December 16, 2015

When my friend and fabric artist Sumi was a child growing up in Osaka, Japan, she often spent the night at her grandmother’s house. Her Obā-san would bring out scraps of old kimono fabric and young Sumi enjoyed touching the silky cloth fragments and admiring their exquisite patterns. She soon learned from her grandmother how to sew and developed a love for this art form.

Years later, when she was in her twenties, she stopped by her grandmother’s in time to catch her preparing to throw out piles of old kimonos in a plastic bag. She asked to have them all, and at that moment her journey as a fabric artist began. For over two decades now, Sumi has cut up pieces of beautiful Japanese kimono fabric and lovingly sewn them together again by hand into textile mosaics, delicate collages that speak of a reconstructed connection to her homeland, her grandmother and traditions of Japanese beauty and femininity.

I met Sumi about 10 years ago at a craft shop in Pasadena, where she was exhibiting her lyrical textile collages and I was signing copies of my Arts of Asia book. We instantly hit it off. I was impressed and moved by her transformation of elegant, old kimono fragments into something even more exquisite and poetic. I also loved the little foxes that she often drew or embroidered onto her images. I had studied the symbolism of foxes, or kitsune, in Japanese folk culture for my undergraduate thesis so have found them intriguing ever since.

Besides her art, I was also enamored by Sumi’s positive energy and considerable warmth, which is immediately apparent in her dazzling smile. We vowed to keep in touch and have done fairly well over the decade, although she and her husband John live in Claremont, about 33 miles from Los Angeles. For years we kept in touch via the occasional email, but last year, when I was teaching for a semester at Scripps College in Claremont, I made a point of rekindling my friendship with Sumi and we enjoyed tea and chats together on a couple of happy occasions. For the whole of this year, I have been gathering up odd pieces of kimono fabric and saving them for her – an antique purple kimono I bought at a flea market in Kyoto when I was a student, brown silk men’s hakama pants I bought in a Tokyo antique store some years later, and assorted scraps which I’d planned to make into cute little gift bags or something, but of course never did.

Today, because I am less busy than usual this week and because it’s day 350 of My Giveaway, I treated myself to a drive out to Claremont to see Sumi and two other dear friends who I rarely see. I excitedly handed a small bag full of kimono fabric to Sumi. I can’t think of anyone who could put these pieces of fabric to more wonderful, poetic use than Sumi. I am sure they will be transformed into a haunting landscape or a mystical scene. Maybe she’ll embroider one of her cute little foxes onto one of them! That could be a problem, though, as I might have to buy it back!

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