By guest blogger Kate T. Williamson
NEW YORK NY I grew up in Berks County, PA, surrounded by Amish quilts and Pennsylvania Dutch folk art, so I think I have always had an appreciation for colors and patterns.
When I was around six years old, my family hosted visitors from Japan who gave me a bright red patterned happi coat, which became one of my most cherished possessions.
A few years later, when my father and grandfather returned from a business trip to Japan and I saw their beautiful photos, it became my dream to visit Japan one day.
As senior in college, I received a scholarship to study art in Kyoto the following year, which totally changed my life! In my application for the scholarship, I said I would like to study the landscape, patterns, and seasons in Japan (and conduct “casual sock research”).
Kyoto, with all its temples, shrines, and gardens, was the perfect place for that. I was able to rent a room at the Kyoto YWCA and, with a bike borrowed from my woodblock printing teacher, spent most of my days riding around Kyoto and visiting places I learned about from my guidebooks and others I just happened upon.
I started sketching and writing down my observations in little Moleskine notebooks (in very small handwriting, to make the notebooks last longer). At some point, I started to add a little color with a travel watercolor set I had brought along.
I found it frustrating that I didn’t have a consistent way of representing things (sometimes my watercolors were very loose, sometimes quite precise). I had read about how the graphic artist-turned painter Tadanori Yokoo once traveled to Nachi no taki (one of Japan’s tallest waterfalls and a sacred Shinto site) to regain his inspiration, so I decided to take a bus there and book a night at a little inn across from the falls.
I spent the day drawing and painting various small versions of this waterfall, and amazingly, I did figure out my illustration “style” by the end of this trip: precise lines and painting but with some room for looseness, quite inspired by Japanese ink paintings (especially those of Sesshu).
As Okan Arts readers, we probably all love colors and patterns and, likely, Japan, and my experience there certainly lived up to my wildest dreams. It was as though everything I had ever loved existed in abundance and was celebrated there: checks, polka dots, moon-viewing, amazing color combinations!
Some things I found particularly exciting were the color combinations in kimono—unexpected combinations that were for particular seasons and meant to evoke particular images.
I love the patterns and textures in traditional Japanese architecture. One of my very favorite places in Japan is Katsura Rikyu, an imperial villa built as a weekend retreat in the hills of Kyoto in the seventeenth century.
The checkered pattern (known as ichimatsu) on the sliding screens in the Shokin-tei teahouse on the grounds looks very modern yet is a traditional Japanese pattern meant to represent prosperity and expansion.
And of course, Japan is Sock Paradise! I’ve loved socks ever since I was a child, and by my junior year of college dreamed of being a sock designer (hence the mention of “casual sock research” on my application for the scholarship).
When you enter a home in Japan, you take off your shoes, so socks are elevated from being merely utilitarian to something that people actually see! It makes sense that Japan has the most advanced sock culture in the world.
I returned to America and worked on a book about visual culture in Japan (based on my many notebooks) titled A Year in Japan. I also worked as a freelance illustrator and writer while I tried to figure out how to start a sock business.
Finally, in 2015, after working for two years with the sock geniuses at my hometown mill in Reading, PA, to develop my vision of the perfect sock, I had socks to sell and started my small sock company, THIS NIGHT.
My company name comes from a tenth-century Japanese poem:
If only I could show them to someone who knows
This moon, these flowers, this night that should not be wasted.
Although THIS NIGHT socks are made in America, they’re quite influenced by Japan and its patterns and colors. I think everything I’ve made since my time in Japan has been influenced by that experience.
If I never have any inspiration ever again, I could draw on that one year because it was so full!
To visit THIS NIGHT’s website and learn more +click here
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ABOUT US: Okan Arts, a petite family business, is co-owned by mother-daughter duo Patricia Belyea and Victoria Stone. Patricia and Victoria sell Japanese textiles online, host creative quilting experiences, and lead quilting & textile tours to Japan.
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