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Sunday, May 19, 2002



A lost textile art gains ascendancy

THE WORLD OF ROZOME: Wax-Resist Textiles of Japan, by Betsy Sterling Benjamin. Kodansha International, 2002, 224 pp., $49.95 (paper)

If the art of "rozome" (wax-resist dyeing) were a moon in the sky, it would be full and glowing brightly. Having waned in importance as a textile-patterning process at the end of the Nara Period (710-794), wax-resist dyeing re-emerged in early 20th-century Japan. Rozome artist/author Betsy Sterling Benjamin has carefully researched and assembled an engaging guide to viewing the past and present expression of this waxing phenomenon in "The World of Rozome." Now available in paperback, the book's gallery of masterpieces in gorgeous color will entice an even greater worldwide audience of English speakers to read about the distinctive qualities of both rozome artists and the art they create from cloth, wax and dye.

Why did early Heian Period dyers stop stamping cloth with hot wax that hardens and "resists" the penetration of dye -- thus creating pattern? A related process, "shibori" (inadequately described as "tie-and-dye" in English), has been continuously employed from ancient times to the present day. Benjamin prepares to answer this question by first leading us through the fascinating (and well-illustrated) transnational history of the process. Her thoroughly documented research shows that fabric carrying this information flowed through early Greece, Egypt, Persia and India to Central Asia and China. It was trade during the Tang Dynasty (618-906) that brought wax-stamping technology to Japan.

Benjamin devotes an entire chapter to describing the Tang-influenced rozome found in the eighth-century Shosoin repository at Todaiji Temple in Nara. Here, "a wealth of ancient textiles . . . were dedicated to the Buddha and placed in huge storage boxes . . . for over a millennium." Japanese artisans "possibly working under emigre supervision" used both cloth and paper to produce wrapping cloths, costumes, screens, floor cloths and Buddhist banners. She suggests the technique fell out of favor in the early Heian Period as court life turned inward, shunning imports and foreign practices. The sweet odor of beeswax that lingered in the cloth may also have been repugnant to Heian olfaction.

And yet it was foreign influence -- this time from Indonesia -- that sparked the rozome revival in the first few decades of the last century. The excitement generated by demonstrations of Javanese batik-making at the Paris Exhibition of 1900 spread interest in the process throughout Europe and possibly onward to Japan. Here, as her historical narrative enters the 20th century, Benjamin shifts to short biographies of three seminal masters to advance the story. Kyoto-based, trained in kimono craft, and exposed to both the ancient contents of the Shosoin storehouse and to Western ideas about personal expression, these three minds and six hands transformed the wax-resist medium into a thoroughly Japanese art form.

Today, the flat color and crisp line quality that signal batik have little in common with rozome -- often the only characteristic they share is the use of wax. Expanding the bio/narrative, Benjamin conducts 17 interviews with second- and third-generation artists (including five women) who work in the lineage of the three founding patriarchs. Each exchange reveals just how personal -- and Japanese -- the individual maker's handling of the process has become.

Several patterns emerge from their stories. Almost all were trained to use the various stenciling, hand-painting and dyeing processes essential to the art of kimono. Many studied oil painting or "nihonga" (Japanese traditional painting using pigments on paper). All used this culture-specific visual vocabulary to give rozome its signature look, employing techniques like "bokashi" (wet-shaded dyeing), "fubuki" (wax stippling) and "hanbosen" (the application of wax to the back of the cloth to create shaded effects).

The most remarkable trait the interviews reveal is that "rozome, unlike other forms of dyeing traditionally tied to the production of kimono by a team of workers, can be done by one artist working alone." Benjamin argues that "wax-resist has always attracted free-thinkers and those who yearn for the life of a solitary artist working in a private studio."

And, perhaps because of this conversion to the cult of the individual who is dedicated to personal expression, these artists feel their work is "not dyed art but fine art," and "craft techniques used to create fine art" that offer the "freedom often seen in painting." It follows that they feel their work is "worthy of a place in any museum." The reader need only study the color plates to verify this assertion.

Finally, with exhaustive information on wax, tools, dyes and special techniques for using and applying them, this impressive history becomes a "how to" guide as well. A helpful (and very necessary) glossary explains the Japanese terminology.

Benjamin's love of research -- and rozome itself -- shines forth from every page. She clearly states her bias as that "of an artist who has worked with the process for almost 25 years." She also states her mission: to see that rozome, "so rarely exhibited in the West," is introduced to that audience. She already accomplishes this, one student at a time, by teaching it all over the world in workshops each year. But this wonderful book will carry the news much further. Until Westerners can stand before these masterpieces and have an unmediated experience of them, this book will more than suffice. To paraphrase a famous Zen saying, "The World of Rozome" is not "the moon" (or the direct experience), but it is "the finger pointing at the moon," showing us where to look for a new manifestation of human creativity and handmade beauty.

Leesa Hubbell is a New York City-based design consultant who also writes and teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She took her first course in batik, at the age of 16, with the late Mary Remy at Arrowmont School of Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

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