“I was so bored in my hermetically sealed world that I couldn’t stand it,” says Karen Keane, describing her suburban childhood in Chicago Heights. So after graduating from the School of the Art Institute in 1982, she took off. “For most of the last 13 years I’ve been traveling. My life is going to study other cultures on extended stays.” She’s been to France, Slovakia, India, Thailand, Korea, and Nepal, but her longest stays have been in Japan.

When she first thought about going to Japan she wanted to become a woodworker. “I loved Japanese joinery. You could build these huge buildings without any nails or glue.” But one of her professors, Anne Wilson, said, “You really don’t know much about Japanese culture, do you?” Woodworking was strictly a male occupation in Japan. Wilson suggested that she think about being a weaver. She showed Keane her small collection of Japanese folk textiles. Keane says, “I was immediately drawn to them.”

Once in Japan Keane started reading Soetsu Yanagi, a philosophy professor who wrote in the 1920s about traditional crafts that were threatened by industrialization. He coined the term mingei, or people’s art: “Not art as art, but an art of life. It’s something you’ve studied your whole life, craft learned at your mother’s knee.” His oft-quoted phrase is “usability equals beauty,” though Keane says a better translation is “beauty born of necessity.”

After two years in Japan Keane became the only non-Japanese apprentice to Kichinosuke Tonomura, who ran a small weaving school and folk-craft museum. When she first saw his home, she says, “I knew I was in the right place. It was filled with all these world folk crafts, and I suddenly realized there’s a universal greatness to craft.” She soon began to understand the difference between true craft and a great painting by Durer or Vermeer or Sesshu. “Those are about the artist’s ego saying, “This is where I’m from, and this is the way I’m seeing.”‘

She says weavers are more modest. “Artisans are generally of the lower class, and they weren’t allowed to speak for themselves. But at the same time they learned to value the craft, what their parents did. You become proud of it, and subsequently you say, It’s not about doing the best I can do. It’s about doing the best that can be done, because this is our family, our craft, and our name.”

Humility was an important lesson for Tonomura’s students, who scrubbed the floors daily at dawn. Humility was also inscribed in the language. “We spoke a really formal Japanese, which is basically anachronistic. If you said something to Tonomura and it wasn’t polite enough, he’d just say, “Huh?’ You’d say it slightly more politely, and he’d say, “Hey?’ Finally, when addressed properly, he’d respond, “Ah, I see.’ I was so happy, because you never learn this when you go to language school. And Japan is so hierarchical–if you don’t know how to speak politely you can’t accomplish very much.”

Keane had begun collecting folk textiles as soon as she arrived in Japan. “I think they’re really quiet compared to others I’ve studied and collected. Many Thai or Indian textiles are like a noisy kid jumping up and down, screaming “Look at me!’ Japanese textiles are like a wise old man sitting in a shadowy corner of a room; you’re having this stupid, banal discussion, and a little “ahem’ comes out.” She compares one piece that has subtly patterned blues to the midnight sky, which “you don’t notice until you look up–but the longer you look the more stars you see.”

Most of Keane’s textiles are from the 19th century. “The end of an era. Machine-spun cotton is pretty much available to anyone by about 1890.” She prefers the earlier thick and thin hand-spun fibers, which she says reflect the spinning process and the spinner’s hand. “We can’t make anything perfect–that’s the gap between God and us.”

Keane will lecture on The Mingei Aesthetic and Folk Textile Traditions at 7:30 at the Field Museum of Natural History, Roosevelt at Lake Shore Drive, Monday, January 8; 922-9410. Works from her collection are on view through February 3 at Textile Conservators, 215 W. Ohio, 329-0097; gallery hours are 10 to 5 Wednesday through Saturday. Both events are free.

–Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.