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Shibori: Eighth-century Japanese art taught at ACGC

Carol Gustavson, center, discusses the creation of a pattern in cloth using a binding method with Amin Dhanani, 18, at the ACGC High School in Grove City. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)1 / 2
Carol Gustavson pulls a heavily knotted cloth from the dye. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)2 / 2

After stirring it in a vat of indigo dye for several minutes Tuesday morning, Carol Gustavson lifts a piece of fabric from the nearly black liquid.

She holds the cloth and blows on the rows of bulges where the material has been gathered and tied.

The deep blue on the cloth begins to turn green.

It's magic, art, tradition and


A teachable moment.

It's also shibori, a Japanese art that dates to the 8th century.

Gustavson has been teaching

students at Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City Junior and Senior High School in Grove City the basics of the textile art for the past two weeks.

Working with ACGC art teacher Jenna Tanttila, Gustavson has taken a requirement of an Individual Artist Career Grant from the Southern Minnesota Arts and Humanities Council and turned it into a learning opportunity for all the students at the school.

"Carol was working on a grant. SMAHC wants grantees to have a community component," Tanttila said.

That requirement could have been met by offering classes to a few students.

But Gustavson and Tanttila decided to go beyond the grant's community component and teach some aspect of shibori to every student in the school system -- from kindergarten through 12th grade.

During a total of 29 classes, Gustavson taught students what rural Japanese began doing 1,200 years ago.

They discovered that indigo dye could be made from local plants and used to add color to their clothing.

Over the centuries they developed different methods to keep the dye from coloring specific portions of the cloth by compressing, binding, covering or manipulating it.

During Tuesday morning's class when high school students dyed their projects, students used a variety of techniques to control the pigment's saturation.

Some had their cloth packed between wood blocks held together by a clamp. Others stitched their fabric. A few rolled and bound their cloth into a carrot shape.

Gustavson, who now lives near Grove City, has learned a variety of shibori techniques since she first encountered the art while studying at the Art Institute of Chicago.

At the institute, she studied both the art and the science of shibori. She took chemistry classes to understand the characteristics and applications of the natural dyes used in the art.

She shared a bit of her knowledge with the students Tuesday as she stirred the dye. As the cloth turned a greenish hue when it was removed from the dye, Gustavson explained the change was because of oxidation.

While the high school students learned some science as they did shibori, younger students expanded their vocabularies.

"It's so cute hearing the little ones trying to speak Japanese," Gustavson said.

Students got a taste of shibori, but mastering the art can be a lifelong effort.

That's why it's disappearing -- even in Japan.

"In this electronic age, a lot of kids don't want to go through the apprenticeship, which is 13 years," she said of Japan's younger generation.

Gustavson said she knows of no one else in the United States practicing shibori and only 33 to 35 masters remain in Japan, most of them in their 70s.

Two of those masters are women.

While most masters concentrate on creating designs on textiles, one of the women takes the same approach as Gustavson.

She starts with plain cloth and takes it through to a finished piece, such as a kimono, a traditional Japanese garment.

Making a kimono requires a single piece of cloth 14 inches wide and 13 yards long. Creating a pattern on such a piece of material using the shibori technique will take dozens of dyeing sessions done over a period of more than a month.

One mistake in the process and the cloth is ruined.

Students at ACGC, on the other hand, dyed their projects two or three times during one class.

But the experience gave students a taste of an Asian art, Tanttila said. "It makes them more aware of the world around them," she said.

Probably none of them will become shibori masters, but some of them might take it up as a hobby, Gustavson said.

"As a hobby, it's enjoyable and doesn't require vast equipment," Gustavson said.

And teaching the ancient art at a small-town school -- in a way -- brings shibori back to its roots, Gustavson said.

"Shibori began in rural areas," Gustavson said, adding, "so it's sort of appropriate that it's back in Grove City."

Gary Miller

Gary Miller is a Designer for Forum Communications Co. Born and attended public schools in Willmar, Minn. Served 20 years in U.S. Navy as a photojournalist. Worked at West Central Tribune and Forum Communications since retiring from the Navy in 1994.

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