THE MYSTERY OF IKAT

Ikat is all the rage these days. 

It seems that every furniture catalogue I pick up, boasts ikat fabric in one form or another – either on the upholstery, throw pillows, or other decorative accessories for the home.

What is this fascination with ikat?

Well, I’m not sure I know the answer.

However, as a museum docent, I can share with you that the Seattle Asian Art Museum is now hosting an exhibit titled “Colors of the Oasis” that features – you guessed it – a collection  of ikat robes from Central Asia.

The title is apt, because this commonly worn outerwear is colorful beyond belief.

The patterns are intricate, and the process of creating them even more so.

Ikat textiles are characterized by their distinct, abstract patterns – with a tell-tale flame-like, or blazing, edge.

The technique  – known as a warp-faced weave – is part tie-dye, part resist-dying and extremely complex.

It boggles the mind to even try and understand how these stunningly beautiful fabrics are made.

At least, that’s what it does to my mind.

Yet in Central Asia, where this particular style of dress has long been the norm, the tying, dying, and weaving of this fabric was also the norm during the 19th century and up until recent times.

The term ikat (pronounced e-kat) is derived from a Malay word that means “to tie” or “to bind”.

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ARE YOU EVOLVING?

“These objects have a lot of baggage coming with them. They have a lot of stories.”  Do Ho Suh, artist

Seattle Art Museum is currently hosting a fabulous exhibit titled “LUMINOUS, The Arts of Asia”.

Based entirely on the SAM’s own, internationally renowned collection of Asian Art, this show – on view until January 8, 2012 – is not be missed!

The above quote references the ancient objects in the museums’ collection, and the fact their condition has deteriorated over time.

Not only that, the location has changed as well, along with the original meaning and purpose.

Indeed, everything has shifted along with the original meaning, and the stories behind them have been lost to us over the centuries.

And these objects do have stories have to tell, something which isn’t immediately noticeable in a museum setting.

Most of us never give this a second thought, but here’s the thing.

Of the many works of art housed in museums, we rarely consider the fact that we are viewing them out of context, far from their original location and purpose.

Take for example, a Buddhist sculpture, an object of worship that would have been housed in a sacred temple centuries ago.

Today, viewed in a museum setting, the sense of sacredness has been diminished. We know from the accompanying labels what the object is, plus where and when it was made, but little else.

We need to be reminded that this sacred Buddha – viewed against white walls and under electric lights – is a far cry from the dark interior of an ancient temple, dimly lit with candles and burning incense.

If only these objects could speak, the mystery of their past lives would unfold before our eyes!

Of course, in the absence of ancient works of art that can speak, museum curators and archeologist do the work, analyzing and exploring the evidence before them.

And the stories begin to reveal themselves.

“Like humans, objects also have baggage, and the more ancient they are, the more encumbered they become.”  Do Ho Suh, artist

Likewise, the objects in our homes can encumber us and weigh us down.

In this sense, an interior designer is a little like a museum curator, analyzing and exploring the evidence laid out before her.

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NICK CAVE, SOUND SUITS & “MORE IS MORE”

Have you heard about the Sound Suits that have invaded Seattle?  

If you’ve been following me on Facebook, or Twitter, you’ve likely seen some of my posts or tweets, referencing the artist Nick Cave and his amazing Sound Suits, currently on view at the Seattle Art Museum in an exhibit titled:

“Meet Me At The Center of the Earth”.

As a museum Docent, I’m lucky enough to be touring this show. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of leading 2nd & 6th Graders through the exhibit, inviting them to let their imaginations soar as we explored this strange new world.

So – what exactly IS a Sound Suit?

According to the artist, Nick Cave, the first Sound Suit was born when he was sitting on a park bench, and noticed a twig lying on the ground. That single twig was the spark for his future creations.

With a background in fashion and design, and the Rodney King incident fresh in his mind, he had the idea to create a protective garment.

So, the single twig became a mountain of twigs that were painstakingly cut to size, pierced at one end, and sewn onto cloth. The result was a pair of pants and a shirt, made to fit the artist.

It was then he realized he’d basically created a suit.

He slipped it on – carefully, I presume, since it was made of twigs – and when he started to move, he noticed the twigs made a sound.

It was a happy accident, yet the Sound Suit had been born.

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WHEN IS A CHAIR NOT JUST A CHAIR?

The Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) has just opened a new exhibit of contemporary works by Chinese artist Wang Huaiqing.

Not being familiar with this artist, I had no idea what to expect when I first stepped into the galleries last week, yet I was completely captivated by what I saw.

Almost all of Wang Huaiqing’s paintings have a central theme of furnishings and architectural features.

The interior designer in me was fascinated and very pleased. I was seeing a whole new take on furniture!

This particular artist views furniture as a microcosm of Chinese architecture and society. It comes as no surprise, then, that in some of the paintings there is a very fine line between the two.

Hence a painting of architectural columns, or pillars, seems to morph into something else.

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"GOGH"ING TO CHICAGO

Thorne Room Collection - miniature 18th century English Entrance Hall of the Georgian Period c.1775

Miniature 18th Century English Entrance Hall

Well, I am not so much going to Chicago as returning.

Last week I traveled to Chicago with a group of  fellow docents from the Seattle Art Museum.

As you might imagine, our trip was heavily focused on art and architecture, due to a shared love of art and design.

With a few goals in mind, we set off to explore the city, beginning with a scenic tour on the top level of a  double decker bus.

As the tour guide talked, the wind kicked up a storm. (I would suggest bringing a hat, except that it would likely not remain on your head for very long).

Still, this trolley will take you anywhere you want to go. You can get on and off at will, and continue the journey at whatever pace you choose.

Did you know that Chicago’s nickname “The Windy City” has nothing to do with the weather?

Seems the term “windy” was in reference to some rather windy politicians. It was ironic to hear this tidbit of information while the wind was blowing off the lake and whipping our hair.

It was an educational moment.

Our next stop was the Art Institute of Chicago, a museum that has been high on my list for many years. Up until now, I’d never had the opportunity to see it.

So many famous paintings and other treasures were on view, that it literally took my breath away. I enjoyed a wonderful afternoon browsing through gallery after gallery, taking in one surprise after another.

The Van Gogh painting of “The Bedroom” below, has been an all-time favorite of mine.  What a delightful surprise it was to find that it was at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Being the Van Gogh fan that I am, I don’t know how this small detail eluded me.

VanGogh 'Bedroom' at the Chicago Art Institute
VanGogh ‘Bedroom’ at the Art Institute of Chicago

This famous painting is an intimate portrait of Van Gogh’s bedroom, when he lived in the Yellow House, in Arles. This is the same house that he shared, briefly, with Gauguin before their famous fight that ended with Van Gogh cutting off part of his left ear.

Yet it is a simply furnished, tranquil room that offers no hint of what was to come.

I am such a fan of this painting, that I even have a miniature version of it in my home.

Speaking of miniatures, I have to admit that the absolute highlight for me was viewing the Thorne Rooms, located on the lower level of the museum.

I first learned of these miniature rooms many years ago, and vowed that I would eventually have the opportunity to see them in person. Well, I finally had that chance, and it exceeded my wildest expectations.

Suffice it to say, that the level of craftsmanship that went into creating this collection of 68 period rooms, all in miniature scale, is absolutely incredible.

But then, Mrs. Thorne, the woman behind the visions, had the financial means to do so. She employed the best artisans to carry out her designs, and never settled for second-best.

The amazing result transports one to a different world, where you can travel back in time to 16th century France, England, or even early American homes, dating back to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, if not before.

In every room, there are clear signs of an unknown occupant. For whatever reason, that person has just vacated the room, leaving behind a teeny tiny book resting on the sofa, with a pair of miniscule spectacles nearby.

A table is set for tea, complete with teapot and porcelain teacups. On the sideboard, there might be a silver coffee service, with an interrupted embroidery project resting near a window. A multitude of miniature books lines the bookshelves.

Every room contains one or more windows, and the attention to detail extends to the views outside. Trees provide much needed shade in the heat of summer, and flowers bloom in the garden. We can see a hint of the house next door, or a city street in the dead of winter.

It is a place where imaginations can thrive.

Frank Lloyd Wright "Prairie Style" Home

Frank Lloyd Wright "Prairie Style" Hom

On our final day in Chicago, we took a two hour Architectural Walking Tour, that wove thru city streets and told the story of Chicago’s architectural history.

The architectural styles changed from classical to Art Deco, and hints of something in between. The tour included the Auditorium building by architectural firm Adler & Sullivan -currently hosting the Joffrey Ballet.

Next we took the subway out to Oak Park, IL  for the second architectural tour of the day, this one featuring the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio in an up-scale neighborhood of leafy trees and manicured lawns. This is where Frank Lloyd Wright got his start as an up-and-coming architect.

This house was one of his earliest works, designed in his “Prairie” style: horizontal emphasis, obscure entryways (i.e not obvious from the street where the front door might typically be), and small, compact interiors with more open floor plans than what had been the norm up until that time.

Another surprise awaited us, as a small group of us walked a different route back to the train station. Rounding a corner, we came across Wright’s famed Unity Temple.

We climbed the steps to the front door, which to our delight, was unlocked. Within seconds, a guard appeared, telling us the building was closed for the day.

“We’re here from Seattle” we lamented, “We’re headed home tomorrow – please could we take a quick look?”

The guard studied us a moment, then relented. “I’ll give you one minute”, he said.

But it was enough.

We entered the sanctuary of the church, drew in our breath at the stillness and beauty of the space, then left.

It was a wonderful trip and I hope you have enjoyed these little snippets.  To see more photos, visit my Chicago photo album at my Facebook page!

LIFE IS FLEETING

The Seattle Art Museum has a wonderful new exhibit titled “Fleeting Beauty” featuring a private collection of Japanese woodblock prints.

In a word, they are stunning.  

The Japanese term for these prints is “Ukiyo-e” – which literally means Pictures of the Floating World.

What is this floating world, and why do we call it ‘fleeting’?

The images depicted in these prints are scenes in and around the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo), during the late 17th to mid19th centuries.

They are from a time in Japan’s history that no longer exists.

In that sense, they are fleeting.

Just like weekends, or vacations that never seem to last quite long enough, these images of life in historic Japan, seem to have floated on by.

During Japan’s Edo period, the Shogun ruled the land, and Samurai warriors were in force. Their home base was Edo, a bustling, thriving metropolis.

In short, the Samurai warriors, far away from home and family, needed to be ‘entertained’ during their free time.

Hence the so-called “Pleasure Quarters” – a distinct area outside the main city, where courtesans, and Kabuki actors offered an enjoyable escape from everyday life.

It is here where the inspiration for the Ukiyo-e prints takes place.

I addressed the printmaking process in an earlier post, describing my own, amateur efforts at the craft.

However, the creation of a woodblock print is extremely complex, a process that involves four different artisans.

It begins with the Artist, who is responsible for the overall design, then moves on to the Carver, who carves the intricate details out of blocks of cherry wood, then on to the Printer, who magically applies the colors according to the Artist’s vision.

Keep in mind that a different block of wood needed to be carved for every single nuance of color visible in the final print.

In the print shown, by Hiroshige, we see varying shades of blues and greys, plus yellow, red, purple and black . What seems fairly simple, might actually involve up to ten different blocks of wood.

The white of the snow was the basic color of the paper – meaning one less block that needed to be carved!

It was the Printer who was responsible for perfectly aligning (or registering) the different blocks of color. In other words, if this individual was not dedicated to his craft, a woman’s red lips might not be properly positioned on her face, or her elaborate hairdo might appear slightly askew and not quite sitting on her head.

Clearly, that would not uphold the high standards that these craftsmen adhered to.

The final step of the process was the Publisher. The early prints were bound into books; it was only later that they were sold as individual sheets that served as advertisements, if you will, for attracting customers.

Much like the present day poster.

Some even served as the equivalent of gift wrap. (In their day, these Ukiyo-e prints were not considered fine art).

The woodblock prints in this exhibit focus on courtesans, kabuki actors, and landscapes. The latter came into favor towards the end of the 18th century, when the prints of the pleasure quarters were gradually being phased out.

On view are majestic scenes from Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mt. Fuji”, not to mention Hiroshige’s “53 Stations Along the Tokaido Road”

A road, by the way, that still exists for the intrepid traveler.

The Ukiyo-e prints capture a way of life gone by. They are at once magical, beautiful and yes, fleeting.