December 29, 2018

Gladiolus stem on China silk kimono (early-mid 1980s)

A couple weeks ago I described the frame I built to help me with my first “canvas sketch.” It was a wooden expandable frame I originally created in the early 1980s to stretch panels of habotai, also known as china silk. (Habotai is quite ephemeral—very soft and almost translucent.) I painted bits of floral ephemera on the stretched material and sewed it together with other strips of silk to make simple kimonos. Habotai takes the paint beautifully, with the color soaking through to the other side, so it almost looks like stained glass when held up to the light. As I said in that recent post, stretching the piece of canvas made me wonder if I still had any of my painted kimonos. I dug through a box and found these. Woo hoo!

Before making the hand-painted kimonos, I was making kimonos from “found fabric” for a vintage clothing store in Los Gatos. The store was called “Rags to Riches.” When I say “found fabric,” I mean random squares of cotton or rayon I found in huge barrels in various fabric stores I seemed to be haunting at the time. I would dig way down to the bottom, finding colorful and fun prints. And it seemed that each piece was just enough to make a simple and fun kimono. I remember making a bunch of these, putting them in a garment bag and walking along North Santa Cruz, looking for some place that might let me sell what I had made. One of the owners of “Rags to Riches,” then located on North Santa Cruz, liked what I was making and let me sell my outerwear there. The store was very eclectic with her vintage clothing on one side of the store and a former boyfriend’s vintage furniture on the other side. The kimonos sold very well in her little shop and she and I actually became pretty good friends.

There were many funny stories and events that we shared together related to her vintage clothing business. Once we got to know each other she hired me to make 30s style dresses and what she was calling “Joan Crawford” blouses with shoulder pads and beaded necklines. We also made a trip to LA together, where she took me to an unmarked warehouse in downtown that sold vintage clothing by the pound. She was always on the look out for beaded sweaters from the 50s and what she called “Barbie dresses” that were actually old prom dresses also from the 50s. She found quite a few sweaters and dresses on that trip. Later on she started making hats and renting out Halloween costumes. She had found a small business in Santa Cruz that made a wide variety of Halloween costumes and my friend would rent some of their more elaborate costumes that she would then rent out to her “Rags to Riches” customers. One year she had a female gorilla costume on display at the front of the store. But one afternoon, a couple people drove up to the front of her store, grabbed the gorilla costume and drove away. My friend saw the whole thing happen and ran screaming after them as they made their gorilla getaway. She could run pretty fast even when wearing her usual pair of spring o lators. She never caught the “gorilla nappers,” but swore she was going to every Halloween party in Santa Clara County, looking for someone dressed as a female gorilla. It’s a pretty funny story now, but it wasn’t at the time, as she had to pay outright for the costume.

water lily1
Water Lilies on China silk kimono (early-mid 1980s)
silk sleeves
Camellias on sleeves of China silk kimono (early-mid 1980s)

During her hat and Halloween phase she and I continued to collaborate on various other projects, but I also continued with my kimonos. I don’t remember what got me started painting on this flowy silk, but I do remember that I loved its soft and ephemeral quality and wanted to do something special with it. It made into such lovely lightweight kimonos. I was not only interested in painting on the silk, but was experimenting with dying the fabric with natural dyes. One of my favorite natural dyestuffs was cochineal and when it was mixed with hot water I created beautiful shades of bright red all the way to lavender, depending on the mordant added to the dye bath. If you want to know more about cochineal, look it up on the Internet. I will tell you that it is an insect… Besides dying yards and yards of china silk in huge pots my Los Gatos backyard, I also loved painting flowers on it. But I don’t remember what kind of paints I used. Such hand painted and hand dyed kimonos sold well at “Rags to Riches.”

As usual, many of my “art inspired” stories lead me to seemingly random topics that are just floating around in my head. This week is no exception. You may have noticed that for this week’s post I have used the term “ephemeral” quite a bit. Silk has a natural life and is short lived. And over time it will degrade and finally turn to dust. I learned first hand about this when my “Rags to Riches” friend asked me to repair a beaded dress from the 1920s. The beads had been stitched to a crepe de chine sheath dress and were falling off. As I tried to restitch the beads back to the silk, the thread would pull through the silk fabric and make a hole in the dress. The weight of the all over beads was pulling on the silk threads and the once strong and stable woven fabric was weakening. I suggested the dress be remade in cotton, but wondered who was going to sit and stitch each and every bead back onto that dress.

When thinking of the transitory nature of silk it stands to reason that the paint and dye materials I used on it would also degrade and be lost at some point in time. It’s funny, but I am actually OK with the idea that art is meant to be lost—even the great works of art painted on canvas will degrade sometime. Maybe art in general is meant to be transitory in nature and even the most saturated colors and materials lovingly created by an artist are meant to degrade and disappear over time. And maybe future artists are meant to reinvent or recreate that art for future generations to love with distraction as we do right now. But take heart future artists! There will always be a place for art and artists that don’t worry about such things. We will always continue to create our creations whether it’s meant to last or not. I mean, think of those artists who do detailed chalk sketches on the sidewalk. They know it’s going to rain sometime, but do it anyway. Can I get an A-men?

Note about vintage downtown Los Gatos, circa 1980’s

“Rags to Riches” has been gone for a long time. The whole Los Gatos downtown changed after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. Many of the old brick buildings had been damaged and had to come down. And it seemed that once all of the buildings on North Santa Cruz changed Los Gatos took on a kind of gentrification that seemed to push out all the old funky parts of Los Gatos. That included “Rags to Riches,” the old movie house and the heart of Mountain Charley’s restaurant. Maybe places are just as ephemeral as art. Yes?

Just came from my first B’not Mitzvah in the Valley. What a delight!

Happy New Year!


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