Berkeley’s Kay Sekimachi, 94, weaves her way to solo show at BAMPFA

Kay Sekimachi, a fiber artist for over seven decades and, more simply, an expert weaver, sits at her loom in her brightly lit Berkeley studio and starts to dance.

She moves slow and comfortably; she has been doing this for so long. But her dance isn’t on a ballroom floor, rather her feet shuffle along the treadles—or foot pedals—of her loom and her hands glide along the warp and the white cotton weft of the woven web she is creating.

Fiber artist Kay Sekimachi in her Berkeley studio on May 10, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Kay Sekimachi in her studio. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

“You work up a rhythm,” the 94-year-old artist says as the loom shutters and squeaks. “You throw a beat, then change.”

The results: delicate, small-scale minimalist weavings that vary from boxes to vessels, among other textile objects. A vast survey of the decades-long Berkeley resident Sekimachi’s work will be unveiled May 28 and on view until Oct. 24, at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). It is among the museum’s first exhibitions since its COVID-19 closure. Titled Kay Sekimachi: Geometries, the show is Sekimachi’s first major solo exhibition at BAMPFA, though not her first museum show.


Fiber artist Kay Sekimachi in her Berkeley studio on May 10, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Sekimachi’s woven jewelry hangs on the wall of her Berkeley studio. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

“The girl’s gotten around,” the exhibition’s independent curator Jenelle Porter says, noting her career took off during the American fiber art movement, as early as the 1950s. “She’s part of the fiber art movement and the reason she’s part of that is that she’s weaving these incredible sculptures of monofilament, which no one is doing at the time.”

From basically the beginning, Sekimachi’s fiber artwork has been non-traditional — and handsomely celebrated.

Sekimachi has influenced countless fiber artists and craftspeople and is often called the “weaver’s weaver” after her unusual and precise skills on the loom. Her work has been displayed around the world and is in the collections of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (including the DeYoung Museum), the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, the Oakland Museum of California, and the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery.

Porter has been intimately involved in showing Sekimachi’s work in the past, previously showcasing it in two exhibitions: Fiber: Sculpture 1960–Present at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston in 2014, and A Line Can Go Anywhere at New York’s James Cohan Gallery in 2017, which focused on Bay Area artists working in fiber.

Sekimachi was born Sept. 30, 1926, in San Francisco and during World War II, she and her first-generation Japanese family were interned at Tanforan Assembly Center and then the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah from 1942 to 1944. During internment, Sekimachi took daily art classes with a fellow imprisoned artist. She learned painting and drawing and is said to have become infatuated with and skilled in making traditional origami objects.

After being released with her family and settling in Berkeley, Sekimachi studied from 1946 to 1949 at the California College of the Arts and Crafts (now named just California College of the Arts — “Crafts” was dropped in 2003 to the dismay of former students and craftspeople alike). While attending the college for painting, silk-screening and design, she found herself in the school’s weaving room.

“I was captivated,” she says. “With the last $150 I had, I had to buy a loom.”

During the fiber art movement, Sekimachi was making multidimensional objects out of monofilament, a material like fishing line that seemed to hang in space. The objects are mostly translucent, and many are black, a color Sekimachi made by dying the monofilament in her sink. These delicate hangings sometimes have glass beads and clear plastic tubes.

“This was the kind of thing artists are doing in the 1960s,” Porter says. “They’re questioning the traditions of materials.”

She stopped using monofilament sometime in the 1970s, but she was not finished working.

Over the years, she has woven flat pieces that, once taken off the loom, she molds into shapes like boxes or vessels or bowls. She calls some of her forms takarabako, which means “treasure chest.”

“Most people don’t think about weaving a box,” Porter says.

Fiber artist Kay Sekimachi's Berkeley studio, as seen on May 10, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Sekimachi first learned to weave while a student at the California College of the Arts and Crafts in the 1940s. “I was captivated,” she says. “With the last $150 I had, I had to buy a loom.” Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Sekimachi is both artist and craftsperson as she is interested in both devotions to making the best weaving she can because she is interested in the history of the craft of weaving. Because her work is so unique and influential, she is also considered a fine artist, Porter says.

“She’s adapting ancient weaving techniques,” says Porter, who has served as senior curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston and curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia.

“What artists do is make an idea of their own and make an object of what they want to see in the world,” Porter adds. “In Kay’s work, yes, it’s beautiful, but it shows invention, incredibly skilled technique. It’s patience, it’s subtle, it’s very serene. I think it reflects her. She is very special. Somebody like Kay maybe goes somewhat under-acknowledged broadly in society.”

Sekimachi is hesitant to talk about her weaving work but loves to talk about the process.

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Sekimachi has a collection of Japanese folk art toys in her Berkeley studio. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

“I just love the motion of weaving,” Sekimachi says. “There’s so much you can do — double weaving can lead to triple weaving; triple weaving can lead to quadruple weaving. I have a lot of expertise and still a lot to learn.”

The early monofilament sculptures will be included in the BAMPFA show. The exhibition will also include examples of the artist’s smaller-scale fiber sculptures, including woven boxes, origami-inspired folded objects and handmade books. The most recent works featured in the survey are small-scale minimalist weavings, created in homage to the paintings of Paul Klee and Agnes Martin.

Sekimachi says she’s proud to be having a show at such scale at the BAMPFA.

“Berkeley is my hometown, so I am terribly excited about the show,” she says. “This is home and all my relatives are here.”

Kay Sekimachi: Geometries is a timed-entry exhibition show. Admission is $10 for adults 18 and older, and free to children and teens, though advanced tickets are still required for free admission.