The Story Behind “Okan Art” - Shunsuke Takawo & Hisayo Takawo
・This is a translated version of the original article by Tokyo Art Beat.
・The original copyright is owned by Tokyo Art Beat.
・The article is made with permission from Tokyo Art Beat.
・The translation was done by TART.
・The responsibility for the English text lies with TART.

The Original Article - Tokyo Art Beat

We interviewed Shunsuke Takawo and his mother Hisayo Takawo on March 8th, International Women’s Day. (Interviewer: Tokyo Art Beat)

The left: patchwork quilt by Hisayo Takawo. The right: Creative Coding by Shunsuke Takawo
The left: patchwork quilt by Hisayo Takawo. The right: Creative Coding by Shunsuke Takawo

First of all, you’re probably wondering what “Okan Art” is. “Okan” actually means “mother” in Japanese and this is a term of endearment used to refer to Japanese mothers some handicrafts and arts at home while taking care of the family. There is a new movement in Japan to call the works created in this way "Okan Art" and an exhibition called "Museum of Mom's Art Nippon Kuni Okan Art Village" is being held at the Shibuya Koen-Dori Gallery in Tokyo until April 10 (review).

The term is often used to refer to handicrafts made by "Okans (mothers)" using easily accessible materials, but each piece has a completely different style, and the energy that comes out of their handiwork is truly impressive. I’m sure that there is a story hidden in the actual creation process that we can’t sum up in a single sentence.

We spoke with Hisayo Takawo this time who has spent almost 40 years making patchwork quilts as a hobby to find out the story behind "Okan Art”. This year, the mega gallery “Hauser&Wirth” is hosting an exhibition called “The New Bend” on textiles and quilts until April 3, and the New Museum in New York City is holding a retrospective exhibition “Faith Ringgold: American People” with Faith Ringgold, a leading black female artist. Quilts are one of the art mediums that have been garnering attention once again in recent years.

Hisayo’s son, Shunsuke Takawo is a creative coder that encourages and practices “daily coding”, which is a way of expressing oneself by connecting life and code. We explored the story behind "Okan Art" and its inspiration through the conversation between Shunsuke and Hisayo.

One of the quilts by Hisayo Takawo at her home in Kumamoto
One of the quilts by Hisayo Takawo at her home in Kumamoto

My Relaxation Time

—— We wanted to have the opportunity to interview you today because we saw one of your tweets saying that you somehow felt a connection between your creative coding works and your mother’s patchwork quilt. Could you tell us more about what you mean by “the connection”? And what were your thoughts on your mother making quilts?

Shunsuke Takawo: I actually saw my mother making quilts all the time since I was in elementary school. She was making them in the corner of the room with a piece of cloth and an ironing table. I clearly remember it, but I was not really aware of what that meant when I was at home. I had no idea what she was doing and even what it meant to be honest at the time, and I think I looked at them as if making quilts was just something she liked to do on her own just like a hobby.

—— When did Hisayo san start making patchwork quilts?

Hisayo Takawo: I started after my youngest child (my third son) was born, so I think it was around 1985 or 1986. I had to spend a lot of time at home taking care of my family, so one of the ways that I could do to help relieve stress at the time was knitting and needlework, which I had loved since I was a child. And quilts were actually a bit popular at the time in Japan, but it wasn’t something I kept doing all the time. For example, when I started working, I did it during my breaks, and there were many times when I was too busy working to do it.

—— Did you have any other motivations for your quilts other than relaxation?

Hisayo Takawo: Well, I am actually honestly not very good at talking with people. So, I feel more comfortable working on something using my hands. Just moving my hands in silence, I don't get tired at all even if I keep doing it late at night. It was just for relaxation. I was just doing what I loved to do.

—— Perhaps it was a time for you to take care of yourself in a way that was neither the role of a mother nor the role of a member of society.

Hisayo Takawo: It was never hard for me to cook at all, and I used to make red rice called “Sekihan” (a Japanese traditional dish) for my children’s birthday, but I think that there is something different about being a housewife. You feel like you are left out of society sometimes. And when you stay at your home for long, you want to get out every now and then. While I was shopping and collecting clothes, I found quilts interesting and it’s one of the things that doesn't require talking to many people.

Three brothers of the Takawo family
Three brothers of the Takawo family

—— Was there anyone around you who was making quilts as well?

Hisayo Takawo: There wasn’t. I am the third of four siblings, and my oldest sister is really good at making other things by following instructions in books. For example, she makes couch covers from shirts that her daughter-in-law doesn’t use anymore. My second sister can even make Japanese fabric clothes. So, my sisters said to me that it's sort of a waste to use such a beautiful cloth by cutting it into small pieces for quilts. And I’m now living with my sister because of the earthquake in Kumamoto in 2016, so we are talking with each other and now she does her sewing and I make quilts.

—— It seems like your sister’s works are more practical? Anyway, Shunsuke san posted some pictures of your quilts on Twitter, and I thought that it was so interesting to see the wide range of your design from figurative designs to abstract motifs. How did you get your inspiration from?

Hisayo Takawo: Basically I try to collect and combine fabrics of my favorite colors. Rather than each piece being original, I’m using some books and visiting exhibitions as well. I think that’s how I’ve been doing it. And I also think that people who make quilts are always looking at their surroundings to see if there is anything that they can use as materials for their quilts.

One of the quilts (Hisayo Takawo)
One of the quilts (Hisayo Takawo)

A Way to Feel More Confident in Yourself

Shunsuke Takawo: I feel like I’ve seen some changes in how she makes quilts depending on the time of year. I sort of remember her style was more like fairy tale or fancy in the early days using cute color schemes like pink and even flowers. So, the quilts of the last decade or so have been a bit different to me. The textures and things that you want to express through the quilts seem to change technically, am I right?

Hisayo Takawo: Well, when I first started, I just liked collecting cloth and fabrics on my own. So for some reason, I was interested in cute and beautiful colors and patterns, but I guess if you keep at it for a long time, you’ll feel you want to get better and better. I probably shouldn’t talk about it like this. Normally you would have made some progress in a short period of time, but I had no classes to go to and was doing it on my own, I was only making progress a little by little.

Shunsuke Takawo: I’m not sure, but I think it’s changing over time. She started out with standard American quilt like the Anne of Green Gables. Like I said earlier, maybe what you are trying to express with your patchwork quilts is probably changing?

Hisayo Takawo: It’s probably because I started my patchwork just by collecting old fabrics that couldn't be even used for clothes. It was literally like an amateur doing something with amateur ideas. That’s what that was. Then, after my grandson (Shunsuke's son, 2 years old) was born, I wanted to make something that would help him learn such as a series of alphabets. I think that makes sense because my environment has changed for sure.

The alphabets quilt made by Hisayo Takawo for her grandson.
The alphabets quilt made by Hisayo Takawo for her grandson.
Hisayo Takawo and Shunsuke Takawo. The interview was conducted by connecting Hisayo's home and Shunsuke's home online.
Hisayo Takawo and Shunsuke Takawo. The interview was conducted by connecting Hisayo's home and Shunsuke's home online.

—— For example, if you were to make a tapestry with the squares behind Hisayo san, how long would it take you to make?

Hisayo Takawo: Instead of focusing on just one quilt, I actually make 2 or even 3 at the same time. I guess I would be bored if I was making only one by one. And it took me about a year to make the bedspread. It takes time because I don't use a sewing machine or anything, so I make every quilt with my hands. But once you get started, it’s so much fun. I really enjoy making each piece because if the same pattern paper has some different colors, the overall tone and feeling given off by the pattern will be completely different.

Shunsuke Takawo: You first make a rough sketch of the pattern on a piece of paper, then start cutting it right?

Hisayo Takawo: Yes, but sometimes I still get biased toward my favorite colors and similar patterns. My sisters even told me that I have some kind of similar pattern, and I think that’s true. So that’s why I usually try to learn and see other people’s quilts or try to make something that I’ve never imagined before. But then, they tell me this time “Oh that’s too fancy” or something like that.

Quilt by Hisayo Takawo
Quilt by Hisayo Takawo

—— It seems like you consciously go off your taste.

Hisayo Takawo: Yes, and that makes me feel more confident about myself. We sort of lose confidence as we get older, right? So I’ve been trying to keep up with my sewing at least. And if you go to a fabric store in Aso (One of the famous places in Kumamoto), you will see that the people there use colors that I could never even come up with. And I love a quilt artist named “Yoko Saito” with her unique color schemes using natural colors. It also makes me wish I had studied a lot of things more, to be honest.

Inspiration from Mother

—— Just like Shunsuke san shared earlier that he thought that quilt was just something that Hisayo san likes to do, but then it turned out to become something that you feel some kind of sympathy for as a creator.

Shunsuke Takawo: I was actually quite late when I first became interested in art and design. I left my home in Kumamoto when I started to go to college, but it was not until then that I realized that I wanted to do something and express myself through my creations. So when I was there at home, I don't think we ever had conversations about her quilts or anything. Now, I can share and understand the sense and the preciousness of creating them while raising three children. And I respect it so much, but at the time I did not understand it at all. So that’s why I was really amazed when I went back to my parents' house at the end of 2021 and found her patchwork quilts. It is very very similar to my programming and my works, or perhaps it came down to me unconsciously. I wonder if I was doing what my mother had been doing, but in a different way from the quilt. It makes me feel very curious.

—— Hisayo san, do you feel any connection with your quilts when you see his “Generativemasks” project or others?

Hisayo Takawo: Sure. I also felt a connection with my son for the first time when I was asked to do this interview, but I think he has completely different ideas than I do. He is going his own way, but I’m so happy to hear that he’s somehow getting inspiration from me.

Shunsuke Takawo: I remember when I decided to study media art in graduate school, we had a conversation about what my research would be useful for and how I would live in the future. Now, that was exactly how I felt about my mother's quilts. At that time, I had my own ideas or feelings regarding my decision, but I feel that I’m getting a little closer to her. Or perhaps, I am getting to the point where I am willing to accept anything that I create as it is.


—— I also feel that there is a similarity between Hisayo san’s quilt and Shunsuke san’s daily coding in terms of how you both have continued to up to this point.

Shunsuke Takawo: I think so too. It’s quite similar to what I feel through my daily coding activity. When I walk outside or look around, I wonder how this could be expressed in a program or how this texture could be written in code and how I could see the world through the media. I believe that kind of perspective can be found in the world of quilts as well. I found out that how she explains her quilts is very similar to the way I talk about my own work. In that sense, I thought that over the past few decades we have come to feel like we can talk to each other about our creations. When I see her quilts, I realized that now I could say, "I'll try this one next time!" and I felt like I myself also changed. It was not something I had been aiming for, but there was a part of me that I was unclear about, and I felt it would fit nicely into it. I now have a clearer idea of what I should be doing in the future.

—— Are there any plans for the two of you to collaborate in the future?

Shunsuke Takawo: I mean, I would love to. But it might be a problem to decide which one of us would take the lead in the project. (laugh)

Hisayo Takawo: Oh no, I am not at that level at all. (laugh) What I’m doing is really something that a regular wife could do, but this time I really felt like I got closer to my son. So thank you very much!

Nanami Kikuchi
Born in 1986 and graduated from International Christian University.Editor / Writer for Bijutsu-Techo, books, and websites.
Art / Sports / Lifestyle

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