Always Unfolding

Always Unfolding

Kiyomi Iwata tracing

Iwata traces the shadow of a kibiso tapestry onto canvas. Her artmaking is fluid and free. “I’m totally open,” she says. “And because I’m open, I can float. For me, that’s an exciting process in itself.” Photo: Robert Severi

Curiosity, creativity, and optimism guide Kiyomi Iwata in the evolution of her life and her art.

For Kiyomi Iwata, walking through her retrospective show this past spring at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond was like seeing the story of her life unfold. 

On display were the various dimensions of Iwata’s art, 32 of the lyrical textile sculptures her sensitive hands have formed, stitched, woven, knotted, dyed, and painted over the years: ethereal containers made of silk organza, metal mesh folded into bundles resembling exquisitely wrapped gifts, layered hangings encasing fragments of poetry lettered in gold leaf. There was new and different work, too, some of her most personal and experimental to date. 

“Evolution is so much a part of life,” she reflects. “That’s what the creative process is about. There is never an ending.”

As one of the leading lights of contemporary art in fiber, Iwata has had many shows, but this one was special, a homecoming. She’d lived in Richmond, Virginia, as a young wife and mother in the 1960s, just a few years after emigrating from Japan. It was there, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, that she took her first batik dyeing class and became an artist. “It was a perfect fit,” she recalls of that life-changing experience. “I felt like, ‘I’m going to do this for a long time.’ ”  

In the early 1970s, Iwata and her family relocated to New York, where her creativity flourished. By the 1980s, her career had taken off – and would continue to thrive over the next three decades. Then in 2010, she and her husband, at that point longtime empty nesters, decided to return to Richmond – a turn of events that, at first, disoriented her. 

“When we moved from north to south, I assumed I’d pick up where I left off and everything would be fine,” she recalls. “But it wasn’t.” The place, naturally, had changed, and so had she. “You see life in a different way when you’re older. So it was difficult at the beginning.” Luckily, the move coincided with her embrace of a new way of working with a new material – kibiso

The first, coarse length of fiber spun by a silkworm before the thread turns fine, kibiso has typically been discarded at mills. In recent years, Reiko Sudo, co-founder of Nuno, an innovative Tokyo-based textile company, started salvaging kibiso and giving it to artists to experiment with. Iwata received her first batch on a visit to Japan in 2009, which she used in her container forms. Then, soon after her return to Richmond, she began working in a new way. Instead of shaping relatively solid surfaces (silk organza, metal mesh), she slowly and painstakingly wove the rough threads by hand into openwork wall hangings and sculptural forms. By the time the Visual Arts Center offered to host her retrospective, she was feeling inspired and energized. “I wanted to say, ‘Here I am, back in town,’ ” she says of preparing for the show. “But I wanted to do it well.”

“From Volume to Line” became the exhibition’s title and theme, illustrating the artist’s shift from her signature container forms to the newer kibiso pieces. The latter had special meaning for Iwata, who saw them as metaphors for the changes we go through in life, as well as, for her, a kind of therapy.

“It was quite symbolic,” she says. “Kibiso is the very beginning of silk production. I had been using the other end, the fine end. I made a full circle.” Chrysalis Four (2014), as its name and cocoon-like shapes suggest, pays homage to the silkworm and the things we leave behind; the Virginia Museum acquired it for its collection. In Southern Crossing Three (2014), a large, loose, gridlike wall weaving, Iwata channeled feelings about leaving New York, about disruption and reconnection.

The gold-leafed wall work Auric Landing (2015) was the newest piece in the show, made as she was finally feeling at home again in Richmond: “I suddenly looked around, and I had a life here. I had landed.” The city is more sophisticated now, she says, “and yet it’s Richmond. There is a certain graciousness about living in the South, and that is charming. When I go to New York and see my New York friends, I adore them – there’s something crisp and neat about the way they operate. But my need is different now.” 

In a way, she has always moved between different worlds – North and South, East and West, traditional and modern. Born in 1941, she grew up in Kobe, Japan, in a family she describes as “different.” Her father had been born in the United States, giving her dual citizenship. Her parents divorced when she was young, and Iwata’s mother became the breadwinner: “She always worked, was a very independent person, a little bit too Western for Japanese culture.” 

Iwata came to America in 1961. “Japan after the war was very gray, and the United States was fantastically alluring. I said I wanted to study English, but that was just so I could leave.” Moving to Washington, DC, she soon met and married a young American man of Japanese descent, had two children, and settled in the US for good.

To this day, “I like to go home at least once a year, to touch base,” she says, referring to Japan. A conscious word choice?  “Yes, it is. It is my home,” she affirms. She holds on to certain aspects of her native culture – the language, the beauty of ritual, “and also, how you perceive situations. There’s not so much direct communication – that’s more of a Western or maybe American quality,” Iwata says. “The Japanese way of thinking is softer, more of a go-around.” Maybe that’s why her work has an air of mystery, of secrets withheld. “I like to pull people in. I don’t like to show everything. Many times viewers project their own mystery, what is in themselves. I like that dialogue.” While her pieces have explicitly referenced Japanese traditions (furoshiki wrapping cloth, tanka poetry), they also look very contemporary; some critics consider them minimalist art. Iwata’s vision may be a synthesis of influences, but the expression is all her own. 

So what’s next? Kibiso has grown so popular as an art material that Iwata is finding it increasingly hard to get. Lately she’s been exploring another castoff from the mill, ogarami choshi, the silk thread remaining on the bobbin at the end of production. She’s also been playing with the loose threads she gets from cleaning her kibiso, “the leftover of the leftover, very fine, almost like a spider web, but not as orderly. I’m excited about it.” A new direction, she trusts, will always come around. “Just when you think you’re at a dead end, something happens,” she says. “Because it has happened often enough in my life, I feel very optimistic, not only about my creative process, but about life. Something happens, and you say, ‘Oh! Of course!’

“That’s what keeps me going. I’m curious what will happen.” 

A catalogue of the exhibition “Kiyomi Iwata: From Volume to Line,” including an essay by Howard Risatti, is available from the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.