Late last year I had some interesting conversations and encounters that kept bringing up the question of art/craft relating to textiles. 
When I was in Kanazawa late last November. I happened to visit Nagamachi Yuzen-kan, a Yuzen atelier, display room and giftshop headed by Teranishi Ikko. I only ended up there by chance after seeing a sign on a corner in the old Samurai Residence district that mentioned “Yuzen”. (hooray for being able to read Kanji!) While I was there, I mentioned to the gallery assistant that I am studying yuzen and she hurried off to introduce me to Teranishi-san who kindly sat down and had a cup of tea and a chat with me about all things Kaga-yuzen (a variation of yuzen unique to the Kanazawa area).

dyeing work in progress at Nagamachi Yuzen-kan
Teranishi-san’s business card reads Kaga Yuzen Artist, although his approach to his work is fundamentally as a craftsman. His atelier used to have 30 or 40 assistants working in the various stages of Kaga Yuzen kimono production but with the shift away from traditional kimono culture, he now has only a few assistants and mainly creates Kimono for individual orders. He puts great importance on technique and has even published two textbooks on Kaga Yuzen techniques and principles for students and those who entered his studio as apprentices. 

Room full of Teranishi-san’s kimono at Nagamachi Yuzen-kan


In listening to what he had to say it was apparent that he doesn’t think much of those putting an artistic bent on Kaga Yuzen.  He said something like “Self-expression doesn’t really serve any purpose in the real world”. This seemed a rather sad thought to me. That is, he places value in well executed, useable and classically beautiful Kaga Yuzen, as opposed to individualistic kimono made for competitive exhibitions or to advance the name of particular maker. In this sense you could say he typifies the Japanese shokunin-san (craftsman)

Unlike Kyoto-style Yuzen which can tend toward traditional patterns and elaborate decoration, Kaga-yuzen is known for the realistic depiction of flowers and plants, based upon strong observation and drawing skills. In Japanese, this is called shassei, the kanji of which mean to copy life 「写生」. It seems to me that this is quite an ‘Art’ based practice.

Kaga-yuzen places emphasis on sketching from life and observation


 Teranishi-san described the point of shassei nicely,

“There is nothing pointless in Nature. Everything faces toward the sun, reaching up from the roots. Thick parts are thick; there are leaves that shrivel up with the seasons, the ways that leaves extend outwards…all of these are part of Japanese visual tradition and patterns. But you don’t draw these by imitating existing patterns, you go and sketch nature yourself… In a photograph, the beauty of nature is captured as is. But there’s absolutely nothing interesting about a drawing that’s exactly like a photograph.”

To Teranishi-san, true art is found in nature and the craftsman is reproducing it, try as he might with inaccuracies, and this is his craft. In Teranishi-san’s view, however, the Yuzen maker is not simply replicating or modifying old patterns but sketching from nature with intent and modifying what they see, 

“In an art drawing or painting, the artist’s inability is always somewhat present. But that’s not really inability. A true lack of ability is to leave everything up to nature. In our dyeing and craft fields, we may study and study all we like but we will never measure up to nature; that inadequacy always remains. But…that inability, that simplicity, that’s a really precious thing.”

I don’t think it matters where on the spectrum or where in the imagined borders of textiles one sits. It concerns me a little that some makers, teachers, students or galleries are so determined to call themselves craft based or art based or whatever.

In rejecting the artistic possibilities of taking Kaga-yuzen outside the box of traditional Kimono or Noren formats, artisans like Teranishi-san would appear to be selfishly preventing the technique from developing into and adapting to the future. Likewise, when a Gallery starts saying that works made using a “traditional craft” technique are outside the borders of contemporary art then what happens to traditional techniques in the future? Where are they to be showcased or continued?
I think if it weren’t for the borders being drawn between ‘art’ and ‘craft’ by the powers that be (such as galleries, schools, juried exhibitions, art societies) we probably wouldn’t question what we make at all. Our work would be our work. We could straddle both worlds of craft and art; of traditional technique and contemporary art. Why not go ahead and incorporate design, 3D and functional elements too and pieces made merely (some might call it merely) for creative expression?
If we go ahead and slot ourselves into where our teachers and audience are saying we fit, we lose the chance to make new discoveries, to create new ideas, to be innovative.