Life

SUMIKO KATO: Batik seduces
Japanese artist

She's a small woman who loves batik art. Despite being 73, Sumiko Kato is still enthusiastic about batik painting.

The flight from Japan to Indonesia takes more than six hours, but that hasn't stopped her from visiting Yogyakarta once or twice a year. When Sumiko comes to Indonesia, she meditates at a simple rented house in the area of Tirtonirmolo, Bantul, and produces batik work using a large cloth.

Sumiko is one of just a few Japanese citizens who has invested herself in the art of batik painting, especially the style typical of Yogyakarta. All her art works are stored in her 200-year-old house in the middle of the Kanazu-Sousaku forest, in the region of Awara, Fukui, Honshu Island, Japan. Not far from her house towers the beautiful Mount Fujiyama.

"I like living in the forest because it's quiet," said Sumiko, speaking in Indonesian. A museum nearby - exhibiting the works of all artists living in the forest of Kanazu-Sousaku - showcases Sumiko's batik art works.

Her unframed batik paintings usually measure 1 by 2 meters and concentrate on nature and religion. In addition to using the techniques of painting, Sumiko, who was formerly an art teacher for elementary and junior high school children, also uses Javanese batik motifs in her work.

"The batik technique creates a land completely exploited in a way that looks modern, and creative modern paintings with personality," said Sudarisman, a lecturer at the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) Yogyakarta and Sumiko's teacher, when delivering a speech at Sumiko's solo exhibition at the V-Art Gallery, Yogyakarta, in October 2007. That was her second exhibition in Indonesia.

In the area of Fukui, Sumiko, a grandmother with two grandchildren, is the only artist who wrestles with the art of batik. Sumiko doesn't just produce work, she is also actively introducing the Japanese to the art of batik. Sometimes groups of children from elementary or junior high school visit her in the Kanazu forest to learn how batik is made.

She also has a batik art club named Hamuro.

"I teach batik techniques twice a week," she said one afternoon, over a cold sweet tea. Soon after, she went to the Ardiyanto gallery to work on her batik painting titled Waves in the Sea of Winter.

Sumiko has also conveyed her love for batik painting on TV shows like Oshare Kobo - broadcast on NHK television. In the program, Sumiko talked about batik from Indonesia, showed her collection of batik and demonstrated batik-making techniques. She creates natural colors using a type of grass called kadiasu. To create the impression of old colors, she employs water made from a solution using rusty iron.

Sumiko's love for batik, especially from Yogyakarta, began when she visited the cultural center of Indonesia in 1987. When she went shopping for batik at a batik store in Prawirotaman, Yogyakarta, Sumiko fell in love with the art at first sight.

"Batik creates beautiful pictures and is very strong," she said. Since then, she continuously wished to return to Indonesia to learn about the art of batik making.

Finally, in 1993 the Fukui University graduate retired as a junior high school teacher and came to Jakarta to study Indonesian for several months at the University of Indonesia.

In 1994, she went to Yogyakarta to learn batik. Sumiko, who was then 58, entered the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) in Yogyakarta. Outside her scheduled classes, Sumiko learned about batik directly from Yogyakarta artists, including Budi Untung.

For Sumiko, who has been painting since she was 12, batik wasn't new. In 1973, she was involved in making typical Japanese batik using paraffin wax. Some of her paintings even won awards.

In 1996, before returning to Japan, Sumiko exhibited her batik paintings at the Bentara Budaya, Yogyakarta, and continued her work in Japan when she returned home.

"People said my work was good," she said. Sumiko still looks younger than her actual age. That's why there are people who want to buy her art even though she does not work commercially.

Since she started renting a house in Tirtonirmolo in 2001, Sumiko comes to Indonesia at least twice a year. "At the moment I only stay for two weeks but if I want to stay longer it can be for up to a month," said the wife of Komyo Kato.

Apart from her love of batik, Sumiko also fell in love with the people and culture of Java. While she was in college in the Regency of Gunungkidul, she sponsored some children.

Sumiko said she felt happy when working in Indonesia. "I always feel healthier and young again after I've been making batik in Indonesia," she said

In her old age, Sumiko seems to want to devote the rest of her life to batik. Deep down in her heart, Sumiko still harbors a desire to introduce batik around the world. This is her other dream.

"My life has become more useful because of batik," she said.

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