In the spring of 1942, the United States forcibly relocated 130,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps, leaving behind their homes, jobs and friends with little more than a few suitcases and their pride. Among those interned from the Northern California Bay Area was the young San Francisco native Kay Sekimachi. Born in 1926, Sekimachi was sixteen years old when her family was relocated to Tanforan Assembly Center and then later to Topaz War Relocation Center for two years. After her time in the camps, she moved with her mother and two sisters to Berkeley and enrolled in classes at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now, California College of the Arts), in Oakland. She studied printmaking, but in 1949 she became “mesmerized by the weaving process,” during a visi to the CCAC textile department, notes Jill D’Alessandro, Curator of Textile Arts at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. After which, she took classes at Berkeley City College because they were more economical, joined weaving guilds, and worked in shops warping looms. (Warping is the process of threading the loom to prepare it for weaving; it references the “warp,” which are the vertical threads, while the horizontal threads are called the “weft”).
The real turning point in her career came when she met Trude Jalowetz Guermonprez (1910-1976). German-born and Bauhaus trained, Guermonprez came to the United States with the assistance of Annie Albers to teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina; she later came to CCAC, where Sekimachi returned to work under her tutelage. Sekimachi went on to become a pioneering weaver, using progressive techniques that pushed process and medium to new heights. She is best known for perfecting double, triple and quadruple weaves, which entail weaving numerous layers simultaneously that are then combined intermittently resulting in tubular hollow forms.
Currently on view is “Kay Sekimachi: Student, Teacher, Artist” in the T. B. Walker Textile Education Gallery at the de Young Museum in San Francisco (to November 6, 2016), featuring a small survey of Sekimachi’s groundbreaking works. The space is formal, with displays of small works protected behind glass cases that line the walls, dimly lit to protect the objects from fading. The works range from narrative pieces to abstract sculpture to a variety of woven boxes, vessels and woven books, such as Wave (ca. 1980), a humble accordion book measuring less than five inches square by eighteen inches. Only one piece hangs exposed to the elements, slowly spinning above a white platform. The piece is meticulously constructed; sinuous strands of black thin fibers cascade in long whips below an elegant arrangement of curved bands surrounding a tubular core. Titled Katsura (1971), it is one in a series of 25 sculptural hangings from 1964 to 1974, using nylon monofilament: fishing line. (The piece was recently acquired by the museum from the George and Dorothy Saxe Endowment Fund).
At the time the series was created, no one was weaving with this new industrial product recently invented by DuPont. “I felt like an explorer,” Sekimachi remarks in the exhibition brochure. She became enamored with the flexibility, delicacy and refinement of the smooth, plastic strands, dying the fibers black, which helps make each miniscule thread more visible, enhancing each tiny space between them. The work catapulted her career as an exhibiting artist. In 1970 she exhibited her monofilament sculptures at Lee Nordness Gallery in New York, at the pinnacle of her exploration with the materials. She continued to teach and show her work nationally and internationally; recently she was included in “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2012. Sekimachi was a key player in the textile movement in the 1960s and 1970s-she was in the vortex of a time of incredible experimentation and growth for the medium, particularly in the Bay Area.
Since textile’s resurgence, the medium continues to press against the traditional confines of mere fabric and domestic objects. Current trends in contemporary Bay Area weaving considers social and environmental issues, sound, photography, and even internet data as source material for the work. This past spring, Nancy Toomey Fine Art featured the work of Miya Ando, who was a long time San Francisco resident before recently relocating to New York. Her pioneering approach to materials utilizes patina techniques commonly associated with metalsmithing that she applies to woven silver nylon industrial fabric. Jack Fischer Gallery recently mounted a solo exhibition of Los Angeles-based Nike Schroeder’s mixed-media textile panels and thread pieces for a solo show titled “City Fold,” inspired by the industrial view from her downtown LA studio. The work “extracts beauty from the buildings and architecture,” she explains, “and is a reduction of what I see.” Employing a piece-work technique, Schroeder sews together linen panels that she has painted using acrylic and ink, piercing the fabric with thin threads that hang below the perimeter of the frames.
Sekimachi’s legacy continues to inspire contemporary textile artists, particularly those focused on industrial and technological impact on the environment, juxtaposed by the humanness and softness of textiles. Artist Tali Weinberg admires the way that Sekimachi pushed the loom to its limits, addressing notions of the body and nature by making “cerebral things with her hands.” Weinberg looks at data generated from the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration to create complex patterns based on the California drought. She assigns color to the bands of data fields generated from her research on an excel spread sheet, which then form the basis for her patterns, tapping into “the human aspect behind information,” she says.
Like Weinberg, artist Margo Wolowiec mines data from the internet to generate imagery for her sublimation ink weavings. For her solo exhibition in Los Angeles at Anat Ebgi this past winter, Wolowiec mounted large-scale wall works in addition to weavings on stretcher bars and placed them away from the wall, rendering them sculpture that can be viewed on all sides. Now based in New York, Wolowiec honed her skills in the Bay Area; she completed her MFA at CCA in 2014, studying with long-time faculty member Lia Cook. Cook was recently featured in a show at the Museum of Craft and Design, San Francisco titled “Lines That Tie: Carole Beadle and Lia Cook,” which highlighted the work of the two influential teachers at CCA (April 9 – August 7, 2016). Beadle recently retired as a tenured professor in textiles and is now professor emeritus, and has shown in numerous exhibitions over the years, in addition to receiving many national and international residencies in the US and abroad, including Japan, France and China.
The show includes key pieces from both Cook and Beadle that push the boundaries of material and challenge traditional notions of weaving. Two Lovers (1993) by Cook features a technique using strips of painted canvas and rayon, together forming a double-entendre trompe l’œil of draped fabric-yet the weaving itself is flat. Beadle’s Funneling Life (1999) uses red wire that is looped into a ten foot tall tornado-shaped cone. Also included were several weavers who have been influenced by or mentored with Cook and Beadle at CCA, including Wolowiec. Of note is the copper weaving by Christy Matson titled Digital Synesthesia (2005). The piece is twelve feet tall, and incorporates circuitry that responds as the viewer glides their hand over the metal fibers; sounds emanate from the speaker, ranging from shrill squeaks to ambient rustles.
Cook continues to prolifically show her work, and s
till teaches weaving at CCA, where she has spearheaded a jacquard weaving residency program that began in 2014, and has been offered to textile alumni Kate Nartker, Johanna Friedman, and Tali Weinberg. In addition, Cook recently exhibited in a group show, “Fiber Art Master Works” at Fresno Art Museum (May 20 – August 28, 2016), while both Cook and Weinberg showed their work earlier this year in “FiberSHED,” curated by Patricia Watts, curator at the Marin Community Foundation. The exhibition gathered 24 fiber artists, primarily from the Bay Area, including Kate Nartker and Esther Traugot, as well as artists from Los Angeles, Michigan and New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, at the age of 90, Sekimachi continues to explore new ground. Her new work is an homage to minimalist artist Agnes Martin. In tandem, the two of them have explored both the comfort and potential of the grid; in Martin’s case the painted grid, and in Sekimachi’s case, the grid created with the intersecting warp and weft of the loom. Sekimachi championed the “feminist grid,” says Weinberg. Also on view at the de Young is a perfect pairing for Sekimachi’s solo exhibition and her new work: “On the Grid: Textiles and Minimalism,” an exhibition featuring antiquities and contemporary works. Sumatran shoulder wraps from the early 19th century and Zen Buddhist priest robes circa 1603 to 1886 highlight the contemplative and solitary nature of weaving in poignant ways; while contemporary works honor tradition in new forms, such as Japanese Hiroyuki Shindo’s Untitled ikat piece (1984), and American Rebecca R. Medel’s monumental wire weaving Wall of Windows (1990). Although Sekimachi’s trajectory started with a path she was forced to take, she found her footing through innovative techniques that paved the way for generations to follow, making weaving more than personal, domestic objects, but rather an experimental art form with global significance. Her inventive work joins a lasting legacy, as part of a still-expanding Bay Area tradition.