An interview with Toyokazu Ono of Yotsume dye studio

A land of understated minimalism, Japan is equally a place for the bright coloured patterns of kimono. Its tradition in dye is rich, and reflects centuries in development. The colourful partitions between rooms, a folded piece of fabric in bags, or hanging at the entrance of a temple or business. One the most vibrant techniques is katazome, or stencil dye, which is both part of Japan’s classic and modern language in design.

At wagumi for summer 2022, we have a collection from a contemporary exponent of katazome, Toyokazu Ono, who works at his Yotsume dye studio in southern Japan. Ono’s work explodes with colour from its fabric, but reflects too his deep heritage in craft and individual outlook in design. To coincide with the display, we caught up with him to ask about his life in dye, his inspirations and his work.


Ono began Yotsume in 2015, after leaving his family business in Hiroshima. This business has history dating from the the turn of the 20th century, and built itself on the demand for dye works from temples, shrines, schools, fire stations, businesses, and many institutions in Japanese life. Anyone who has lived in a society faces the need to obey its norms, and sometimes a sense of constraint in expressing themselves. The dilemma can be especially acute for those who grew up in traditional craft, and Ono’s is a story of expressing his roots, and finding himself. The result can be seem in the work of Yotsume, which carries the weight of a history in dye, but contains too Ono’s individual approach from influences such as stencil based graffiti.

Katazome is said to have its origins as an alternative to imported dye styles within the early flowering of Japanese aesthetics. A single mold, made from Japanese paper is cut into by the craftsperson to set the pattern. When placed on the fabric, a glue made from cooked sticky rice, sugar, salt, lime and water is applied which will resist the dye. Within a process of drying, immersing and brushing on pigment, detailed and bright pieces of fabric design show themselves. The skill is both in realising the design, and in the craftsperson’s creation of the initial katagami (stencil).


Making stencil dye in this way imposes constraints on the craftsperson. They need for example a continuous pattern that can be transferred to stencil. This resembles kiri-e, the Japanese style of paper cutouts. The art associated with katazome was reinvigorated by Keisuke Serizawa and the mid-century mingei (arts and crafts) movement, which included his disciple Samiro Yunoki, who will celebrate his 100th birthday in 2022. They established the precedent of katazome style designs as an overall ethos to be applied to other fields.

From his base in Kunisaki, in the rural north-east corner of the Kyushu island, Toyokazu Ono practices both katazome and graphic design. In effect offering a new toolkit of services that express the legacy of the dye technique in which he grew up. Together with his partner, the ceramicist Miki Oka, their work brings the power of colour and individual approaches to forms that are classically Japanese. It is these roots in craft that once constrained Ono, but ultimately became guides to his creativity.

His location too is an influence, and a symbol of his work. Kunisaki in Oita prefecture, is steeped in a natural and devotional past that counterpoints to modern Japan. Rural in history, and rural now, it has been a spiritual escape for buddhism, shintoism (often simultaneously), and imported christian religion. The forests of Kunisaki retain their ancient colours and seem to be expanding. They contain numerous rock carvings and religious sites. The festivals of Kunisaki too differ from other parts of Japan, sometimes of uncertain origin, they feature masks and practices that show little relation to those found elsewhere. In Kunisaki oni (demons) are friendly, and vengeful deities have a gentle smile.

The rich nature and spiritual world of Kunisaki offer a unique vantage point on modern Japan, and symbolise Toyokazu Ono’s own quest to find a personal perspective in a life based in tradition. True to roots in craft, and imagination in design. To the new and to the old, and to the creation of work that expresses a vision of what craft can be in Japan today.

 

Questions and Answers with Toyokazu Ono

 

What led you to become a craftsperson in dye?

The biggest reason was my family home in Hiroshima prefecture.  They have a business making dye works for temples and shrines, that has been in operation for around 120 years.  I was meant to take over the company, and spent four years studying dye process at a works in Gifu (central Japan) in my early 20s.  When I returned, I worked for a further eight years at my family’s dye woks, and spent my days making nobori (Japanese style banners), and traditional items.  But we could see the area depopulating, and the level of demand falling.  So we needed to find new ways to work, and I began to spend more time on design.  For example making logos and branding for shops, or pamphlets.

I always liked illustration from when I was a child.  I went to design college for two years, and enjoyed it.  I would have thought about it professionally, but instead I agreed to take on the family business.  I did it, but felt a tension because I wanted to make own work, and be creative.  The things I wanted to do built up inside of me.  So when I was about 31 I asked my younger brother to take on the family business.  By that time, I was already married [to the potter Miki Oka], and I could see my partner making a living from ceramics.  She certainly influenced me, and we made the decision to create my own dye studio.

Was is tough to set up on your own?

I would actually say that it was enjoyable to do.  There were hard moments of course, but those were also enjoyable in their own way too.  For the first six months I could not contribute anything to the house, and that was painful, as we had children.   

I had some work that I had already made while at my family’s works.  I could have continued there, but they did not really see what I was trying to do.  So I said why don’t I do it myself.  As I had this body of work, it was relatively quick to begin to receive orders, but the start up costs meant it took a while to stabilise.

 

What does dye mean to you as someone who grew up surrounded by it?

For me katazome (Japanese stencil dye) is my roots.  It is the way that I find expression.  It is a little difficult to explain, but in Japan we have many different ‘dō’ (*the character for road, that appears as a suffix for crafts and practices) including sadō (tea ceremony) and shodō (calligraphy)).   All of the dō have their own rules or techniques, their own manners and way of thinking.  Certain things are set.  Katazome has this too.  So I was always drawing freely from my imagination, but to be honest it rarely resulted in good work.  But katazome had its rules, and its way to think, and once I immersed myself I was able to become in fact more free in my expression.

So for me katazome is something that allowed me to find myself creatively.

What influences and inspires your dye work?

My biggest influence is the roots I have in my family’s business.  Another is the mingei movement (*the Japanese mid century arts and crafts pioneers).  Within them was Keisuke Serizawa who is known for his work in katazome.  Personally too, I have always been interested in modern art, and graffiti.  For example Barry McGee, on the American west coast.

Keisuke Serizawa really popularised the katazome style, and until him I am not sure there was a concept of individually dyeing and selling pieces as artworks.  The idea that this fabric from within daily life could be decorated as art, is something that he began.  He also brought the craft into other fields such as book cover designs, and illustrations.  He took craft to design.

How do craft and design come together for you?

When I work as a designer, I try to select carefully the tasks that I take on.  I prefer work when I can express my style, as rooted in katazome dye.  For a while I tried to do everything I could.  But there are some jobs that others would be better at.  I can deliver my best work when I work with the visual ethos that I am rooted in, that is katazome. 

When you look at this style in dye, you can see that the designs are always continuous.  In this way it is a little like kiri-e (Japanese paper cutouts), and comes from the use of a single stencil.  You can say it is a similar approach to Banksy in his work.  When you use a stencil in the context of Japanese dye, then you can tap into the heritage of katazome.  So my illustrations work within these rules, and have the feel of a continuous stencil.

Working in this way not everything is free, but the limits in fact offer a way to express myself.  Banksy I suppose works within the rules of graffiti, but with each work develops and pushes the boundaries.  And that how it feels for me too, to be liberated within these limits.

 

Perhaps you are influenced by your surroundings too.  What kind of place is Kunisaki, in Oita?

Well it is countryside.  Deep countryside! You have to say that the nature is very rich here in Kunisaki.  It is also known for its spiritual history, with 1300 years since the founding of some important sites.  In fact there are religious sites in the forests if you go to look for them  You can see many gorinto (buddhist stone monuments) around and I think we have the most stone monuments in Japan  If Kunisaki had urbanised, then those places might have been lost, and as it is they are being absorbed into the forests.  The peninsula sticks out, and is not really on the way to anywhere, so that’s maybe why it didn’t develop economically.  I haven’t been alive for 1300 years, so I could not say it was totally unchanged…

The forests here have many different colours.  Around Japan is full of pine and hinoki wood for forestry.  But in Kunisaki we have ancient forests.  In this era everything changes because of the economy.  But here the economy never changes.  And the forests seem to be winning.

There are also a lot of unusual festivals and masks.  It is in many cases not known how they originate.  One of the tenugui I make commemorates the Kebesu festival.  No one is clear about the origins or meaning of that festival.  Mystery calls upon mystery you could say.  It’s part of the attraction.

There are things you can see about modern Japan from Kunisaki, that you would not see otherwise. 

What would you say is the condition of craft now in Japan?

Well, Japan itself is losing its power, so craft is falling back too.  But I think that it is important to continue with it.  We have the internet now, and so all the skills to do things can be found on YouTube.  But separate to the simple skills to practice a craft, are its roots and its way of thinking.  That is something that it is hard to simply install.  I have recently displayed my work in New York, and now in the UK.  And if I think about what are my strengths, it is my roots, and my location.  In this era, practicing craft with roots in tradition and location remains important.

Katazome is something born within Japanese culture, and when we think of the styles and shapes they come from this, and have that intrinsic attraction.   An item’s first impression is important, and the appeal deepens when you understand the cultural background.

 


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