In 1996 I bought 8 antique (about 80 years old) Japanese stencils at a flea-market in Zurich. At the time I wasn’t sure what I had bought, but I knew it was very special! I started experimenting on paper with different kinds of paint, using the most incomplete, broken stencil. Later I visited as small exhibition in Staefa, near Zurich. There I learnt how the Katagami were traditionally used in Japan to dye and colour silk and cotton for example for making kimonos, obis, yukatas, haoris (jackets worn over kimonos) and kincyaku (handbags).
Use of Ise Katagami
A special paste was made, the main ingredients being rice flour and pigments. Every master had his own recipe and method for applying this paste on the stencils. Usually cutting the stencils and colouring the fabrics were the work of two different people as they were very different areas of discipline. The paste had to have the right consistency; too thin would run under the stencil and too thick would not go into the fine gaps and lines. By using an additional wax technique, certain coloured elements were covered, so that the next layer of colour could be applied. This way many layers and colours were brought onto the fabric. On most Katagami stencils there are four corners marked with small circles; these can be shifted and put over the last two and in this way the pattern can be repeated endlessly – genial!
Visit to Japan
In May 2015, my husband and I visited a small Katagami museum in Tokyo. What a lovely experience! We met the delightful director and owner of the Kioi Art Gallery, Ms. Atsuyo Kajiura. She gave us a tour of the current exhibition and also showed us two videos portraying the 5 masters left, who live in Ise and still produce these exquisite works of art, each in his or her unique style. The cutting of specially prepared paper requires very precise tools and techniques. The coordination between hand and eyes has to be highly trained and exact to create these wonderful patterns – the artist always having to cut out the negative shape and at the same time keep the aesthetic pattern in mind.
This handmade paper is made of mulberry tree pulp and treated with green persimmon juice to make it water-resistant, so that when used, the colour paste does not colour the stencil, but only goes into the cutout spaces. Then the sheets are dried in the sun and thereafter smoked, hanging in a smoke house, for one to two weeks. Thereafter the process is repeated with the juice and smoke. Such precision and care are unimaginable in the West today! An exception being food, I am thinking of Parma ham (smile).
Philip Franz von Siebold (1796-1866) collected many Katagami and brought them to Europe and this had a very direct influence on the Art Nuevo, Art Deco and Japonism styles.
My wish is to bring some of these patterns onto fine porcelain, reflecting this precious, intricate tradition in a modern medium. So watch this space!