Kakuko Ishii, Musubu R, 2012, Washi paper (Mizuhiki) and pigment • Courtesy of the artist

“Washi,” meaning “Japanese paper,” is known for its strength and versatility. In Japan, it has been used for art forms as diverse as calligraphy, fashion and architecture. Made from wood pulp, washi has long fibers that give it toughness.

Washi Transformed, an exhibit at the Bellevue Arts Museum, displays 37 pieces from nine artists illustrating how the resilience of the paper can transcend international borders and portray versatile and complex messages and stories.

Yuko Kimura has created a piece called “Indigo Mushikui,” which means “insect nibbles,” referring to the insect bites taken out of the paper as time passes, often deeming the paper damaged or unusable. Kimura, on the other hand, classifies the worm-eaten paper as “wabi sabi” which translates to the beauty of imperfection and age, respectively. To some, the worm-eaten parts give the paper a map-like image with the indigo-dyed parts resembling water.

With hopes of preserving the practice of washi paper making for future generations, washi artist Eriko Horiki centers her work on “creating living washi forms in architectural spaces.” She makes washi in a way that allows for lighting to affect her pieces.

“In this way, I create spaces that allow one to feel the passage of time as the direction of the amount of light changes” said Horiki.

She has created a Six-Panel Folding Screen that, when illuminated, exposes a large flower with by symmetrical designs and patterns surrounding it. It is interesting to consider how light changes throughout the day and how that may affect the design on the panels, giving the piece a dynamic effect; it encourages the consideration of the future and the past as well as the present.

Kyoko Ibe, who began working with washi in the 1960s, has created Hanging Sail. She has connected nineteen sheets of kozo washi paper together in a zig-zag formation, resembling sails of old ships; however, the sails “lie horizontally to form a vertical tower” meaning that rather than moving the sails, “the air between them serves to lend the whole structure volume and scale.”

“[Washi] is perfectly adapted to express an eco-aesthetic sensibility which can carry us into the future with beauty and mindfulness of our fragile, precious natural world” said Ibe.

A clear theme of this exhibit is how nature plays an active role in the products of washi. Throughout the exhibition, the artists either directly address the relationship between humans and nature like in Ayomi Yoshida’s piece, “Blessed Rain,” which serves as commentary on climate change, or discreetly imply said relationship like in Kakuko Ishii’s piece “Japanese Paper Strings Musubu W1,” that portrays mizuhiki cord sculptures that form a sort of forest that also resembles a gathering of people.

‘Washi Transformed’ is open at the Bellevue Arts Museum through April 26, 2024. For more information, visit their website. 

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