BY Keith Recker | January 20, 2011
Does a work of art reveal the soul of its creator?
If so, the needlework of Kagoshima City’s Nui Project, an embroidery workshop for the mentally disabled, uncloaks souls whose workings are little understood.
Nui Project’s dazzling textiles and shirts, stitched by artists living with Down’s Syndrome, autism, and other mental and physical challenges, force viewers to re-examine their assumptions about the mentally handicapped – and make textiles lovers pause in outright admiration.
Nui Project’s parent organization, Shobu Gakuen, was established in 1973 as a rehabilitation facility for the mentally disabled. Kobo Shobu, its craft-based workshop, started in 1985 – and the Nui Project is Kobo Shobu’s embroidery atelier, surrounded by sister projects in woodwork, ceramics, dyeing, washi paper, and other disciplines. If the participant is capable of choosing between the various crafts, he or she chooses what medium to pursue; if not, family members decide for them.
Nui Project welcomes about 25 participants, most of whom live on campus. They are assisted in their embroidery work by four staff coordinators. Staff member Sayaka Enomoto tells HAND/EYE that the coordinators “just watch the artists working (or playing) with threads on a piece of shirt or cloth in their own way. We don't really teach them how to sew or how to stitch, but to those who can understand stitching techniques we sometimes give advice so that they have more options. The artists play with threads in many ways people don't usually think of as stitching. Through observing these individual proclivities, the staff learns what materials would be best for them, and prepares projects exactly right for each person.”
Anyone who has visited a successful artist’s studio has seen the combination of space, light, organization, and attentive assistants that are a modern creator’s dream. Under the auspices of Nui Project, mentally disabled people work under exactly these circumstances. The fluid originality of what the embroiderers make abundantly justifies the investment in them. The gently warped shape of a heavily embroidered shirt is as avant-garde as anything seen in the high fashion world. The relentless repetition of stitches creates fields of deeply original texture and pattern. Patterns emerge that are somehow familiar and tangible, yet at the same time seem on the verge of disappearing.
Writer and craft observer Scott Rothstein comments, “The members of the Nui Project are pushing the limits of fiber. These artists draw on shirts using thread and create sculptures...Vibrant and intuitive, this work demonstrates the possibilities of fiber in an unprecedented manner. What is distinct about art from the Nui Project is the artists’ direct and unencumbered response to their medium. There is a spontaneity seen in these works that is unique in contemporary fiber art. These pieces do not look labored, they seem as if they were created in an instant.”
Rothstein is right to spotlight the shirts in particular. Perhaps because we think we know what a shirt should look like, Nui Project’s shirts surprise and inspire with their variations on form and proportion, and the intensity of their perfect imperfection. Staff members, sure that the shirts are meant to be worn, step in sometimes with a sewing machine to mend a tear or correct a flaw that does not seem to be part of the artist’s design. But a deep respect for the voice of each maker keeps them cautious: “Nui Project staff think that it's very important to have the artists pursue their own style on individual works. Just by stitching with one needle, they put so much energy and meaning into their work, which comes from what they do, what they think of, and how they feel. Working in collaboration with the artists, the staff always takes care to get what they're trying to say and make sure that their work remains a means of their expression.”
Nui Project’s Design Office Chief Hatsune Doi comments, “Our mission is to share the amazing talent of those with developmental disabilities and to tell people the importance of having their own styles, their own identity. By questioning the very idea of disability, we want to show that our artists can impact the world of textiles or other fields of art. Even all of society.”
HAND/EYE hopes you will look at their work and be part of Nui Project’s impact on the world.
Nui Project conducts an on campus gallery show every three months, with profit shared with the artists. A larger exhibit takes place every two or three years, and one will happen soon in Kyoto. Attending a show or exhibition, or stumbling on a gallery in Japan who has a contract to sell the various crafts of Kobo Shobu, is the only way to purchase a Nui Project shirt. To learn more, visit shop.yoshikowada.com and purchase the book called Nui Project. You can also visit Scott Rothstein’s blog artfoundout.blogspot.com.