Weaving the Sea

Weaving the Sea

Kay Sekimachi trolls her collection of shells and bones to create jewelry born on the beach.

The latest body of work by fiber artist Kay Sekimachi--necklaces, pins and bracelets incorporating objects washed up by the sea--gives new meaning to the term "working vacation."

Sekimachi started visiting the south Kohala Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii in the 1970s with her late husband, master woodturner Bob Stocksdale, and returned to the same house year after year for almost three decades. Combing the sandy beaches and lava-formed tide pools of Puako Bay, she harvested shells, bits of coral, fossils, fish vertebrae, the delicate bones of birds, sea urchin spines and other oceanic ephemera with dedicated rigor but no particular endgame in mind. Once dubbed the "weaver's weaver" by textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen (whom she assisted at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in 1956), Sekimachi was immersed in redefining the boundaries of what could be woven, on and off the loom. But poring over the found objects helped keep her artistic gaze honed, especially when she was away from the studio.

After each vacation, Sekimachi returned to her home on a leafy street in south Berkeley to choreograph the pieces she'd plucked off the beach. Some are arranged along windowsills and tabletops, but most reside inside her collection of Tansu chests-which resemble curiosity cabinets as curated by Joseph Cornell in Atlantis. Each drawer is a kind of wabi-sabi still life, with specimens arranged by type, color and shape, and concave abalone and turkeywing shells nested like Russian dolls, the smallest the approximate size of a child's fingernail.

Everything in Sekimachi's house is placed with similar care, be it a feather, a wall hanging or a paper hornet's nest. Replete with objects, yet strikingly uncluttered, the Victorian-era dwelling was liberated into a light-filled loft by Albert Lanier, late husband of Ruth Asawa (who, like Sekimachi, was born in 1926 and relocated to internment camps during World War II). Together, Sekimachi and Stocksdale filled it with works by friends and peers, including enamelist June Schwarcz, ceramist Toshiko Takaezu, sculptor Dorothy Gill Barnes, weaver Lia Cook, and Sekimachi's mentor and friend weaver Trude Guermonprez. Sit on the couch, and you discover that the ottoman was a gift from George Nakashima's daughter, Mira. The kitchen table and chairs were wedding presents from Sam Maloof, and in Sekimachi's weaving room is Bolinas woodworker Art Carpenter's first Scallop-shell desk.

The rooms also serve as a kind of time capsule for Sekimachi's artistic explorations. Hanging, floating and nestledthroughout are fiber and paper pieces spanning some 60 years. The multilayered tapestries and room dividers evolved after Sekimachi discovered the work of Anni Albers and the Bauhaus and abandoned the precept that weavers needed to make functional items, such as placemats. There are woven books that unfold to reveal ethereal scenes from nature that have been heat-transferred onto the warp, small baskets with burnt ends, and delicate paper bowls. One of her black, tubular Marugawas-or Rivers-flows down from the second floor, engaged in a kind of call-and-response with a towering Paper Column from 1992 that's wrought from machine-stitched and folded antique Japanese indigo-dyed paper.

Upstairs, a trio of Sekimachi's signature fish-line monofilament weavings undulate in the breeze, framed by a collection of airy sculptures she calls Twinelines--"like line drawings in space"--mounted on the walls. And holding court on top of one shell-laden cabinet are a few of her Coral Creatures: rocks animated with bits of shell, coral and sea urchin spines that have been worked into the natural holes. "They were so much fun to do," says Sekimachi, her youthful face breaking into a broad smile, "animals, one-eyed monsters-every piece makes me laugh."

Sekimachi actually began pillaging her beach trove in the late '90s in Hawaii. "I was never one to stay still. SO I'd sit on thelanai facing the water and paint these little watercolors, then mount some of the smaller specimens on top." Sekimachi grouped them in folios with titles like Sticks and Stones and Shells and Bones. She started to get her toes wet with jewelry three years ago, by making a gift for fellow weaver Dominic Di Mare, who was visiting the island. "It was his birthday, and I decided to make 75 knots on the hemp twine-one for each year-but I didn't want to lose track, so I tied on a string every 10 knots and attached a shell at the bottom."

The move to undertake a new body of work was motivated by a visit from another friend, jeweler Kiff Slemmons. "Kiff came to Puako, and we spent a wonderful week walking along the beach, gathering things and playing with all the treasures," recalls Sekimachi. Soon after, the Chicago-based Slemmons came to Oakland as a visiting artist at the California College of Art and stayed at Sekimachi's house. "When she looked and saw all the shells and rocks laid out and some of the work I'd started, she said, ‘Kay, this could be jewelry,' and that got me thinking how I might be able to combine my weaving with my collecting to make something entirely new."

Some of the bracelets and necklaces utilize the split-ply technique that Sekimachi discovered in the '70s, when she became interested in the ancient method for weaving camel girths. "It has the added benefit of being portable," she says. "All you need is a sturdy basket to hold the warp, a crochet hook and some kind of plied yarn." She uses the technique to create the open-weave work on necklaces and bracelets and to create a choker made of miniature Twinelines-small woven cages that encase decorative bits of coral and lava. Sekimachi also returned to card weaving, which she'd employed for the Marugawa hangings (and which dates to the time of the Vikings).

"Essentially, you need a deck of cards with holes at each corner. The warp threads get threaded through the holes, and the cards are turned to make a shed. To weave a tube, the weft enters the shed from the same side, and after the weaving is done it gets pulled," she explains. "I found a black, polished cotton warp in my drawer all ready to go and decided to weave a narrow tube rather loosely so it could go around the neck, the added my favorite black nerite shells to the fringe."

Once she had a body of work, Sekimachi invited Slemmons to join her in an exhibition based on their findings in Puako. Recalls Slemmons, "The first time I met Kay, she had recently returned from Hawaii. There were little shells on the windowsill, carefully arranged to dry in the sun after cleaning. I never imagined that years later we would both be making jewelry from the beaches of the Big Island. But I was interested in doing the show with Kay because, although we come from very different places, we are such kindred spirits."

When Sekimachi approached Elizabeth Shypertt and Mike Holmes of the San Francisco gallery Velvet da Vinci, they were immediately "blown away," Holmes says. "Kay had been weaving all these years, and Kiff is known from incorporating found objects with silversmithing. Despite their different approaches, this mutual muse-Puako-caused their work to relate in a way that was illuminating." He and Shypertt made the decision to group the collections together, as if re-creating the dialogue between the two artists. Slemmons used sterling silver to encase many of the objects-such as doll's arms-that take the place of gemstones in her brooches and necklaces (and deliberately resisted the sparkly green peridots that also dot the beach). Sekimachi's pieces have a lighter organic quality, as if they've grown out of the seagrass-the shells, coral and urchin spines entangling with the vegetation. Using Danish paper cord-the kind used for chair seats and backs-and black and white polished cotton, Sekimachi embeds her objects within the fiber; the shell in the Turrett Shell Necklace emerges from its woven casing as if dredged in a fishing net.

Although jewelry is her newest project, Sekimachi has not abandoned weaving. As we talk, she sits sketching out colors for an upcoming show at the Textile Museum is Washington, DC, at the invitation of Jack Larsen. "The artists are supposed to use the collection as inspiration, and I found a wonderful carrying cloth from Peru. I just made a warp in preparation," says Sekimachi, who envisions a triptych. So it's back to her first loom, purchased with her last $150 in 1949. She is also busy sending work off for a group show this October at St. Mary's College in Moraga, CA, and anticipating the opening of "Loom & Lathe: The art of Kay Sekimachi and Bob Stocksdale" at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, MA, next February.

"At this stage of my life, I'm just doing what I enjoy," says Sekimachi. "Weaving is very physical work-you really feel it in the back and knees. But I'm also happy in many different media," she explains, nodding toward some necklaces and bracelets in progress pinned to a board. "And now, it turns out there was a purpose in my collecting all those years!"

Deborah Bishop, based in San Francisco, is a Dwell magazine contributing editor. Photographer Leslie Williamson's book, Handcrafted Modern: At Home with Mid-Century Designers, was just published by Rizzoli.