39. A Thread x A Thread — Art of Chiyoko Myose

December 10, 2022 - Roger W. Lowther

Welcome to the Art Life Faith podcast. This is the show where we talk about art, what it has to do with your life, and what it has to do with the Christian faith. And I'm your host, Roger Lowther.

For over a decade now, we've been hosting “Art Life Faith” gatherings around Tokyo where we share a meal together and then an artist, a different artist each time, shares a little bit about their work and then we discuss it together. What does their art have to do with our lives? What does it have to do with our faith? The themes are always different, given by artists who are experts in their fields: musicians, dancers, painters, photographers, and the like.

These “Art Life Faith” conversations have been a great space for everyone involved, as we struggle together with what our faith has to do with our art. We teach and encourage each other in ways impossible outside of community, and no one is more rewarded by these relationships than I am. I'm always excited to learn more about God embedded in Japanese culture in ways I never imagined possible.

And there are so many other good things that come from these discussions as well. Let me just share a quick story with you. Just the other day I was visiting a gallery to encourage an artist showing her work here in the city. She was doing an artist talk and interacting with people about her work. I met another artist there who had spoken at a previous event with us. So I introduced myself and said, “I remember you.”

She asked, “Where? Where did we meet?”

“Oh, at that art life event at so-and-so’s house,” I told her.

“That event changed everything for me. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was. After I tried to express my faith in words for the first time, connected to my art, everything took off from there. I started to try to make all these different kinds of artwork to express my faith, and I started telling more and more people about it, and I was able to bring in people and talk about the artwork and talk about my faith. And that was just an amazing opportunity for me.”

I thought, “That is exactly why we’re doing events like this.”

But unfortunately, during these discussions, only a small group of people are ever actually able to be there in person. And then during COVID, well as you know, no one was able to be there at all. We had to move the discussions online. Now thankfully, things have opened up a little bit, but during COVID it really was helpful to look into how we could get these discussions out to more people. How can we involve them in these discussions?

Well, one way was by writing books. My book, The Broken Leaf, is a good example of that. It has ten meditations of the gospel through Japanese art and culture. In one sense it’s a work of journalism, a reporting on our “Art Life Faith” discussions in print form so that people can see what we’re talking about and be drawn into the discussions.

More recently, we started this podcast. Thank you so much for your support of it! We’ve had thousands of downloads since we started, and recently I received an email recognizing us as one of the top listened-to Christian podcasts in Japan. Now, I’m not sure if there are any other Christian podcasts in Japan, so it probably doesn’t mean very much. And, of course, this show is only in English, but we’ve always wanted to get a Japanese version going. So that’s something to look forward to in the future too, as we keep trying to get the message out there to more people.

So, anyway, in today’s episode, I want to bring you into conversations we had about the artwork of Chiyoko Myose, a Japanese artist who now lives in Wichita, Kansas. She came to Japan to exhibit at a gallery in Asuka, Nara, a city that's south of us, but while she was here we also invited her to exhibit in at Minami Terrace, or “Mina Tera” as we like to call it, a gallery/event space run by our very own Mayuko Shono, an intern working with us here in Tokyo. And then the work was moved to the lobby outside where we meet for worship on Sundays, and we had the privilege of the artist sharing her faith through the artwork in the worship service itself.

Chiyoko moved to the U.S. about 25 years ago, which led her to think about themes of being a traveler and a sojourner, with a longing for a place that she could call home. And she invites all of us to think about those themes along with her through her artwork.

Here is a short clip from the opening to our “Art Life Faith” event with our intern, Mayuko, introducing it and my wife, Abi, translating.

[Sound clip from exhibit]

As you can tell from this, it’s a pretty fun and informal event. Chiyoko began by sharing a little bit about her mother, who apparently was really good at talking to people and could become friends with anyone. In the train, in the bus, she would just talk to people. And when she visited Chiyoko in America, even though she didn't know English very well, she would talk to anyone in her broken English and made friends with so many. She clearly loved meeting people and treasured memories of meeting with each person. Unfortunately, her mother became very sick, and during that time someone gave her a lot of thread and asked if she could make something with it. Chiyoko thought about it and realized that thread really is a very good metaphor for human relationships. She thought of Japanese phrases like 縁を結ぶ (en o musubu), weaving a relationship together, and 縁が切る (en ga kiru), “cutting off a relationship. In fact, the character for “thread” 糸 (ito) is found in many other Japanese characters.

Are you ready for a Japanese lesson? Okay, let’s go. For example, 結ぶ (musubu) “to tie,” 編む (amu) “to knit,” 織る (oru) “to weave,” 縫う(nuu) “to sew,” 紡ぐ (tsumugu) “to spin yarn,” and others. If you look in the show notes, you can see that the left side of each of these characters has a part that looks like the character for “thread.” This is called the ito hen or thread radical.

But, you know, this radical for “thread” is not just found in words that have to do with an actual working with thread. It’s also found throughout the Japanese language in characters having to do with relationships. Besides the two mentioned before, here are two more: 繋ぐ (tsunagu) “to tie together or connect in relationship” and  絆 (kizuna) “bond between people.” In the time leading up to Tokyo Olympics, I saw these two characters everywhere. They were on posters. They were on T-shirts and all kinds of paraphernalia. “絆を繋げよう” (kizuna o tsunageyou). A good translation of that might be something like “Let’s connect in bonds together!” This “thread” radical is in both of those words, “bonds” and “connecting.” And I also saw both of these characters everywhere after the 2011 earthquake where we were coming together as a nation to meet the challenges of that terrible time.

Another word with the thread radical is 組む (kumu) “to organize.” My youngest son is in the second “kumi” of his fourth grade class. There are four groups in the fourth grade, and he is in the second one. So he’s in the “second kumi.” Another could be紹介 (shoukai) “an introduction, the start of a new relationship and perhaps 契約 (keiyaku) “a contract or binding agreement.” When parties tie themselves together in some mutually agreed upon terms, it’s called a keiyaku. And what about 結婚 (kekkon), the marriage between two people.There are so many words like this that have the thread radical in those characters.

And this “thread” radical is also found in verbs for the end of relationships: 終わる (owaru) “to end,” 絶える (taeru) “to break off,” 絡まる (karamaru) and 絡れる (motsureru) “to get tangled up.”

So in all these different ways, the Japanese language itself expresses relationships based on thread. And Chiyoko does a wonderful job of expressing this through her art. Sewing, tying, braiding, and stringing thread together—through all these methods she's able to give us different perspectives on relationships.

There were two main works Chiyoko exhibited when she was with us. One was called A Thread x A Thread. Each thread is only about 10 inches long, but in the whole work, there’s miles and miles of it. Each thread represents a person. Each knot represents the meeting of people. She started this work in 2013 but ever since, people have been adding to it. And it has grown and will always continue to grow.

First, you have to realize how large this work is. It completely filled the space at Mina Tera and completely changed the atmosphere of the room. That's one of the gifts of installation art, right? To create a certain atmosphere that people can be drawn into. And we definitely saw that in this case. As we talked to people, we had to shimmy around and through and under the work. But rather than hindering the building of community, it added to the experience. Usually when you walk into a gallery, you're not allowed to touch the artwork. Your supposed to just look at it. But in this case, it was okay to brush against it and touch it, but you were encouraged to do so. You didn't have to be afraid of breaking it or hurting it, because you were completely immersed in it. And that was the intent, to envelope the viewers with love as represented by these threads and also with the message of hope and healing. And through the art, different people were connected to each other.

As we added to the work, it became more and more complicated and messy. There were pieces hanging out everywhere. But in the hands of the artist, this was all brought together into one beautiful tapestry. Threads that hung by themselves were tied to others. They were physically brought into the work.

After the gallery showing, the work was transported to the lobby outside our worship space for Grace City Church Tokyo. One couple who came to the gallery had carefully tied their threads together but were disappointed that they couldn’t find their thread again in the new space. It was so clear how their lives, their relationship together, were all connected and part of something bigger, to this bigger community that was around them and with them and encouraging them. And how they too gave back to the community. It was just such a wonderful picture of being church.

I also really appreciated the way it brought in people from the congregation who don’t usually say much and may be a little bit shy. But they were willing to quietly grab a piece of thread and tie it on somewhere. And it gave me a chance to tie on a thread next to them and talk quietly with them. Just through the artwork itself it gave and built a sense of community, exactly what we are trying to be as a church.

Another work that Chiyoko displayed at the gallery and also outside the worship space was a painting series called Iridescence. Iridescence is a phenomenon where surfaces appear to change color depending on what angle you view it from. And it's meant to be a picture of our lives. By being in community, we’re able to see our life through the different perspectives of different people and how we interact with one another.

In this work, Chiyoko made alternating layers of dry and wet in order to show this. She first would lay down a drawing with pastels, crayons, color pencils, and pens, and also of course thread, she always used thread, and then she would put a wet layer of paint. Sometimes she mixed in gold and silver to give it that iridescent effect. The wet paint would flow up against the thread and along it. Then another layer dry layer is put down. And then again another layer of wet paint. So the finished artwork is a beautiful combination of these three, wet mediums, dry mediums, and thread, interacting and responding to each other. I might even add learning from one another.

Fortunately, we now have two paintings from the Iridescence series hanging in our living room. Our living room is one of the main meeting locations for church gatherings. So many meetings, parties, Bible studies, and training happens here. A lot of community building happens in our living room. So it seemed especially appropriate to have artwork about relationships displayed there, and we look forward to the time when you can see them in person, joining in the church activities and building community with us.

It was really cool to see how Chiyoko brought all this together—her own experiences, her wonderful memories of her mother, and this theme of relationships brought out in the Japanese language as represented with thread. Through her work, we saw a new perspective of the way that God works with us. We’re cut off. We’re separated from one another and lonely. Our threads are fraying and falling apart. We’re unraveling. And yet, through her craft, Chiyoko showed us how the Great Artist takes our tangled and frayed and unraveling lives, and brings us in and ties us to one another and to him. He builds our community and makes unity in him possible through his love. As it says in Colossians 3:14, “love…binds everything together in perfect harmony." God has fearfully and wonderfully knitted us together in our mother's womb. He has weaved us together in the depths of the earth, as it says in Psalm 139.

All of this happened for the first Sunday of Advent. What better way to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas? In a profound and mysterious way, God saved the world by coming into the world. He came as a little "thread" to 結ぶ (musubu), "to tie" onto our tangled and fraying lives and communities. Jesus was cut off on the cross that we might be tied to God. He became the isolated and broken strand so that we could be gathered into community with him. In a world quickly unraveling in sin, he binds us together with his love into a big and beautiful tapestry in the peace and harmony of the kingdom of God.

This is Roger Lowther, and you've been listening to the “Art Life Faith” podcast. Check out my website, rogerwlowther.com for a transcription of this podcast and links and pictures to Chiyoko’s works. As we say in Japan, “Ja, mata ne! See you next time.”



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