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  • Writer's pictureEmily

Casting a wide net: ideas come from everywhere

(food, yummy food, as inspiration!)

In my prior life (or several prior lives ago), I worked at a museum, and one of my jobs was to help assess the things that were offered for donation for the permanent collection. This was not MOMA or the Met, but a community-based museum dedicated to sharing and preserving the stories of a marginalized community (the Japanese American National Museum in downtown LA--go check it out!). The collection consisted of the most amazing things that came from the homes and lives of ordinary people. Lovingly used kitchen utensils, humble carvings made in "camp" (as the wartime incarceration centers are referred to in passing, where most people's families had spent World War II), clothing immigrant great-grandparents wore on their journey over, worn and folded passports, brittle paper directories.

Leggings made from kasuri fabric by a very clever and frugal Japanese immigrant who worked as a laborer on a Hawai‘i plantation (Gift of Barbara Kawakami, Japanese American National Museum)

This was where I received my education, an education more valuable than multiple college degrees. I learned about the critical importance of each person's story in contextualizing things, about how things hold a special fascination and speak to others, that the value of an object sometimes is in the story, not in its reputation or in the intrinsic value of the materials from which it is made. I learned "to learn" from everything, and that everything that has been touched by a human hand can impart a piece of a whole, can communicate some intangible truth or feeling.

(One of my favorite unexpected discoveries when I was doing my dissertation research was these things, or dosojin (道祖神), the spirits that protect the old roads in the mountains. They are usually depicted as a sweet and affectionate couple. I mean, seriously! )

In the life I lived after that one, I carried my love of things with me. I studied history, but made sure to stay anchored in community, in the things, in the lived experiences. What I did in that life is a story for another day (mainly a lot of writing and reading). I bring up the importance of things, and what working in community and their "stuff" taught me, to explain part of my process of seeking out inspiration and ideas wherever I am, and from whatever I happen to see.

Although I find any statements about inherent Japanese aesthetical sense uncomfortable--I will obnoxiously start coming up with exceptions for every stereotype about Japan, please don't get me going (although you really should read about Kanno Suga, the first woman executed for political crimes in 1911...she will make you think differently about Japanese women, I guarantee it!)--I do think there is a cultural value for transforming simple practical objects into simultaneously beautiful things. We, at least where I grew up in the Tokyo area, see beauty in simplicity, in feigned humility, in the inherent qualities of the materials (none of this applies ot Osaka--there it's all about big and glitsier the better!). There are certain colors and color combinations that evoke an immediate peace and calm for reasons I cannot explain. It is the feeling of home, and of its beauty.

My head is full of ideas right now, and I can't wait to start testing them out and seeing if the hat or glove or scarf or (and this is new!) socks I see in my mind will actually look that way in real life. And as I have in each of my "past lives" I seek inspiration for all of these in the world around me, and hope I can imbue each of my creations with a piece of the stories I hear from other objects.

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