Workshopping Manga Cross-Stitch

From the event flyer, © Japan Foundation, London

From the event flyer, © Japan Foundation, London

One of the ways I’m promoting Manga Cross-Stitch and spreading the ideas behind the book is through workshops. The first two were held at the Japan Foundation at the beginning of July, the day after the sashiko lecture described in an earlier post.

I’ve been presenting workshops in all kinds of settings for years. It’s a good way to teach, learn and share ideas: when people have to participate in other ways than simply listening, they usually take in and retain a lot more. A workshop also builds in the enduring gratification of an end product. Whether it’s a plan, a comic, a story, a hand-crafted item or a new skill, you take away something you made, something you didn’t have before.

The Manga Cross-Stitch workshops began because I wanted to have somewhere to show off the beautiful work of my sample stitchers, and to promote the convergence of art and craft and the importance of handiwork. They were photographed for the book, and they look great, but seeing them close up gives a greater appreciation of the individual skill and style of each stitcher. I’m looking for any galleries interested in an exhibition, but meanwhile showing them at  workshops lets others enjoy them, as well as supporting the points I want to make.

When I pitched the workshop to the Japan Foundation, they took a little convincing that this was an appropriate idea for them. Their brief is to present and promote Japanese culture; cross-stitch, although popular in Japan, is a Western art form. Then I showed them some examples of the work, which clarified everything. Interpreting the visual grammar of anime and manga through the foreign medium of counted thread embroidery is no different from interpreting it through the eyes and hands of any non-Japanese artist. It’s a commentary on and response to a Japanese art form, a cultural cross-current like the one that led the artists of 19th-century England and France to respond to Japanese prints, and the one that leads non-Japanese artists to call their work manga rather than using their own language.

Japan-UK 150 logo © Japan-UK 150

Japan-UK 150 logo © Japan-UK 150

As a result, the workshops were presented as part of Japan-UK 150, the official events celebrating 150 years of formal relations between Japan and Britain.

To get the concept across, I decided to begin the session with a presentation on the ideas behind the book and how it actually came into being. I find the process of commissioning and making a book fascinating, especially as new technologies and distribution methods mean the traditional publishing model is evolving so rapidly.

Rogirl and Roboy in a spread from the book

Rogirl and Roboy in a spread from the book

It also gave me a chance to bring anyone unfamiliar with anime and manga up to speed with a thumbnail sketch of the history and visual grammar, and to show off some of the finished pieces. I had brought along a number of things to display, but couldn’t bring everything. Nadia Osman’s gorgeous rendition of Rogirl on 32 count Belfast linen is on a mount over 25″ high and  just wouldn’t fit in my travel case; nor would Karen Hall’s equally impressive Roboy on white 14 count Aida, or the big katakana sampler stitched by Laura Riley and its hiragana counterpart stitched by Paula Taylor with the same precise artistry.

One of the things that has amazed me, as I’ve leafed through countless cross-stitch books in Japanese bookstores, is an apparent lack of samplers or designs that exploit the beauty and elegance of Japanese script. I include both Japanese and Roman script samplers in the book, and one of the charts that workshop participants were invited to stitch used a simple combination of kanji and katakana.

That’s right, it wasn’t just listening – every man and woman who came to the workshops produced some stitching. There were two experienced stitchers at the afternoon session and three in the evening; the others were all complete cross stitch newbies, but by the end of each session, everyone had made good progress on one of the two charts provided. We had a lot of fun in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere where everyone was keen to try their hand at something new. I’ve invited participants to send me photos of their finished work, along with any other manga-inspired cross stitch they do, so I can start an MCS website for exchange of ideas.

I enjoyed working with such intelligent, adventurous people, showing them the stitched examples from the book, plus some special fabrics and threads to inspire future projects, and telling them a little about the history of anime and manga. I’m already looking forward to the next workshops – if you’d like to join one, or book one for your group, contact me via my website, http://www.helenmccarthy.org, or leave a comment here and I’ll respond.

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