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Tracing Time and Place: The Paper Weavings of Emiko Nakano

Summer 2017
Summer 2017
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Steph Rue  is a 2015–2016 recipient of a Fulbright arts research grant to South Korea, where she studied traditional Korean bookbinding, papermaking, and printing. She is a recent MFA graduate from the University of Iowa Center for the Book. Her research interests include traditional hand papermaking and bookbinding in Asia, spirituality, and fiber arts, which she incorporates into her artist books and works on paper. I first encountered the work of Emiko Nakano in her home in Tokyo. It was the summer of 2014, and she was teaching me and another fiber artist how to make paper thread for shifu (woven paper cloth). Throughout the workshop, Nakano brought out examples of shifu that she either purchased at vintage shops or wove herself. Her samples demonstrated her technical prowess and her deep respect for the art of shifu. Then she brought out an example of her own artwork: a small tapestry woven with strips of soft calligraphy paper. It was a small, quiet piece. I remember the irresistible urge to touch it. The more time I spent with Nakano, the more I discovered the depth of her paper weavings, inspired by traditional techniques yet unafraid to explore and experiment both on and off the loom. Her dimensional weavings were unlike anything I had encountered before.

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Trained in textile weaving, Emiko Nakano began incorporating paper into her weavings in the early nineties after several years of living in Sao Paulo, Brazil. While in Sao Paulo, she was faced with the difficulty of finding ma¬terials for her work, and she began to think about limitations. She was reminded of an old kimono that she had seen long ago at Chido Muse¬um in Yamagata Prefecture. Though the kimono was woven with strips of paper from old account books, its beauty made a strong impression on her. She recalled her mother-in-law who was a wonderful calligrapher and had practice calligraphy paper available in abundance. As soon as she re¬turned to Tokyo, Nakano began weaving pieces with this calligraphy paper. "She was a good calligrapher," remarks Nakano about her mother-in-law, "so even her practice sheets were beautiful. I felt her existence and time in the paper."1 Nakano's paper pieces contain not only her mother-in-law's cal¬ligraphy, but also handwritten sutras, writing from old accounting books, printed mineral symbols, letters, and words. She is inter¬ested in embedding information in her work. One of the earlier pieces Nakano made with paper is a tapestry called Episode (1995). Inspired by the Rosetta Stone, the work features a stone-like form with motifs from the Andes. In the center are woven strips of paper containing names of loved ones that Nakano handwrote in both Jap¬anese and English. The surrounding space that frames the "stone" is woven with calligraphy paper. While the work contains ancient Andean motifs, it also holds traces of specific, personal memories and relationships recorded on paper and embedded in the piece. Shifu is traditionally woven with finely spun paper thread. Na¬kano prefers to use wider, unspun strips of paper as her weft, not only for their softness, but to embed hidden messages and to create unexpected patterns from the marks made on the paper. She also manipulates the pieces off the loom to create multi-layered, textural works. The words and characters, still visible in the fabric, are often rendered illegible in the finished product, but they create their own visual language—a landscape of memory that reminds the viewer of another time, another place. A long time ago, Nakano's friend gave her sands from Yueya Spring in Dunhuang, China. She looked at the sands through a mi¬croscope and discovered that they were made up of several colors. "I felt a history of a creation of the ground," says Nakano. "Since then I am collecting sands wherever I go."2 Pieces like Fragile Sphere (2006) contain symbols of these minerals from her collection, screen printed on paper, torn into small squares, and sewn onto water-soluble fabric. Other works, like Ruins (2006), contain hidden messages on paper that are cut and woven into tightly shrunken structures. "If you open up the paper of my work," Nakano explains, "you will find elements of the earth."3  Nakano is a voyager with a strong connection to her environ¬ment. Born in Tokyo in 1941, Nakano spent extended periods of time abroad, first at Cranbrook Academy of Art in the United States, then in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and has since taken multiple trips to the South American Andes, Asia, and the Middle East. In 2015, she completed a Japanese translation of a text on Anni Albers and an¬cient American textiles.4 Like Albers, Nakano has a deep admiration for textile art of the ancient past and looks to ancient cultures and distant lands as a guide for her current work. This accumulation of diverse experiences has shaped her con¬sciousness and takes expression in her explorations on the loom. Letters from Cambodia (2008) was inspired by a newspaper report about ancient writing discovered on excavated stone artifacts in Cambodia. In order to convey her memories and impressions of the country, she incorporated outlines that resemble the profiles of Buddhist pagodas seen at famous archeological sites in Cambodia.5 She carved ancient characters onto woodblocks and then printed the characters onto sheets of old, soft Japanese paper that she cut into strips and wove into tapestries using a multilayered weaving tech¬nique incorporating silk and silver foil, undulating on the surface. Besides her unique approach to shifu, Nakano employs another traditional technique developed in Japan for the kimono, chijimi (shrinkage). Chijimi is also the name of a kimono fabric that is wo¬ven with over-spun silk yarn, then steamed to form a crimped crêpe, shrinking down to sixty percent of the original size. Nakano applies this method to her shifu by placing her fabric (woven with strips of paper and twisted yarn) in water heated to 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit). The resulting piece shrinks to half the size of the original. Describing chijimi's effect on her work, Nakano says, "When the fabric ripples and shrinks to its final dimensions, the letters are crushed as time and information are compacted into the textural surface."6 Her use of these traditional weaving techniques is not solely to create a specific pattern or decorative motif, but to develop the possibilities of three-dimensional surfaces in the work.  A more recent technique that Nakano has developed with her paper weavings combines chijimi with a shibori resist-dyeing tech¬nique called itajime. Nakano folds her fabric, sandwiches it between two pieces of wood, clamped together, and then dyes it. When placed in hot water, the entire piece shrinks except for the clamped areas. The use of soft paper greatly affects the transformation pro¬cess, producing a fascinating multi-layered texture with varying degrees of shrinkage and legibility. Nakano calls this technique itajimi-chijimi. In Range (2007), Nakano wove soft washi, silk, and gold foil us¬ing a 16-harness computer-aided dobby loom to create large four-layered fabric. After using the itajimi-chijimi technique, the resulting monumental work, nearly 10 feet wide and 7 feet high, contains undulating layers of written and printed text, sumi ink marks, gold flecks, and persimmon-dyed washi, evoking a landscape rich with layers of memory.7 Nakano's most recent work, White Shadow (2016) incorporates similar techniques but with a limited palette of color and materials, exposing more of the subtleties of the paper weft and highlighting the original "paper-ness" of the work. Where¬as pieces like Range offer glimpses into a secret language rendered illegible by the weaving and shrinking process, White Shadow draws attention to the white, text-less areas, as if to suggest that the paper itself contains its own hidden language. The last time I met with Emiko Nakano was at a bar in Tokyo with several other paper and textile artists including Richard Flavin and Ryoko Haraguchi. Nakano had brought along her latest project: a white shifu jacket that she had constructed entirely on the loom. As she modeled the jacket for us, I was struck by the scene: a fine shifu garment woven in a contemporary style and worn by this exuberant person who was clearly delighted by the work of her hands and com¬pletely at ease modeling her creation in a crowded bar.  The memory reminds me of one of Nakano's works, Douhyou (2010), which means "milestone." The piece, made of silk and recycled paper, evokes a staircase, the inclined shape meant to ex¬press movement. Nakano describes many of her works in this way, "Although it can seem heavy like a stone, it is actually as light as paper can be."8 Douhyou's squat, square-ish shape is like a tangible  expression of her very existence; an homage to the accumulation of memories and experiences that make up who she is in the moment of creation. For Nakano, the activity of creating a work of art is a way of affirming the person she has come to be in the present. Nakano's spirit of exploration, both in her travels and on the loom, is captured in her deeply personal paper weavings, evoking a sense of both depth and lightness, both the permanent and the here and now.    notes 1. Emiko Nakano, e-mail message to the author, August 8, 2016.  2. Emiko Nakano, e-mail message to the author, August 26, 2016. 3. Emiko Nakano, e-mail message to the author, August 26, 2016. 4. The book Nakano translated is Virginia Gardner Troy, Anni Albers and Ancient American Textiles: From Bauhaus to Black Mountain (2002). 5. Emiko Nakano, quoted in "Emiko Nakano," from Fiber Futures: Japan's Textile Pioneers, exhibition catalog by Joe Earle and Hiroko Watanabe (New York: Japan Society, 2011), 56. 6. Emiko Nakano, e-mail message to the author, August 26, 2016. 7. Heather Allen-Swarttouw says of Nakano's itajime-chijimi work, "Reading the surface, one could be reminded of archeology, time-honored earth surfaces and structures of ancient civilizations." See Heather Allen-Swarttouw, "The Timeless Textiles of Emiko Nakano," Surface Design Journal vol. 32, no. 4 (Summer 2008): 34–39. 8. Emiko Nakano, e-mail message to the author, August 8, 2016.