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
|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,
|Hisako Sekijima, untitled basket (detail), 1989;
hinoki bark; 13.75 by 13 by 4 inches.
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
|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.
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
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
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
Nancy Moore Bess is a basketmaker and author of Bamboo
in Japan, published in 2001 by Kodansha International.