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Kokeshi: From Folk Art to Art Toy Exhibition to Feature Over 300 Dolls
Phoebe Washer of Petaluma.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- A new exhibition, Kokeshi: From Folk Toy to Art Toy, organized by the Los Angeles Toy, Doll & Amusements (LATDA) Museum in collaboration with the Japanese American National Museum, will bring together the traditional Japanese doll with hundreds of examples of contemporary and custom kokeshi created by American and international artists beginning on July 11 and running through October 4, 2009, at the National Museum, 369 E. First Street, in Little Tokyo.

Kokeshi originated in the north of Japan in a region called Tohoku, and often were the toys of the children of farmers or souvenirs for visitors to nearby hot springs. Handmade out of wood, they traditionally were characterized by a slim trunk for a body and a larger round head. It is believed Japanese woodworkers made kokeshi as a source of extra income. Faces were often a few simple lines of paint while the bodies were decorated with colorful floral patterns. Like daruma, kokeshi dolls had no arms and legs. As a Japanese folk toy, kokeshi are believed by some to be charms that can help ward off dangers, especially fire. The wood of the mizuki tree is often used for kokeshi and mizuki literally translates as "water tree."

In the post-World War II era, a new style of kokeshi emerged alongside the traditional: the sosaku (creative). Kokeshi with different shaped heads and bodies, an assortment of colors and even the introduction of hair were designed as part of the sosaku movement. In the sosaku tradition, the only limits were governed by the imagination of each kokeshi designer.

The Kokeshi: From Folk Toy to Art Toy exhibition will be presented in three sections: traditional, contemporary American; and custom. The traditional will include examples of the 10 classic styles and post-war creative movement. On display in the first section will be over 200 breathtaking examples of traditional kokeshi dolls from the extensive collection of Itske and Anthony Stern.

As with many elements of Japanese popular culture, kokeshi has become a recognizable figure in the United States along with manga, anime and Hello Kitty merchandise. The second section of the exhibition stands in brilliant contrast to traditional kokeshi, showcasing the work of eleven contemporary artists who produce interpretations inspired by -- and which pay homage to -- these humble dolls. Working in disparate media, this central part of the exhibition demonstrates that the appeal of the simple kokeshi form has grown stronger in direct proportion to the dynamism of the personal interpretation. Artists for this section include Nicole DeLeon, Alexandra Gjurasic, Sachiho Hino Lee, Margaret Kasahara, Emi Motokawa, Joji Okazaki, David and Kazumi Kobayashi Svenson, Phoebe Washer, James Watts, and Kathy Yoshihara.

The third section is curated by Christina Conway in a lively reprise of her hit 2007 show in San Diego. This section presents a thoroughly eclectic display of all new work. Over 100 well-known international contemporary artists demonstrate the breadth of their artistic inspiration and the malleability of form and concept, and all based on the same simple kokeshi form each was given. Among the artists participating are David Horvath & Sun-Min Kim, APAK, Kozyndan, Hine Mizushima, Amy Sol, and Tara McPherson. These original artworks will be offered for sale through the Japanese American National Museum Store.

Said show curator Maria Kwong, "This exhibition demonstrates the evolution of the kokeshi, which underwent its creative stage in Japan in the post-World War II, and now has encouraged American and international contemporary and custom artists to produce kokeshi-inspired art and unique looking interpretations. Like the daruma figure, the traditional kokeshi’s simplicity has brought out a tidal wave of creativity from around the world."

Kwong of LATDA and the National Museum organized this exhibition, working with designer Conway. Previously, Kwong organized the "Dreams to Dreams Custom Vinyl Show" with Chocolate Soup at the National Museum at the end of 2008, displaying an array of work by almost 50 artists who all began with a blank vinyl daruma figure (another traditional Japanese folk toy representing a figure with no arms and legs). In 2007, Kwong organized BEYOND ULTRAMAN: Seven Artists Explore the Vinyl Frontier, LATDA's first major exhibition, showcasing seven famous artists and literally hundreds of their works and collectibles. The show was held in partnership with Pasadena Museum of California Art and ran for three successful months. Kwong’s first exhibition at the National Museum was Allen Say’s Journey: The Art and Words a Children’s Book Author in 2000, highlighting the work of the Newbery Caldecott Medal artist.

Conway was drawn to the idea of organizing a display of customized kokeshi from her long appreciation of vinyl toys and her desire to see more positive feminine imagery in this field. "The inspiration for working on the kokeshi was from my personal collection (a whole TWO dolls), and wondering why it hadn’t been done before. It’s the ultimate 'designer toy.' I want(ed) to surround myself with items that have a deeper value than just a cute character. Something you don’t see every day. I’ve always been a fan of tactile art, and especially love work that is straight from the artist’s hands. The kokeshi is a perfect combination of the two."

Japanese American National Museum | Kokeshi | Tohoku | Nicole DeLeon | Alexandra Gjurasic | Sachiho Hino Lee | Margaret Kasahara | Emi Motokawa | Joji Okazaki |

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