“I consider myself one of the luckiest people on earth for being a part of the program and reflect on it constantly,” remarks contemporary artist Karen LaMonte. She is known for her innovative work creating glass sculptures and spent seven months in Japan on the U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Exchange Fellowship. The Fellowship is funded by the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and administered in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts.
LaMonte has used clothing as a metaphor for identity and exploring the human in absentia throughout her career. As a Fellow living in Kyoto, she researched the Kimono – its production, form, function, and social significance. Focusing on the Kimono was a new evolution in LaMonte’s artwork. She had spent a decade of her career focusing on dress styles characteristic of Western society until she turned her attention to Japan and to the Kimono, the clothing that most embodies that culture.
One of the people she met was Akiko Nakamura, a fifth-generation brocade weaver. “I found the Kimono very beautiful, but incredibly rigid,” said LaMonte in a presentation at the Corning Museum of Glass. “She taught me about the appropriate motifs you wore in which season, and what the fabric needed to be. Everything was specific; it was the most highly codified clothing vocabulary I have ever seen. And the other thing that I found is that when you wear the Kimono, it completely transforms how you move. I tried to, as much as possible, wear the Kimono and go through daily life to learn the body language, because I think that’s very important.”
LaMonte says she enjoyed exploring new artistic techniques. “I did a collaborative project with “Minami-san”, a traditional Yuzen Kimono painter. It was amazing and disorienting at the same time,” she observed. Yuzen is a style of painting invented during the Edo period. It involves a vegetable dye method comprising over 20 steps done in cycles, using rice paste as a resist. “Minami-san was very enthusiastic about my work with glass and he invited me to do a collaborative project. Initially, I didn’t want to insult him and said I was trying to work with very Japanese themes, and he said, No, bring your own vocabulary to this.”
Trying something new can be challenging, says LaMonte. “Working with another artist is not something I had never done before. In this case, each of us came to the project with different cultural backgrounds, native languages and artistic orientations and ambitions.” In spite of these challenges, she found the other artist encouraging her to be creative and bold. “It was a triple adventure! What amazed me the most is that while I was trying to fit into the traditions I admired so much, the artist I was working with encouraged me to break these traditions as boldly as I could.”
The impact of the Fellowship experience on LaMonte’s work has been profound. Upon her return from Japan she spent the next three and a half years producing a series of Kimono sculptures cast in glass, bronze, or ceramic. “I am still and will be forever a different artist because of the experiences I had on this Fellowship. I have a completely fresh and expanded vision of materiality which informs every project I undertake,” she remarks.
A 2011 news release by the New Mexico Museum of Art noted that LaMonte’s Kimono sculptures reflect a cultural norm in which the human figure is depleted of all curves becoming an idealized cylindrical form. “How the Kimono is worn parallels the relationship between Japanese individuals and their society,” LaMonte explained. “Putting on a Kimono is literally about erasing the individual’s identity and joining the group.”
Whereas for past castings LaMonte worked with live models, for the Kimono series she built a mannequin based on biometric data of the Japanese population as compiled by NASA. She selected the measurements for the 50th percentile of 40-year-old Japanese woman in the year 2000 in 1g (gravitational force).
“My mannequin is the exact average Japanese female – the exact everywoman or no-woman,” she emphasizes. The shorter sleeve length tells us the Kimono belongs to a married woman, and her posture is an ojigi bow from the waist. It is a quintessential gesture of respect and humble greeting in Japan.
LaMonte encourages other artists to embrace their experiences during their Fellowships in Japan. “I did not realize what was going to be the influential experiences immediately. Definitely do not try to anticipate what will be the outcome of your research. Be totally open, if you try to anticipate the potential impact, you preclude the opportunities offered by immersive primary research,” she stresses. She also has advice for those artists who are thinking about applying for the Fellowship. “Be ready not to be accepted on the first try. If you are not accepted, do not give up, try again,” she said. “I applied two times, maybe three, before I was accepted.”
In 2013 LaMonte published a 168-page book about her work. Karen LaMonte Floating World is a collection of her works in bronze, ceramic, glass and rusted iron. It includes essays by LaMonte and Laura Addison, the Curator of Contemporary Art at the New Mexico Museum of Art.