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Kimono Maker Honors Tradition of Innovation

Intricate details create luminescent landscapes in works at the Smithsonian

Itchiku Kubota is racing against time. The world's finest kimono maker wants to craft an entire panorama of his exquisite garments to depict the four seasons and the universe.

Trouble is, says the near-octogenarian, he has finished only the 30 kimonos representing the transformation from fall to winter. He has another 45 to go, and each kimono takes two years to complete.

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Mr. Kubota creates innovations on an ancient Japanese tie-dyeing technique dating back to the 14th century. He has become an artist, a fashion designer, and a naturalist all bound into one. He uses raw silk as his canvas; the material's seams and drape as his design elements; and dramatic scenes like Mt. Fuji as his subject.

Kubota's masterwork-in-progress - the ''Symphony of Light'' series - is spectacularly displayed in ''Homage to Nature: Landscape Kimonos by Itchiku Kubota,'' now at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Hung side by side, the oversized kimonos are intricately detailed when seen up close; from afar, they are powerfully colored and luminescent tapestries.

Tsujigahana, the tie-dyeing method that originated in the early 1300s, was the first Japanese experiment with designing vibrantly colored patterns. Cloth, cinched up by carefully woven threads, was repeatedly dipped in dyes to achieve a combination of hues. In later years, an ink brush was used for precise outlines and shadows.

Eventually, embroidery and gilding were added for texture and to catch the light.

Kimonos have been a symbol of Japanese culture since the 10th century. They were work garb for peasants of the day; nobility wore them under layers of other clothing. By the 15th century, when kimonos were the national dress, Tsujigahana was at its peak of popularity.

Painstaking dyeing process

Eschewing the assembly-line approach of today's clothing designers, Kubota's labors are entirely by hand. His methods are painstaking and cannot be rushed. Each kimono goes through 40 dyeing processes and is composed of some 300 colors.

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The artist will rework his ''canvas'' until it is perfect, often toiling so intensely that one workday blurs into the next. ''Just to re-create an old tradition isn't enough,'' Kubota says. ''You have to innovate.''

Walking a visitor through his Smithsonian show, Kubota exudes the very elegance, complexity, and patience of his art. He wears one of his own splendid taupe kimonos, replete with a neatly pressed pleated skirt and his trademark belt made of antique silver handles from Japanese swords and jade pieces. Kubota gently instructs on the various stages of his collection, and beckons his visitor to climb over the museum's barricades to get a closer look at the cloth.

Stooped on the floor, the artist runs his remarkably smooth fingers over silk that portrays Mt. Fuji just as autumn is turning to winter. At the base of the mountain, he says, ''many trees grow so thick that not even radar can penetrate. People have gotten lost in the forest.'' The bright red maple trees have a pointillist quality, a characteristic present in much of his work.

Beauty in spite of bitterness

Kubota says it took him 40 years to develop his technique. With his prominence have come the commissions to design garments for the world's rich and royal. For them, a Kubota kimono is the ultimate in wearable art.

But the artist's ability to find beauty in bitterness inspired the most important work of his career.

When Itchiku Kubota was a young Japanese soldier, he fell into Russian hands and was sent off to Siberia as a prisoner of war. ''For 5-1/2 years, the labor was hard and there was never enough food,'' he recalls. The only thing that kept him going while in captivity, he says, was his dream of creating garments from age-old methods.

Every morning when he was marched out to work in the fields, he could not summon ''the energy to look at the dawn.'' But coming back totally exhausted after a day's work, he was transfixed by an electrifying sun setting into a sea of grass. The sun's rays were reflected in what appeared to be fields of silver and gold.

Those images were emblazoned in Kubota's memory, and he later created ''Burning Sun,'' a richly colored kimono-scape whose dominant feature is the sun setting in a swirl of golds, yellows, oranges, and reds.

As with all Kubota's works, ''Burning Sun'' takes on new qualities of light and texture, depending on the angle of the viewer. Up close, the sun is cream and yellow, and its circle is filled with delicate leaves. But from a distance, it shimmers silver and gold.

This, the artist's most alluring piece, is displayed in its own special corner and is meant to be viewed at the beginning of the show. Kubota proudly calls it ''the spiritual father'' to his brilliant colors and quiet tones in the ''Symphony of Light'' series.

''It would take me another 100 years or so to do the pieces for spring to summer, and the universe,'' Kubota says. Behind his gentle smile is a look of determination: ''I would like to live long enough to complete this project.''

* Kubota's kimonos are at the National Museum of Natural History through April 14.

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