Portrait of Kay Sekimachi, 2004.  Photo by Charles Frizzell
Portrait of Kay Sekimachi, 2004.
Photo by Charles Frizzell

In the Realm of Nature is an exhibition that can be appreciated on many levels. The 100-plus works by textile artist Kay Sekimachi and woodworker Bob Stocksdale are beautiful objects distinguished by ingenious design, purity of form, and an intimacy with nature in their use of materials. But a deeper look into the techniques of weaving and wood-turning reveals a mastery of their respective crafts that will amaze the viewer.

These two artists were at the forefront of a movement that elevated craft media to fine art in the second half of the 20th century. Even prior to their marriage in 1972, they were on parallel paths. Both grew up during the Depression under hardscrabble circumstances: Sekimachi in a single-parent household in San Francisco, Stocksdale on a small farm in Indiana. Both were incarcerated during the World War II: Sekimachi as one of 110,000 Japanese Americans removed from the west coast to concentration camps; Stocksdale as a conscientious objector in Civilian Public Service camps. But in those camps, both had formative artistic experiences. At the Topaz (UT) Relocation Center, Sekimachi studied art in classes organized by Chiura Obata, a professor from the University of California at Berkeley. She found a female role model in Mine Okubo, a painter who had worked with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. At a CPS camp in Michigan, Stocksdale turned his first bowl and met a Quaker peace activist who became his first art dealer. Assignment to a camp in California connected him to Bay Area hardwood dealers, retailers, and museums.

There were also distinct differences in their backgrounds. Stocksdale completed high school, but his real education was the hands-on experience he got in his grandfather’s hardware store and his uncle’s tinsmith’s shop. Of necessity, he made tools and repaired machinery needed to run the family farm; improvisation, ingenuity, independence, and conservation of resources characterized his studio practice. The bowl form became his sole artistic focus; growth and innovation came in his use of unconventional and exotic woods and his continuous refinement of shapes. He studied museum collections and the work of his contemporaries, but often said that Sekimachi was his only major influence.

Sekimachi was academically trained and acknowledged many influences. At the California College of Arts and Craft, she studied under Trude Guermonprez, a Bauhaus-trained weaver who led her to the pointillist color-work of painter Paul Klee, an effect recreated in her early tapestries. Drawing on her own Japanese background and travels, and the work of her contemporaries, she explored traditional techniques: cardweaving, ikat dyeing, split-ply twining, and origami-like folded forms. Sekimachi has created several distinct and ongoing bodies of work in a range of techniques and materials, both on and off the loom.

Bob Stocksdale & Kay Sekimachi Black Walnut (California) Bowl & Paper Bowl, 1992 Wood patterned by Mistletoe Roots. 5 x 5 1/2" Hornet's nest, Kozo paper: Laminated with wallpaper paste. 5 x 5 1/2 in. Collection of Kay Sekimachi Photo: M. Lee Fatherree
Bob Stocksdale & Kay Sekimachi Black Walnut (California) Bowl & Paper Bowl, 1992
Wood patterned by Mistletoe Roots. 5 x 5 1/2″
Hornet’s nest, Kozo paper: Laminated with wallpaper paste. 5 x 5 1/2 in.
Collection of Kay Sekimachi
Photo: M. Lee Fatherree

The genius of Sekimachi’s weaving is that the design is entirely executed on the loom; there is no cutting or sewing, no dyeing or printing of the finished cloth. All six sides of simple box shapes are woven in one piece; once the weaving is complete, they assume three dimensions without further construction. The colors of her sheer room dividers, folded books, and obi-like hanging pieces were applied to the warp (lengthwise) threads before weaving, not printed on the cloth. Her greatest achievements are complex multi-layered structures of nylon filament. Several feet long, these works were woven in one continuous piece; off the loom, the stiffness of the filament makes them open out into three dimensions. It is hard to imagine them lying flat when looking at the billowing tubular translucent forms. Sekimachi’s ability to conceive and execute the most complex woven structures never overtook her artist’s instinct for beautiful shapes and surfaces. Sometimes nature is inspiration as in the jellyfish-like sculptures of nylon filament. Away from the loom, her materials come from nature and nature is the primary determinant of form. Leaves, wasps nest pulp, or wood veneer paper are folded or collaged into vessels. Seashells are woven into jewelry. In a poignant collaboration, she used Stocksdale’s bowls as forms for some of her own.

“He could take a log and imagine what was inside it,” Sekimachi recalled fondly. Admired as the “father of American wood-turning,” Stocksdale focused on a seemingly simple form, the bowl, and never lost interest. Typically, a wood bowl is formed by placing a log lengthwise in the lathe and carving away material parallel to the growth rings. Stockdale challenged himself by working in a wide variety of woods, some considered too hard or their grain too unpredictable or too flawed for other purposes. With consummate skill and an intuition for what is hidden, he would work across the grain or asymmetrically to turn irregularities such as knots, spalting (fungal discoloration), insect holes, and unusual grain patterns into unique design features. Several pieces retain the lighter-colored sapwood near the surface, giving these bowls a bright undulating edge. In his quest to work with the wood in whatever condition it presented itself, he made nature his collaborator.

‘In the Realm of Nature’ is on view at the Bellevue Arts Museum through October 18. Signe Mayfield, curator of the exhibition, will give a talk on October 2 at 7:00 p.m. at the museum. A catalog of the exhibition is available. Information at (425) 519-0770 or www.bellevuearts.org.

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Editor’s note (8/15/15 at 4:24 p.m.): An edit was made to correctly attribute a caption of the M. Lee Fatheree photo and to clarify that the exhibit features 100-plus works.

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