“Craft is a way to make something out of nothing, and a way to reinvent the humble as something important, sustaining, and beautiful.” This statement by Sarah Nishiura, a Chicago-based quilt artist, resonates with us because it summarizes our reason for founding Studio KotoKoto: to celebrate and share the beauty and importance of goods that we use every day.
We came to know Sarah’s work through Handmade For Japan, our auction of donated art which benefited the victims of Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Frustrated by the horrible news coming from Japan, she contacted us to donate one of her hand-quilted works made from recycled fabric.
Not only was Sarah’s quilt beautiful but we were struck by the symbolism of a work–by an American woman of Japanese heritage–that was creatively and carefully composed of fabrics from all segments of American society. That symbolism was appreciated by others, too, because her quilt raised over $1,800 for the people of Japan!
Quilting allows Sarah to explore concepts that she studied while pursuing formal training as a painter. However, quilting challenges her emotionally in a way that painting did not; she is continually forced to consider what it means to be a maker. Moreover, Sarah is especially mindful that her work is part of a much larger tradition, both within the history of her family and of our society.
She was taught to quilt by her grandmother who pieced together feed sacks during the Depression. Sarah acquires the fabric for her works in a different way, typically by seeking out used men’s shirts at thrift stores which she calls “the collective scrap bags for our culture.” Cutting and piecing the fabrics together in designs of her own creation, as well as hand-quilting the finished tops are ways that Sarah connects to the larger quilting tradition.
Recycling fabric is a way for Sarah to pay tribute to her father’s family who were held in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. While there, they used their skills and ingenuity to make devotional altars from scrap wood. Sarah notes that “[They] clearly believed that the heart of craft was embodied in the elevation of skill and not the exultation of expensive materials.”
Despite Sarah’s use of older fabrics, she constructs her quilts as strongly as possible so that the quilts will last far into the future. She does this because she’s determined that her quilts be used, and thus, that their fabrics can continue on their respective journeys. For Sarah, the meaning of a quilt is embodied in both its utility and tradition. And the obvious beauty and care in her quilts certainly make using them difficult to resist!
A selection of Sarah Nishiura’s custom quilts are available at Studio KotoKoto.