Tag Archives: stevyn llewelyn

Geisha – The Flower and Willow World

The enigmatic Geisha is something from another time. A striking contrast to modern day Kyoto, Their colorful silhouettes can be seen walking down the streets of Hanamikoji or Pontocho dori. The Geisha (hereafter called Geiko) and Maiko  are a phenomenon exclusive only to Japan. This idealized beauty, unchanged for several hundred years is the testament to a culture whose aesthetic tastes have preserved these unique clans.

Maiko begin their careers training and living in a lodging house called an Okiya. Maiko are the Geiko in training. They are subjected to a challenging regimen of rehearsals and classes which involve dance, calligraphy, flower arrangement, and playing instruments such as the  Koto and Shamisen. They regulary perform at exclusive banquets in tea houses, called Ochaya. Maiko and Geiko also perform annually at performance events, some of them at the famous Kaburenjo theatre in Gion, Kyoto. They may attend as many as three or four parties a night, which entails quite a bit of running (or cabbing) about. Geiko are artists in every sense of the word. Actors, painters, dancers, calligraphers, and singers are all attributes of this extraordinary woman.

Maiko on Hanamikoji street, Gion, Kyoto. Photo © Stevyn Llewellyn 2010

The female society of the Gion Kobo is organized by status. The owners are called Mothers or Aunts while the Maiko and Geiko is given a senior sponsor called an Onesan, meaning Older Sister. The  Onesan acts as a role model and mentor to the younger one, and guides them in their training. The proprietress of the Okiya supports the Maiko on their way to become professional. They live there for five to seven years, a contracted period of time where she repays the house for their investment in her. Once they become Geiko, they become independent, although the Okiya still collects a small percentage of the Geiko’s earnings, as they continue to work as their managers and agents.

Edo Period Sumiya House in Kyoto. Photo © Stevyn Llewellyn 2010

Gion Kobu was formally an entertainment district near the Imperial Palace located on Imadegawa street. It was known as The Flower and Willow World. In the late 16th century, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, a powerful general unified the country and moved this area. Eventually a new section of town arose in Gion, near the Yasaka Shrine. In the 17th century, Taverns known as Mizukakejaya became the teahouses of today. These modern teahouses are all exclusive to members, who are primarily  all Japanese. Wealthy business people may pay several thousand dollars to be entertained by a Geiko.

Geisha Kimono, called Hikizuri. Photo © Stevyn Llewellyn, 2010

Geiko and Maiko Fashion

The Geiko in full costume approximates very closely the Japanese ideal of feminine beauty, reminiscent of a Heian princess with black hair and white skin.

The Geiko  kimonos are a testament to the wealth of the patrons. They are the costumes of the profession, some are even considered sacred. They are made from some of the finest and most expensive textiles in the world. Each kimono is a one of a kind work of art and it’s owner has a direct influence on it’s design.

The canons of traditional Japanese taste divide the year into 28 seasons, each having it’s own symbol. Colors and patterns reflect the exact season and are worn accordingly. For example, Crystanthemums are used for early November, or Nightingales in late March.

Called a Hikizuri, the Geiko Kimono is distinguished by it’s long sleeves and wide train, worn low on the back of the neck to accentuates its length. This can weigh up to 44 pounds. The undergarments are two rectangles of bleached white cotton. One worn around the hips, and the other around the chest. Over this is worn a hadajuban, a loose blouse that follows the line of the kimono. The nagajuban is the full length under robe that follows the kimono’s lines. The distinctive collar is known as the Eri, which is the red Maiko collar that is hand sewn into the nagajuban for each wearing. These are made of silk and embroidery. The interesting aspect is as one ages, the applique on the eri becomes heavier until very little of the original red is shown. The red symbolizes childhood. The progression continues until she “turns one’s collar” from Maiko to Geiko. From then on, the Geiko wear only a white eri, made from silk or crepe.

The hem of the hikizuri train is weighted and fans out in an arc. The hikizuri is secured with a long obi, which measures over twenty feet. This is tied in back with both ends dangling down. An obi can be made from such materials as damask and can cost thousands of dollars to produce. The obi clasp is another one of a kind ornament which secures the fabric.
They wear sandals which are six inches high called Okobo. This height is to counterbalance the the long ends of the obi. Socks are worn one size smaller to accentuate the dainty appearance of the feet. The Geiko have their own dressers, mostly men, who train for years to master their profession. It is crucial to have a dresser ensure perfection.

Obi details. Photo © Stevyn Llewellyn

The Geiko can sometimes be seen carrying a traditional handbag called a Kago, made from woven silk. These would hold a boxwood comb, a dancing fan, hand towel and other accessories. The dancing fan is slightly larger than the ordinary one, with bamboo spines measuring about twelve inches long. This is called Maiohgi in Japanese.

The Maiko's dinstinctive Wareshinobu hairstyle and ornaments Photo © Stevyn Llewellyn 2010

The first style of hair a Maiko wears is called the Wareshinobu style. Suggestive of a shell, it is sculpted and secured by red silk bands known as Kanoko, and decorated with Kanzashi, stick pin ornaments that distinguish the Karyukai look. Additional ornaments are Hairpins tipped with silk plum blossoms, (representing the month of February) adorn the sides and back of the bun. Silver flutters called Bira are pinned to the sides and front of the hair. The orange blossom pin called Tachibana is on the top. Also added to the hair is a long pin tipped with balls of red coral and Jade. The Maiko’s hairstyle is their own, while the Geiko wear a wig.

Maiko at Gion Corner. Photo by Stevyn Llewellyn, 2010

The stark white Maiko make up was originally worn by male aristocrats when they had an audience with the Emperor, considered a sacred prescence. The audience of would be seperated from the Emperor through a thin scrim of fabric. The candlelit chamber allowed the Emperor to identify them. The Geiko used to use zinc-based make up, but no longer. They apply binsuke, an oil paste foundation then white powder, then pink on the cheeks and eyebrows, and finally a spot of red on the upper and lower lip. Apprentice Maiko can be distinguished by only having their lower lip painted. On the neck, three lines reveal that the wearer is dressed in formal kimono, and two lines when wearing ordinary costume.

Maiko at Gion Corner, Kyoto. Photo © Stevyn Llewellyn 2010

Geiko and Maiko Dance
The many dances they perform in fixed patterns called kata require slow, controlled movements that require trained muscles and years of training. The Maiko learn dance through a process of learning through imitation, known as minarai.  The main performer is known as the Tachikata, and the Jikata is the accompanying musician, who plays the shamisen and sings.

While modern, the Geisha today follow old traditions that are still enveloped in mystery and beauty. If  you are in Gion, you may catch a glimpse of one in a cab, or walking quickly to a tea house on Hanamikoji dori. The Flower and Willow World of yesterday is seemingly unchanged from hundreds of years ago.

Watch the video below of the Maiko dance performed in Kyoto filmed by Stevyn Llewellyn.

– Stevyn Llewellyn
Research for this article came primarily from the book, Geisha: A life by Mineko Iwasaki.

Autumn Whitehurst: Interview with the Artist

flyingThe first time I saw Autumn’s work was while looking through a Neiman Marcus catalog, and I was enamored by the carefully rendered female figures depicted wearing various garments on a neutral ground. Autumn’s work, upon first glance, commands the viewer’s attention. The strength of her work is evident in the technical ability, strong compositional elements, and primarily distinctive lines.
Whitehurst’s illustrations encompasses the simplicity of this line with an almost ethereal aspect, which evokes an underlying spiritual quality. Her artwork depicts individuals in minimalistic environments which add emphasis to the figure as a linear element to the composition. Giving attention to certain aspects present the viewer with a fresh visual image. The removal of some elements gives importance to the ones the artist intends you to look on.
Working on art is a continuous thought process involving constant decision making. It can be said that to make something look effortless, a lot of work has to go into it.
Evocative of traditional Art Nouveau, and hints of the stylized quality of Alberto Vargas, yet entirely contemporary through the use of modern materials, Whitehurst’s work is something to behold. I was delighted to  be able to contact Autumn and interview her regarding her work.

FallHow would you describe your aesthetic?
I think I would describe my aesthetic as a concentrated area of texture in a field of color, and that description of course leaves a lot open but for me that’s a good thing(!), to not tightly define what I’m most fond of. It leaves me room to play without making me feel as though I’ve strayed too far from my intentions. Most of the commissions that I get are beauty oriented though this past year I’ve been doing more celebrity portraits, which was unusual but refreshing. Most every job is a collaboration with the art director and I’m not normally inclined to collaborate but it seems to be really good for me. As a result I’ve been able to think more acutely about what stimulates my imagination, and what sucks the oxygen out of it.

What initially inspired you to be an artist?
I’ve always liked making things, and my parents are both fairly eccentric people. When I was very young, I hadn’t realized how unusual they were, they were really just my parents. As I grew older though I understood that the way we saw things was what married me to the friends that I had, the thing we shared in common being that we percieved things a bit differently, and it wasn’t a contrived effort but something that gave us pleasure, we could all get excited in the same direction but in different ways. It can’t be all perception though, and then no output…I’m very fond of images, and so that’s what I invest my efforts in. I’m only trying to make something that I think is beautiful.

Do your surroundings in Brooklyn influence your work?
Brooklyn doesn’t directly influence my work, it does however shape my lifestyle. I love living here because of its cultural diversity and if I need to get out and see something different, I don’t have to travel very far. So though I don’t incorporate its influences into my illustrations, I do feed off of of it.

What art movements in history have inspired your illustrations?
Art movements that I’ve fallen in love with…art nouveau, art deco, surrealism…I’m not as crazy about them now as I had been but I’m sure that the influences have some how woven their way into the illustrations. I was so deeply in love with those periods while I was in junior high, high school, and at that age my skin was so thin and everything sunk to the bone that the impression that was made upon me has left some sort of permanent residue, I’m certain of it.

How does fashion design influence your work?
I look through the collections during the spring and fall shows, and try my best to keep myself informed as to how fashion evolves from season to season. Strong silhouettes and graphics are easiest to work into an illustration but most of my clients have requested the more classic elements of design which have little to do with trends. For example, the waistline has disappeared over the past few years, and my favorite silhouettes are actually quite top heavy, but this doesn’t lend itself to the kind of work I’m usually commissioned for, so I keep a closer eye on textures.

Who are some of your clients in the fashion industry you have done illustration for?
I’ve done quite a lot of editorial fashion work…Vogue Italia, Elle UK and US, Nylon ,ST Fashion (for whom I just finished a portrait of Angela Missoni), and Style.com.

Your work seems to evoke an ethereal, even spiritual aspect to it—Does spirituality influence any of your imagery?
I don’t think it’s really spirituality so much as it is a sense of quiet, which I like not only in my work but in my daily life.

Ribeiro-reindeerWhat was one of your favorite projects to work on?
A couple of years ago I was commissioned by the Telegraph (in London) to create a five page accessory spread. They sent me jpegs of what needed to be incorporated into the illustrations and then gave me absolute freedom. My idea was to put the accessories on a set of naked women in a way where it would seem that they had raided the closet and though were having fun, they were also caught up in the fantasy of themselves. One of the images turned out to be particularly silly…a blond dominatrix riding a giant leather reindeer keychain…she looks so serious but the image makes me laugh.

To arrive at the point of having your own unique style, did you feel you had a break though as an artist or was it a gradual refinement of your ideas?
It’s still a gradual refinement of my ideas, and probably always will be. About a year after I began I became incredibly busy, working 16 hour days 7 days a week, and the style evolved itself. I wasn’t consciously grooming my methods, but was responding to the commissions and trying to meet deadlines. A lot of how I work is the result of creative problem solving, how best to make a portion of the image work best within the parameters I’d been given.

The media of artists have traditionally been paintings, and sculpture…How do you see the computer as a tool for a contemporary artist such as yourself, and how does this aid you in creating your images?
I studied painting in school, and really miss wet paint but working digitally has been the perfect medium for me as an illustrator. Initially I was engaged by the challenges of using the software but I’ve continued to use it because it’s extremely practical. I can turn around the work, revise it easily if necessary, and then send it right out. I’ve been working on the computer for nearly a decade though, and it’s changed the muscle memory in my hand. I’m less dexterous as a draftsman than I used to be. The method in realizing an image digitally is very different.

Aside from your commercial endeavors, do you work on your own personal projects?
I haven’t worked on anything that is entirely my own in years. If I have time to spare I need to use it to evolve my commercial style because this is difficult to do while I’m working on commissions, it can throw the client off. While I’m working I have ideas that I want to try, so I make note of it and then hope to flesh it out when I have the opportunity to work with total abandon. Presently though, I have more ideas than time!

WedgeA distinctive quality of your work is the removal of some elements and giving more attention to others, while achieving a truly beautiful result, how do you know when a work of art is complete?
The only way that I know an image has been completed is by recognizing that it’s balanced. I’ll tweak the palette or try to add things, but it’s just not working…which means it’s time to stop.

What kind of art materials do you carry around with you?
I’m embarrased to admit that I don’t carry around anything other than my camera, really, and a small plastic envelope in which I keep paint chip samples. I love color, and walking around in the daylight of the city I see paint wearing off of buildings so I’ll steal a little piece. It’s awful, I know, but I haven’t been caught yet.

What is the most interesting object you own?
That’s a tough question! I’m a chronic pack rat, and my apartment is a museum of collected objects, many of which have been given to me by my dad from his travels as a tug boat captain. I have a lot of bones, bugs, nests, snake skins, old combs, textiles and all sorts of other relics. But last year my uncle gave me a Stereomaster microscope, which I’m crazy about. I like to bring things in from the garden for close examination, but have also scrutinized minute objects from my living space. Absolutely everything is amazing when seen so intimately.

-Interview by Stevyn Llewellyn

Please see the gallery below of Autumn’s brilliant work. Additionally, you can view her online portfolios here:
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