Those who are kind enough to follow my musings in these pages will know that I have a special place in my heart for those creative souls who shun the spotlight, care nothing about the art world’s mainstream, and are untouched by the lure of commerce. They do what they do out of a peculiar passion and dedication, simply because that’s what they love to do; or, in some obsessive cases be it said, what they are driven to do by angels—or demons!—they neither know nor wish to.
Such a one, I discovered yesterday, is Ruby Nishio, whose quilts I went to see at Future Studio Gallery in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles. Now advancing in years, Nishio grew up before World War II in Los Angeles and was interned during the war at Heart Mountain relocation camp. In the years following the war, she became an adept seamstress, designing and sewing wedding gowns at a Beverly Hills store. She has also practiced the arts of embroidery, knitting, tatting and crocheting. Sine the early 1990s, she has been making quilts, combining fragments of found imagery with geometric patterns of her own devising.
The result is a collection of lovely works of art in various dimensions, thoughtfully planned and structured, mazes of color, shape and image that engage both eye and heart. I say “heart” because these are truly moving objects, perhaps because the love that went into their creation is so clearly evident in the end result. A part of it is the recognition of the intense labor involved: one of the quilts included in the exhibition—and there are apparently many, many more—comprises an amazing 2,193 two-inch squares of flowered fabrics. A part of it is the quality of the eye and the sure-fire aesthetic choices that make their surfaces a delight to explore. And a part, surely, is inherent the symbolic values that we sense behind the choice of images.
Nishio clearly relishes the ability to make her own creations in color and pattern, but she finds her inspiration in the natural world of birds...
... animals, and flowers. Apparently an avid gardener, she brings her hands-on experience of nature to her stitchery. These values, though, are compounded by a keen sense of the history and culture of both her Japanese heritage and her American identity. We find, for example, one quilt devoted to recreating the heraldic crests or Japanese families; another, “Portrait Gallery,”
... patterned around traditional, stylized Japanese portraits; and “New York, New York”...
... in which echoes of Lady Liberty’s pointed crown simultaneously evoke a flutter of oriental fans, and are combined with a system of patterns that evoke, as the gallery newsletter craftily suggest, “Broadway by way of the Ginza.”
Nishio treasures her work so much that she declines most opportunities to sell them. From the Future Studio show, she grudgingly allowed the sale of two small quilts. I have absolutely no doubt that these objects would sell easily, and at substantial prices, were she to allow it. Their quality is unchallengeable, their intrinsic worth unquestionable. But I personably find it admirable that she is more comfortable with the giveaway, passing on those quilts she can part with to family members and friends. This puts them in a place somewhere beyond market value, in the rare realm, these days, of the priceless. I do feel rather sorry for my friends, the Future Studio Gallery dealers, in this predicament—but my guess is that they share my admiration for the stubborn integrity of this remarkable woman.