Growing up there was treasure in my basement. My father collected. There was all the stuff from his family: Victorian china and cancelled bank books and Civil War daguerreotypes and things he found in his life.
After the war, that was World War II, and while he was out and about, he discovered katagami. You can’t really say he discovered them. The Japanese had been using these hand-cut paper stencils to print patterns on fabric since the samurai used cut paper to emboss gold on leather armor.
Anyway, my father was in Europe looking at stuff when he found katagami—fantastic, dark-brown papers with patterns cut into them with silk threads woven through to hold the pictures in place. Sometimes the paper was black and warped like some kind of ancient skin. Other times you could see Japanese script on the paper through the stain and wear. And the patterns—the patterns were beyond imagination. Muscular fish struggling up waterfalls, poems dangling from trees, dense repeats so fine you can barely read them, just feel a subtle shift in mass . The collection website is www.KatagamiProject.com
Katagami is a Japanese word from ‘kat’- (design) and ‘gami’ (paper). These objects arrived in Europe along with block prints and porcelain tea sets after the country opened for trade in 1853. The objects had no clear value in Japan; they were tools, tools of an obsolete industry that had been replaced by machines (circa 1927). But Europe was crazy for Japanese objects, and the katagami, representing hundreds of years of textile design, meshed perfectly with Art Nouveau philosophy and style. Meiji patterns showed a fitting blend of highly stylized elements played against naturally rendered nature—not to mention depth of craftsmanship tempting the good people of London, Paris, and Vienna to collect these objects. The stencils were collected by people in the design fields, notably Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Forty years later, European collections were returned to market to fund post-war repairs.
Which is where my father found them starting in 1958.
Then he died and left them in my basement. When I went looking for traces of him, I found the stencils.
They were just piled on top of each other, stacked on huge tables. Ends poked out of a giant fireproof safe. From time to time I would take a peek, but never so far as to turn a page and see the next.
Still, I knew what they were and I knew what they were made of. Bits of pictures suspended on threads, held in an edging of paper so used by human endeavor that the page turned black and racked.
These objects were just there, in the background. In my head.
In 2001 I started making shadows. In 2001 my mother sent me seven crates of katagami to sell.
I made an online catalog to document the collection at www.katagamiproject.com
At the time I didn’t really connect my diaphanous renderings to these sculpted silhouettes. Years passed and I kept drawing and new elements entered—plants, patterns—suddenly it was kind of hard to deny.
My drawings are a lot like the katagami.
Particularly in certain Meiji period design strategies.
One key element in Art Nouveau-period katagami is the use of naturalistic rendering of plant life played against highly stylized repeating pattern. Which is exactly what I was doing in my drawings.
The first I made deliberately, which consciously called on katagami features, were for a show at Chase Young Gallery in 2014 in Boston called Katagami Series.
See for yourself below or search ‘katagami’ in the catalog.