension. But viewed up close, the depth and volume of the work are revealed. In describing this, Sekijima says, "I seem either to build up or fracture a volume"-a statement that could be aptly applied to her other work as well. In Bound Space, the personality of the apricot is barely controlled. There is tension between the angular material and the negative spaces. One's eye jumps from space to space, from twist to knot to textured line.

Hinoki bark, hemp palm bark, hackberry bark and twigs, walnut bark, ginger sheath, cedar, zelkova, and more-each is gathered, handled, evaluated, and experimented with. A few will be manipulated into a vessel on site, but most will take years to be resolved into a completed basket, wall hanging, or vessel. Only when Sekijima is comfortable with the dialogue between the material and the technique will she allow the resulting structure to be exhibited and to carry her name. In Contemporary Japanese Sculpture (New York: Abbeville Press), Janet Koplos writes that her work "cannot be physically or conceptually distinguished from sculpture."

Sekijima with some of her work in 1994. All photos, unless otherwise credited, are by Tom Grotta, courtesy of browngrotta arts, Wilton, Connecticut.

Experimental Teaching
In the early 1980s, Sekijima returned to Japan after her extended residency in New York. She was brimming with new ideas, stimulation, and new focus, all reflected in her teaching. It was during her five-day intensive workshops at the renowned Kawashima Textile School in Kyoto (1981-1991, 1996-1998, 2000-2001) and her year-long courses at the Tokyo Textile Kenkyujo in Tokyo (1982-1991) that she first introduced this nonfunctional, contemporary approach to basketry. No longer was she discussing traditional techniques suitable for baskets for decoration, flower arranging, and kitchen use. Sekijima was exploring new territory for Japanese basketry. Today, some of the workshop participants who worked with her for years continue her tradition. Even now when their work is exhibited alongside hers, they refer to her as sensee- "respected teacher."

In her classes, they experimented with materials far removed from the processed rattan products so popular for teaching. Sekijima introduced shredded bark, paper packing tape, fiber cut from silkworm cocoons, strapping tape, and more. They analyzed the structure of traditional baskets from other cultures, the stitching of Japanese samurai armor, braiding from the Andes-and reapplied this information toward new combinations. As Pat Hickman explains in Baskets: Redefining Volume and Meaning (Honolulu: University of Hawaii), "...they studied carefully, not as an anthropologist analyzes, but as an artist sees." They asked themselves questions about mass, volume, line, shadow, and positive and negative space and incorporated this information to produce new results. They, like Sekijima and increasing numbers of fiber artists, continue to feel that "process and materials, and form and content, are always essential," Hickman writes. Hickman pleas, "A name for this new work must be found, a name which catches up with what has happened."

Examining Attitudes
In 1986, Sekijima published her first major English-language book, Basketry: Projects from Baskets to Grass Slippers (Tokyo: Kodansha International). The book was a treasure-beautiful and informative. The text revealed both her passion for understanding how to approach natural materials and her ability to clearly articulate her point.

A recent project was curating the Japanese participants in a 2001 exhibition at browngrotta arts in Wilton, Connecticut, "Japan: Under the Influence." In the catalogue's introductory essay, Sekijima called for "a comparison of contemporary baskets and nonfunctional bamboo baskets, one which examines attitudes toward the material, the manner in which such baskets are created, and the issues confronted by artists following the new paths and the old." "Examines" is the key word in this statement; it reflects the focused energy in her work. Sekijima is both cerebral (examining/probing) and emotional (sensually responsive). It is this combination that sets her apart as maker, writer, and curator.

Hisako Sekijima, From the Earth, 1990; stitched zelkova; 10 by 12 by 15, 7.5 by 15 by 17, 5 by 16 by 16, and 5 by 7 by 7 inches.

Sekijima's work has appeared in many venues around the world, and she has worked with both famous and unknown artists in Brazil, Canada, England, France, and the U.S. But will Hisako Sekijima, so highly regarded in Europe and the Americas, be formally recognized by the Japanese government as a national cultural asset? Perhaps not. Sekijima has moved against popular current for more than 20 years at some considerable personal sacrifice on her part. She was the exception--in Western terms, the renegade. Although now respected by many in Japan, sought after as adviser and authority, she remains outside the formal hierarchy of traditional basketry there. Her recognition, for now, comes from other highly regarded artists, her former students, collectors who earnestly vie for her newest work, gallery owners, and art authorities (including Jack Lenor Larsen, Rupert Faulkner, and Janet Koplos).

A distinguished few fiber artists can be acclaimed as having changed perspectives on fiber-Arai, Larsen, Liebes, McQueen, Rossbach. To this list, the name Sekijima must now be added.

In June, Hisako Sekijima's work will be featured in a solo show at the Tokyo International Forum exhibition space, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, Japan. She also has work in "Survey Fiber 2002" at the Snyderman-Works Galleries in Philadelphia (through May 30) and in the "Basketry Annual" exhibition at Itami Craft Center, Itami-shi, Hyogo, Japan, through May 12.

Previously unidentified quotes in the article are from catalogues published by the gallery browngrotta arts for their 1997, 1998, and 2001 exhibitions featuring Hisako Sekijima's work. See page 78 of the print magazine for catalogue ordering information.

Nancy Moore Bess is a basketmaker and author of Bamboo in Japan, published in 2001 by Kodansha International.

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Summer 2002





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