Shumei Kobayashi

“Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.” Richard Feynman 1918-1988 Theoretical Physicist

That Nature should be the connecting thread between a practising Buddhist Shugendō shaman, ‘moonlighting’ as a tsutsugaki artist, and a theoretical physicist is not at all strange. Buddhist Shumei Kobayashi speaks of primitive religions such as Japan’s mountain-centered animism and laments their fading relevance in today’s fast-paced world. He shares his earliest recollections, as a ‘young lamb’ in the midst of six old practitioners of the Shugendō sect, of the unrelenting day and night ritualistic training required in pursuit of an understanding of the universe- the very same goal as theoretical physics- different threads of the same tapestry.

In 2011 the threads and pathways of life’s patterns brought contemporary textile artist Shumei Kobayashi to Lesley Kehoe Galleries for his rst solo exhibition with our gallery. The title of that exhibition, ‘Weaving the Future’ was portentous, as Shumei is now a regular and successful exhibitor with the Galleries.

The interweaving threads that are characteristic of Shumei’s foundation canvases are metaphors for the serendipitous life threads that see the artist creating significant networks in Australia. From his first government-sponsored exhibition at the Japan Foundation in Sydney in 1996, these networks, many introduced and nurtured by Lesley Kehoe Galleries and its clients, have successfully created a dynamic that sees Shumei now as the recipient of a special artist’s visa for permanent residency in Australia. He is keen to preserve and revivify the tradition of tsutsugaki through teaching it to young people in Australia. He sees opportunities in Australia’s progressive fashion industry for the creation of unique fabrics.

Currently establishing a studio in the environs of the renowned Curly Flat vineyard, the artist is developing natural pigments from native materials, a shibui coffee hue on silk from Curly Flat’s pinot vines and an evolving grey/brown from eucalyptus. A new art name has been created for these Australian works –cloud white:  (shiroi kumo 白雲). This reflects the initials of his name Shumei Kobayashi, as well as paying tribute to the inspiring skyscapes of the Lancefield area. The artist’s life-long practice as a Shugendō Buddhist shaman and its respect for, and communion with, nature and the spiritual world informs all his work. His original and contemporary interpretations of these elements speak both to the ageless universal and to the current zeitgeist.

Our role as a gallery is that of a connoisseur gathering threads and creating tapestries for others to enjoy, a creative activity beautifully expressed by John Bartlett (1820-1905), ‘I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.’

Shumei Kobayashi apprenticed with Living National Treasure, painter turned textile artist, Motohiko Katano (1889-1975), and under this master’s influence embraced the idea of original thought and individual creativity as opposed to the studio system and division of labour of Japanese tradition. Shumei, one of the very few remaining artists of this venerable technique, is master of the entire process from concept to final artwork, although remnants of the tradition remain in the artist-specified commissioning of the base canvas of hemp, linen and fine silk from specialists in Kyoto.

With no stencil, tsutsugaki is a resist-based painting and dyeing art. Master of silk, cotton and hemp dyeing, Shumei’s power as an artist is strongest in his contemporary interpretations of the traditional and the natural. His bold designs, often abstracted visions, sit as dynamic contrasts to the sensual texture of their background fabric – newly woven linen, fine silk or thick chunky strands of hemp. This exhibition presents the themes of waterfalls and rope – natural threads, sacred threads, and mundane threads. What follows are the artist’s words about this body of work:

Waterfall 瀧・滝

The idea of water, waterfalls, as sacred is one that arises from the understanding of water as a manifestation of Nature – the larger its scale, the greater our feeling of otherworldly grandeur. From ancient times, humans have acknowledged water’s scarcity and significance. It is both revered and feared – floods for example: water bursting forth as a manifestation of the unapproachable divine. On occasion, waterfalls have even been deified.

These works express 40 years of my personal experiences and feelings toward grand waterfalls, particularly the Nachi falls (in Wakayama province, one of the best-known falls in Japan).

Rope (Rope, cord, climbing rope) 縄・綱・ザイル

For towing, pulling and support, ‘tsuna’ is good; for binding and tying ‘nawa’ is good. For use in weaving, we have ‘ito’ and ‘himo’. ‘Nawa’ and ‘rope’ signify something fairly thick. In the past, the plant ‘tsuru’ and long thin grasses of various kinds were used, also ‘wara’ and raw silk thread. In the 18th century, metal was intertwined to create ‘wire rope’; in more modern times, hemp, Chinese palm, cotton were used, and in the 20th century nylon and other chemical and carbon fibres came into practice. Through use, rope changes state and outward expression… it is like we sentient beings – as we go through the trials and experiences of life, some of us are hurt, while others, licking their wounds, march on, persevering in step with their destiny… I was projecting these thoughts onto rope’s expressions as I worked on these pieces.

Shumei Kobayashi
Lesley Kehoe