“All my work contains mystery,” Kiyomi Iwata tells me as we stand in the middle of her solo exhibition at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. “You have to come close to inspect it.” Entitled From Volume To Line, the show is a retrospective of the past three decades of Iwata’s love affair with the sculptural forms of fabric. Her material of choice is silk juxtaposed with metal accents, an ever-evolving dance between the ephemeral and the permanent. While the pieces can be appreciated individually for their formal qualities, the collection itself serves as a kind of emotional diary chronicling Iwata’s journey as an artist. Arranged chronologically, viewers are led through her critical successes in New York City, the devastation of 9/11, and re-acclimation to life after returning to Richmond.
“I was only ever interested in art,” Iwata admits without hesitation. Born in Japan in 1941, this conviction was with her since childhood. She struggled with traditional subjects in school, but art provided her with a deeply personal outlet that could envelop her for hours. “This kind of seemingly hopelessly boring task is richly rewarding for me,” she explains, “It’s meditative.” After moving to Richmond with her husband, she pursued her artistic passion at the Studio School at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts by studying printmaking and fabric dyeing. The community around the museum was supportive, but she knew her ultimate destination was New York City. “Everyone I wanted to be around was in New York.”
Once she finally made it to the Big Apple in the mid-80s, critical acclaim soon followed. The exhibit features one piece from this early period, Pink and Silver Box, but many of the more contemporary ones follow a similar idea: ragged cubes of stiffened silk organza held together with delicate wire edging, a play on the idea of space within nothingness. Most of Iwata’s pieces are textural in nature and, while these examples are no exception, they also become something of a formal exercise in their dyeing patterns, smoothly transitioning from one color extreme to the other. The mixture of the dyes themselves is a deceptively integral part of Iwata’s process as their ingredients are chosen not only for color, but also how their chemical composition will contribute structurally to each piece.
The use of silk as a material reflects both Iwata’s Japanese heritage and her fascination with human ingenuity. Traditional silk begins with the humble silkworm, a tiny caterpillar that spins a wispy cocoon out of the material when ready to metamorphosize. The process of transforming this base material into a luxurious fabric first requires deconstructing the cocoon to its fundamental component: a single thread of raw silk hundreds of meters long. “At some point,” Iwata recounts with genuine awe, “humans noticed the thread, spun this thread, weaved the thread, dyed this thread, embroidered the thread, all to embellish yourself.” It’s easy to personify the silkworm’s weaving process, that solitary pursuit of self-actualization, mirroring Iwata’s personal narrative of art as transformative expression.
This fundamental attachment to silk makes Iwata’s metal pieces all the more significant of a departure. Wanting to work with a material that would have more permanence, she visited wire screen manufacturing plants for inspiration. “I loved seeing the men in New Jersey weaving copper mesh by hand,” she remembers. The horrific destruction of the World Trade Center buildings occurred during this period and several of the pieces in the exhibition relate directly to Iwata’s experience of those traumatic events. While the vast majority of her art avoids social issues and is decidedly abstract, Iwata felt she needed to make an exception in this case, saying, “I didn’t want to be mysterious.” Flowing scrolls of wire mesh coated in gold leaf and illuminated with Japanese haiku offer sentiments of loss, reconciliation, and the hope of rebuilding. Though her pieces are entirely sympathetic to the city she loves, Iwata’s international perspective gives her a more nuanced opinion of the attacks themselves. “The US is always going to someone else’s house to fight,” she explains. “9/11 made it come home.”
After spending decades building a career as a fine artist in New York, the culture shock of relocating back to Richmond was difficult for Iwata to say the least. When her family made the move four years ago, she fell into a deep depression. It is only fitting that this period coincides with her experiments with kibiso, a byproduct of the silk manufacturing process that has traditionally been considered waste material. When unraveling a silkworm’s cocoon, the first portion is rough, lumpy, and totally unsuitable for use in fabric. Iwata jokes, “It’s like your first violin lesson: terrible.” However, in an effort to be more environmentally aware and reduce waste, Japanese textile factories began providing kibiso to artists to see what they could do with it.
The exhibition’s newest works represent Iwata’s kibiso period and are the most dramatic of the collection. Wall-sized grids of uneven lines, mottled with dark accents or metallic foil, recall the interconnectedness of Iwata’s social network and feelings of isolation she struggled with upon relocation. While most lay roughly flat, one piece in particular, Chrysalis Four, mimics a series of enlarged silkworm cocoons, their three-dimensional meshwork casting complicated shadows on the gallery walls.
Slowly, Iwata has been able to find a supportive arts community in Richmond and reconcile the negative feelings haunting her. She describes the kibiso pieces as her own personal art therapy and the healing power of that process is apparent as their patterns grow progressively less agitated over time. One of the most contemporary of the series, Auric Landing, is a solid field of gold leaf strands, brilliant, vibrant, and confident in their construction. “By this point,” Iwata says with a faraway look in her eye, “you can tell that I think I’m going to make it.”
From Volume To Line is currently on display at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. The show runs through Saturday, June 6. For more information, visit visarts.org.