Exhibition | Mottainai: The Fabric of Life @ Portland Japanese Garden

We just passed through Portland, OR on our tour and my wife and kids drove down from Vashon to hang out for the day.  We took a trip to the Portland Japanese Garden and besides the sheer beauty, inexplicable calm, and for me, the tinge of nostalgia I feel in traditional Japanese settings, I happened to stumble upon perhaps the coolest exhibition I could’ve ever stumbled upon.  I just about lost my mind when I saw all the patchwork boro and aizome (indigo-dyed) fabrics hanging in a room through a pair of sliding glass doors.  A room full of antique Japanese folk textiles.  Antique…Japanese…Folk…Textiles.  Each of those words alone puts my nerd-out into overdrive.

I didn’t get to spend even a fraction of the time I would have wanted to in there since we had our kids with us, but I blew through the exhibition and took in as much as I could.  I loved everything about it.  I go nuts over traditional Japanese fabrics and especially traditional aizome indigo.  I also found out later that the exhibition was largely comprised of Stephen Szczepanek’s private collection who’s site and blog is a frequent visit of mine (and if I would keep up more with my internet reading, I would have known about this ahead of time).

If you live in the area I would highly recommend a visit.  I’m almost considering a trip back down after I get home since the exhibition will still be running.  Here’s an excerpt from the exhibition’s page detailing more about the fabrics and history behind it all:

“This exhibition of antique Japanese folk textiles from the Meiji period (1868-1912) is comprised of selections from the private collections of Stephen Szczepanek (suh-PAN-ecks) of Sri in Brooklyn and Kei Kawasaki of Gallery Kei in Kyoto. The exhibition demonstrates the remarkable ability of the Japanese to not only make do with the very little they had, but to make art with it.

For generations before the “Economic Miracle” took place in the decades following World War II, Japan was a poor country. People recycled everything. Nothing was wasted, and the word “mottainai” (waste nothing!) was a ubiquitous exclamation used by every frugal parent to warn children about wasting a bite of food or a scrap of cloth or paper.

All of the textiles and garments on view were made from bast fibers foraged from the forest, or patched and quilted together from second-hand scraps of cotton garments of city-dwellers who traded their hand-me-downs with the farmers for rice and vegetables.

The exhibition represents a wide variety of traditional textile making and decorating techniques, including sashiko stitching, bast fiber weaving and dyeing, and patchwork quilting, the latter referred to as boro.”

“Kei explains, “The old adage about saving patches of cloth large enough to wrap 3 beans came from a time when all textiles were precious. People in pre-industrial Japan would patch together various bits of cloth in long rolls. Until the modern era, cotton was difficult to come by in rural areas, especially in northern Japan. Farmers’ clothes were made from hand-spinning such things as linden bark, wisteria vines and kudzu vines. Used washi paper was also cut into strips, hand-spun and woven with cotton to create shifu, an excellent light textile with subtle black highlights from the sumi ink inscriptions written on the paper during its earlier ‘incarnation.’ Nothing was wasted.”

Editor’s note: It’s interesting that the term “mottainai” and the frugality it represents still resonates with the Japanese.  It was a term I heard frequently growing up and still remember my mom making me finish literally every single grain of rice, telling me, “Mottainai.  The farmers worked hard over every grain of rice.  It’s not to be wasted.”  Clearly a leftover sentiment from economically insulated and post-war Japan.

The exhibition will be held until Nov 27th.  Here’s the official site for more info.

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