Sunday, May 6, 2012

Katazome: A Morning with Karen Illman Miller

After my talk was finished at the Mary's River Quilt Guild, several audience members introduced themselves (one of my FAVORITE parts about visiting guilds).  One of them was Karen Miller, holding a book her work is featured in, which she wanted to show me.  Art Quilt Portfolio: The Natural World is a showcase of some of the finest art quilters working today, written by Martha Seilman, Executive Director of SAQA, the Studio Art Quilts Association.

As I paged through Karen's work, I instantly knew that I was in the presence of a master craftsperson and serious fiber artist. Her passion and path is the ancient Japanese technique of stencil cutting, called Katazome.
An excellent quick overview of the process can be found on Karen's website, here. The meticulously cut stencils are laid on fabric, a resist paste is spread over them, the stencil removed and the paste allowed to dry; then the fabric can either be painted or dipped into dye.  Karen does both, and the dye she uses is the traditional Japanese indigo.

I was stopped in my tracks by this woman's art in the pages of Martha's book.  Karen had a thoughtful demeanor and was very humble as she talked a little bit about it.  When I asked if I could come see her the next morning to learn and see more, she graciously agreed.

The entry to her home evokes a tranquil Japanese tea garden.

The first thing I saw in her living room was a print made from this stencil. This white oak was cut from handmade Japanese paper called "shibugami".  Click on the picture and see the detail that Karen cut, all by hand.  Not by laser.  By hand.

We went down to her basement, where the workspace is.

I was entering a very special world, and I knew it.

Here Karen is showing me some fabric that has had the resist paste, (which is made by combining rice flour, rice bran, and water, then boiled) applied through stencils and is now stretched to dry.

Here is a close up of the pasted fabric.
Karen's work can be both large scale like this, and also extremely detailed.  One of the main forces driving her is pattern, whether in her interpretations of traditional Japanese designs or in her own personal imagery, where she abstracts patterns from nature for use in her stencil designs.
Karen was for many years a marine biologist, which informs her art to great extent, I think.

 This stencil design is inspired by a sea fan.

I think this one might be bone marrow (I forget.)
She showed me many, many cool ones.
She also showed me an antique Japanese stencil that illustrates how minutely detailed this process can get.
Click on it so you can really see it up close:

It is thrilling to contemplate the mindset, skill, and tradition that went into producing this stencil.

She had shelves full of her own stencils--she's been doing this for 18 years.  The one she had out that caught my eye and captivated me was this one:

I asked her if she had any of this printed and dyed up...I didn't know until then that she has a large inventory and is in the business of selling her hand printed and dyed indigo fabrics, as well as the exquisite noren, or traditional split door curtains.  You can see a gallery of her noren here.

My favorites of her noren are the ones she did using stencils she created of two of the Cascade peaks in our area of the Pacific Northwest, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood.

This is the Mt. Rainier noren in progress....and that oak tree stencil put to fine use.

And look what she did with our beloved Mt. Hood:

Karen says one thing she loves about this process is the subtle gradation of color she can get, which wouldn't be possible with silk screening.  She can work and rework the color.

The November palette of this noren is an example of the nuanced mood she can cast with her colors.

She also produces silk art garments.

Can you imagine how it would feel to wear that?

She showed me a quilt she has in progress.

The biologist is at work here, for sure. was time for me to go shopping!!!!

I was in the market for indigo fabrics.  These bolts of Robert Kaufman prepared-for-dyeing cotton are her raw materials for that.

She imports linen, rayon, and silk from Japan for the noren and other work.

I knew I couldn't appreciate the intricacies of the indigo dyeing process as Karen was explaining it to me...I was just too ignorant.

These vats of indigo may hold many mysteries to me, but not to Karen.
I loved the clamps she uses to hold up the fabrics to dry after they've been dyed.

They've been dyed, too, over the years!

She has her inventory organized neatly in bins.

 And there was my favorite stencil design, dyed up and waiting for me!

The bins were all labeled like this:

I had to look through a lot of them...I just had to.  Karen was most obliging.

We pulled out the fabrics I loved best and thought would be most useful in a future project.

There was treasure to be had for sure!  And not just with Karen's indigo, but with some vintage textiles she had from Japan, too, that used other techniques like shibori and ikat (dyed warp) weaving.

I came away with an amazing stash.

For all that goes into this incredible fabric, Karen's prices are very reasonable.  If you are in the market for Japanese indigo, you will not do better than this, for cost, selection, and quality.

The last fabric I chose was that Mt. Hood panel, my favorite piece of all.
On my way home from Corvallis, where Karen lives, I passed through Portland and went to see my friends at The Button Emporium. I was looking for some trim for another project, but I had to show Marvis Lutz, the owner, this incredible fabric.  She was as excited about it as I was, especially by Mt. Hood.

I told her I thought it needed a moon...and she brought out an antique mother-of-pearl disc that is almost 100 years old.  We found some cherry blossom appliques that she had had made especially for the store, and some raku salmon buttons....

Laid out very quickly, I found a glimpse of the direction I'll be heading...the salmon swimming up the Columbia, the cherry blossoms of Hood River, the moon over the mountain...

I am in Karen's debt, and Marvis's too, for providing me with such supreme beauty to work with....


Debra Dixon said...

Looks like painstaking work and she has alot of it. Very interesting field trip, I would think and hard to decide what to buy.

Monica said...

They are fantastic, Allie, I love indigo fabrics, and Japanese craftsmanship in general. And I am really excited to see how you will take them to the next level!

Maria said...

I love you blog, I'm wondering if you would consider widening the template so we can see bigger photos without have to click on them.

Marty52 said...

Oh, Allie... your heart must have been going a mile a minute with all that beauty surrounding you! Such detail and color... I love the direction you are going with your piece that is emerging from this trip. Just lovely.

Anonymous said...

You are going to have an awesome treasure when you complete this project. I'm so excited to see how it all finishes out in the end with such beautiful fabric and embellishments and your talent.

Jane LaFazio said...

Thanks for the fascinating tour of karen's studio and her work!

Susan Elliott said...

WOW! I'm over your mother of pearl moon this morning...What amazing work. In Japan I had the benefit of visiting a katazome dye factory once. I bought a small stencil at the time...

It's pretty cool that you got to see this studio and her work. And your selections are making me drool all over my keyboard. There's nothing quite like indigo...I have a few antique pieces I gathered from flea markets and they are real treasures. Thanks for hooking us up with the webite..And your Mt. Hood montage is looking awesome already!

Lisa Boni said...

What wonderful work Karen does! Lucky you to see all of it in person! Love the project you are making andI can't wait to see where you take it!

Elizabeth said...

Oh My gracious!! that work just takes ones breath away!!!! Would love to go to the button Emporium!! If I come west to teach in October I will have to stop by for a visit!!!
What an incredible day for you !!!thank you so much for sharing!!!
Would love to get some of those fabulous raku buttons!!!

Judy S. said...

Looks like you had a really fun visit and came home with some great things! The Button Emporium is a VERY fun place, isn't it? We drove through the Columbia gorge last Saturday, and I thought of you. What a beautiful spot!

Jean C. said...

Takes me back to Japan... they had such wonderful places on the local Ginza that had nothing but the types of door hangings you showed... wish I had been there longer!
I'm soo jealous... bet you were there for a long time just looking. Beautiful work...