PBS series ‘Craft in America’ salutes master weaver Kay Sekimachi and her beautiful Fresno exhibition
When Kay Sekimachi was a little girl, she lived with her sister and mother in a small, modest duplex apartment in Berkeley. This was in the 1930s, and they didn’t have much. When other kids their age were going to the movies on the weekend, say, or learning to ice skate, Sekimachi and her sister, Kazuko, had to find other ways to entertain themselves.
“We were so poor we couldn’t go out and do other activities like other kids did,” she says. “So we stayed at home and played with our dolls,” she says.
But what dolls they were.
Walk into the Fresno Art Museum’s beautiful retrospective “Master Weaver: Innovations in Forms and Materials,” and among the more than seven decades of treasures, you’ll find something never before displayed in a museum: Sekimachi’s paper dolls from childhood. She cut the original dolls out of the Sunday “funnies” in the San Francisco Chronicle, a Depression-era feature that would likely astonish kids today.
But it’s what Sekimachi, who would grow up to be an acclaimed fiber artist and weaver, did with the dolls that is so wonderful.
She drew clothes for them.
“Our dolls had designer dresses and we wore rags,” she says.
These were her first works of art, and to see the dolls in a museum — along with a lifetime’s worth of exquisitely made three-dimensional textile pieces — is to gain an insight into a child who would become a pioneer in what museum director and show curator Michele Ellis Pracy calls “a resurrection of fiber and weaving as a legitimate means of artistic expression.” Sekimachi did more than simply make fancy garments out of paper. She and her sister built cardboard houses for them in which to live. They created elaborate backstories, concocted various relationships and devised goofy adventures for them. They outfitted them in opera wear, ski clothes and glamorous get-ups.
At an early age, Sekimachi loved to draw and paint. But beyond that, she loved to enrich the world around her with her imagination. She loved to create. And that enthusiasm would always be with her.
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“Kay Sekimachi has made objects that no one has ever made,” Ellis Pracy says. “She’s used materials in ways that no one has ever used them. Her workmanship, her craftsmanship, her concepts are so beautifully and exquisitely rendered.“
That comment from Ellis Pracy is captured in the PBS TV series “Craft in America,” which devotes a segment to Sekimachi’s life and career– and the exhibition honoring her as the Fresno Art Museum’s Council of 100 Distinguished Woman Artist for 2018 — in a broadcast tonight (9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 21, on Channel 18). It’s a fascinating look at Sekimachi. One of her biggest fans, the collector Forrest L. Merrill, who has loaned many of the works featured in the Fresno show, espouses her accomplishments.
“For 50 years, Kay has been recognized throughout the country as an innovator in taste and style for fiber art,” he says.
Ellis Pracy loved curating the show.
“It’s been one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever gone through in my 30 years of being a curator,” she tells members of the Council of 100 a few months ago at a sneak preview of the “Craft in America” segment and luncheon at the museum. “I treasure knowing Kay.”
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On the day before that luncheon, Sekimachi sits on a chair in the gallery provided for the purpose. It’s easier for her to hold court and have people come to her. At 91, she tries to pace herself. The exhibition opening, held a couple of months prior, tired her out a little.
We spend a moment just looking around the room. I remark on how much I like the proportions of some of the works — long and narrow.
How does she feel surrounded by a representative collection of her life’s work?
“Today I’m finding it kind of thrilling,” she says. “it’s quite lovely, and they did a beautiful job with the installation. It is an honor. It’s nice to be singled out.”
She is soft-spoken and mild in demeanor, and kindness seems to emanate from her in gentle giggles. But you immediately sense a strength and steel resolve there as well. This is a woman who, after being put into an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II, eventually made her way back to the Bay Area and attended the prestigious California College of Arts and Crafts.
“Growing up in Berkeley, you always knew there was this art school up on the hill,” she says. “We all aspired to go to CCAC.”
Her favorite classes were watercolors and silk screening. Then she got drawn into the college’s weaving program.
“I was captivated. I thought, you know, I want to do this. With the last $150 I had, I went out and bought a loom. In fact, that loom right there.”
She points at a contraption several feet away.
“I’m sure my friends thought I was crazy. I didn’t even know how to operate the darn thing.”
But she learned.
All artists reach significant milestones in their careers, even if they might not realize it at the time. Sekimachi was fortunate to work with a number of important teachers. One of them was Trude Guermonprez, a Bauhaus weaver, whom she met at 1951 Pond Farm, a craft community and school located in Guerneville.
Sekimachi had left CCAC in 1949, but she returned in 1954 and 1955 for summer sessions to study with Guermonprez. Her mentor encouraged her student to move beyond making utilitarian items.
“She opened my eyes to what weaving could be,” Sekimachi says in the “Craft in America” TV segment.
Ellis Pracy, who as curator had to narrow down a life’s work to a finite number of items, sees the artist’s connection with Guermonprez as pivotal.
“I think she realized that her love of weaving meant that she should be more artful with it,” Ellis Pracy says, “and she started to experiment.”
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One of the things you notice walking through the Fresno exhibition is how nimble many of the works are. They convey strength, yes, but they also feel that, given the right gust of wind, they could simply fly away.
Her leaf bowls, made from the 1990s up to 2014, are an obvious example. They are an amalgamation of the organic and the human-made — and are breathtaking. (There’s a great explanation of the ingenious method Sekimachi used to make them in the “Craft in America” TV segment.)
Among her favorite pieces in the exhibition — she won’t pin herself down to just one — are a series of cardwoven seamless tubes from the 1970s that at first glance look like the tasselled cords you might pull on to ring for a servant in a spectacular palace. On closer inspection, you see the delicate patterns and intricate color choices.
Why does she like them?
“They’re simple, yet they have some strength,” she says.
I reply: “And because they’re long and narrow.”
She agrees. “I like long and narrow.”
Another series she likes to talk about is what she calls “the 6-inch squares,” or “Lines.” Made in 2017, they are minimalist, a quality that attracts her a lot these days. Using polyester warp, linen weft and a permanent marker, she uses simple horizontal and vertical lines that stake out a sturdy claim on the surface of the work but don’t distract from the woven beauty of the fabric itself.
Overall, it’s quite a body of work, and the circle it makes is fascinating — from the lines that made up those first paper-doll clothes to the lines that showcase why the fiber arts can be so entrancing. As we sit there in the gallery, looking around one last time, I ask what she thinks her 25-year-old self would say if she could attend this 91-year-old’s retrospective.
She ponders for a long moment.
“Maybe I’d say wow.”
Because your 25-year-old self would be impressed?
A shy smile flashes across her face.
“I think so,” she says.