The notion of identity has long been one of the most significant and defining questions in contemporary art. In the context of the United States, we are now approaching artists’ hyphenated American identities with greater nuance, and with good reason. Heart-to-heart conversations about cultural identities and life’s journeys frequently arise during studio visits with artists. It was no exception when I met up with Akiko Kotani (b. 1940) last summer. She is one of the three artists I invited to participate in an annual exhibition, Florida Contemporary 2021–22, at The Baker Museum, which is part of a multidisciplinary organization, Artis—Naples, where I am a curator. I wanted to hear her own experience of growing up as a child during WWII, and ask whether she wished the gallery labels to describe her as Japanese American or American. A fiber artist based in Gulfport, Florida, Kotani was born and raised in Hawaii. Kotani wants to be “labeled” as American. However, the label describes only one part of her multiple, coexisting identities. In our intimate conversation, she brought to light the layers of an artistic and personal identity that she consciously assembled over many decades.
Forging an Artistic Identity
Her name, Akiko Kotani, bears witness to how she chose her mature selfhood around her Japanese cultural heritage. Her parents, themselves the children of Japanese immigrants, wanted their children to assimilate, and gave her the name Laura Chinen. It was as Laura that she received her BFA in painting from the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, and met her first husband, an artist from Japan. She took on his family name, Kotani, and together they relocated to New York City. This was during the 1960s, when they were able to move among the city’s circle of Japanese artists. Yet Laura Kotani felt she couldn’t call herself an artist, because she felt she wasn’t good enough.
Kotani forged her new path and identity as an artist with another name change. After her marriage fell apart, she kept her ex-husband’s last name, which sounded more unquestionably Japanese than her maiden name, Chinen. She chose her first name Akiko, meaning morning child, because she was born in the morning. She had also begun to discover a new artistic medium through a weaving class she took at the Art Students League.
Wanting to get away from an old chapter in her life in New York City and pursue her growing interest in weaving, she went to Guatemala to learn indigenous Mayan weaving techniques. She stayed there for two years, studying with a renowned Guatemalan weaver, Rafaela Godinez, and learning traditional techniques—basic, simple stitches. This experience changed the trajectory of her life. She felt a deep connection to weaving, the Guatemalan tradition, and the history of the people’s clothes, integral to their cultural identity.
When I asked her why she chose Guatemala, not Japan, she answered with a huge smile that she didn’t speak Japanese, and it was too expensive and too far away from her homeland. Besides, she was not Japanese enough to navigate through Japan’s cultural and social codes, she commented. Finding affinities in different cultural heritages, she began to forge her own artistic language and identity, which was to be an amalgamation of chance and choice.
Kotani’s Early Works
After her return to the United States, she completed her MFA in Textiles at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture. One of her early woven pieces, the 1977 “Sawtooth” series, completed shortly after her MFA, was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum, then just launching the creation of its contemporary textile collection. For the next two decades, she taught fiber art and drawing at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. Now as professor emerita, she is again focusing on her art.
Stitch by stitch, Kotani integrates traditional women’s handcrafts into stunning artwork, symbolizing the repetitive nature of women’s unrecognized, laborious domestic work. While Kotani’s early works were woven tapestries, over the past two decades in particular, she has been gradually expanding her repertoire of techniques, processes, and materials. Most notably, since 2013, she has been exhibiting her ambitious, site-specific installation artwork, “White Falls,” displayed in different configurations for each site, as seen in “White Falls: Artis—Naples” (2021). In this work, multiple, massive panels, crocheted from 45-gallon, plastic trash bags fall from above, cascading onto the gallery floor, conjuring up the image of falling water that crashes below.
In 2021, continuing her practice, she created “Red Falls,” which premiered at USF’s Contemporary Art Museum in Tampa, as part of its triennial “Skyway.” For Kotani, trash bags, integral to our daily lives yet devalued, are a poignant symbol of women’s domestic labor. In a 2018 interview, she said, “I’ve always wanted the ‘prima materia’ of the women’s world to be an intrinsic part of the entire body of art making.”
The Interplay of Art and Spirituality
Kotani’s work showcases her multiple artistic identities, as a painter and a weaver, as well as her Buddhist practice. Her visual sense and training as a painter come through in her distinctive approach to weaving and embroidery techniques. She first developed the idea of painting with threads in the 1970s, and continues the practice today, employing basic colors and simple stitching techniques to convey essential ideas. Her approach is deliberately focused and minimalistic: “I find that drawing, the most elemental of the visual arts, stitching, the most elemental of the embroidery arts, and plain weave, the most elemental of the weaving arts, all have found their way into my present work.” By overlapping several layers of such stitched, diaphanous fabrics as silk organza, she creates a sense of depth and pictorial space. Like Agnes Martin and Lenore Tawney, whose artworks and careers inspired Kotani in her formative years, her interest in spirituality also encompasses the repetitive, meditative process of weaving, embroidering, crocheting, and drawing. For Kotani, her practice expresses a Buddhist spiritual foundation by means of a painterly sensibility.
Kotani’s Works and the “Grass” Series
The same continuity between the materiality of her craft and her personal journey may be found in Kotani’s ethereal works, such as “Red Rain” and “Golden Grass,” which invite the viewer to look at art slowly and thoughtfully. The works’ simplicity showcases her exploration of both her materials and the poetic potential of abstract language, while also evoking transient moments and elements of the natural world.
“Golden Grass,” along with “Tender Grass” and “Burnt Grass,” is part of a larger “Grass” series, consisting of 12 panels. Each panel is composed of three layers of silk organza stitched with ochre-colored silk threads. The curvilinear, stitched lines in the middle and back layers appear slightly muted, subtly echoing patterns of other layers. Creating an intricate dialogue between layered lines and the play of light on the fabric, Kotani uses the material as a field for spatial perception.
The entire series is meant to be a metaphor for the stages of life. “Golden Grass,” in particular, represents, “the later years of rest and reflection,” a stage of her life Kotani relishes. She foregrounds the presence of her own hand in her art, drawing on vivid memories of her mother, whose hand was visible in the decoration of her home and her creation of her family’s clothing.
Transcending Artistic Boundaries
Regardless of the media, Kotani’s artwork evinces a coherent aesthetic developed across more than five decades. Her spare, abstract visual lexicon always refers to and is inspired by nature. From her massive, site-specific installation pieces to minimalistic stitched works, Kotani’s work draws sometimes on geographic specificities and at other times emphasizes transient impressions or memories of nature experienced in a certain time and place. Hawaii—its abundant and paradisiacal landscape and seascape that surrounded her—looms large in her work, and its memory haunts her.
Is her identity as a Japanese American crucial and integral to her artmaking? I believe it is. Is her identity as an American important? I believe so. An octogenarian, is Kotani contemporary enough? There is no doubt. Her innovative use of materials, process-oriented working method that highlights the importance of repetition and seriality, and audacious spatial exploration through crocheted installation pieces all demonstrate compelling reasons to celebrate the contemporaneity of Kotani’s artistic practice.
Like the three layers of silk organza that make up each piece of the “Red Rain” and “Grass” series, her layered, three-dimensional artistic self emerges fully when seen through the veils of time. Perhaps we can see in those multilayered textile works a metaphor for her way of thinking, a materialization of the impossibility of speaking in a single voice without contradictions. Kotani’s self-consciously constructed identity as Akiko Kotani, and her metamorphosis from Laura Chinen, offer another compelling reason why questions of identity are often unavoidable in understanding artworks, even when the work appears not to confront identity issues and politics at first glance. And finally, her multifaceted artistic identities have, for over half a century, enabled Kotani to contribute to redefining fiber arts’ relationship to the fine arts, transcending the customary boundaries between the two.