Aiko Suzuki - a debt of gratitude, by Bettina Matzkuhn PDF  | Print |  E-mail


I have missed Aiko Suzuki. Missed her in the sense that I was not aware of her work during her lifetime; missed her as now that I have been introduced to her legacy I wish I might have acknowledged her in person. Here is a woman who endured internment as a Japanese-Canadian during the 1940’s, a person who endured the double-whammy of cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. Yet her work, whether in fibre, performance, painting, printmaking and teaching was forceful and positive. When I have asked other artists here on the west coast about her, they have not been familiar with her work. There is precious little written about Suzuki -a lovely article in Fuse, a tribute in the Globe and Mail, scattered pieces. I have long had the suspicion that Canada doesn’t celebrate its artists enough. Now it has gone beyond a nagging feeling.

Suzuki used fabric and fibre to explore its expressive potential. The special characteristics that belong to textile were highlighted and celebrated; how it drapes, how the edges fray and frazzle, how it wrinkles and floats and rests. Over 30 years, her textile work in set designs for contemporary dance companies saw fibre lifted out of a static presence to become a responsive component of the dance. It seems as if she draws with fibre and light, one making the other present. In David Earle’s 1985 piece Realm, Suzuki suspends an enormous, translucent, grid shape, eerily predicting the glowing, geometric screensavers that swim on our computers. For a commissioned performance at Expo ‘86 Goblin Market (1986, Christopher House, choreographer) she fashioned dense, tangled sculptures standing like wilted palms; visual components as visceral and sensuous as Christina Rossetti’s poem




 Goblin Market

Her sculptural fibre works sprang from her experience with set design. From 1976 to the mid 1980’s cascades of nylon yarn occupied space in a way fibre had never done before. Suzuki developed her own way of working in her studio: “The spines (milled and painted wood) acted as armatures and were manipulated to shape and define the work; that is, height, angle and volume.  A special suspended grid system was installed in the studio ceiling, giving a range of attachment points.”       [1] piece from 1981 entitled Stanley Park Parade evokes the verdant forest of urban Vancouver. She is redefining the concept of canopy -vertical threads of various greens are overhung with looping dark greens the way the boughs of the great firs in the park scallop the air above one’s head.


Stanley Park 

Suzuki’s most well-known fibre piece was Lyra, installed in 1981 in the foyer of the Metro Toronto Reference Library. It was the definitive example of what she referred to as her textile “suspensions”. It refers to weaving, a warp prepared and aligned, but there is no weft or knots, only the meticulously arrayed threads. Her website features a series of images from Lyra in progress. One gets a sense of the sheer logistics of designing work on this scale as well as the vision required to imagine how it would inhabit the space. It is interesting to dwell on why she chose all white, all one colour.  The associations we have with white -winter, weddings, and purity as well as traditional Asian associations with mourning -none seem to fit here. The densely packed loops have more to do with conceptual issues around gravity, notion and gesture than references to landscape yet they hang above a pool and reflect into it; the work takes on a role bigger than the notion than sky, rather an entire changing atmosphere



In describing her fondness for the Toronto Public Library, Andrea Curtis seems to feel that Suzuki’s work is passé. “Never mind that the original broadloom is a bit shabby, and Aiko Suzuki’s once eerily beautiful wool sculpture near the entranceway now looks like the tatty, bedraggled locks of the undead.”[ii] Certainly each generation looks to the new, with a new set of theories as a framework, but I feel that this description is less than generous. It was women like Suzuki who put their shoulders to the seized-up wheel of the art world and budged it enough so that fibre art could enter. Her explorations in taking fibre off the wall and into the realm of sculpture were part of a feminist, world-wide wedge. It was not only about lobbying for the acceptance of certain materials into the art world; there were BIG gender issues to wrestle with as well. Monika Kim Gagnon tells how Suzuki recounts concealing the fact that she was pregnant at the time of her first show in a commercial gallery. “She had camouflaged her expanding girth from the gallery owner for fear that both her reputation as a serous artist and her upcoming show would be jeopardized”.[iii] Similarly Suzuki says of the late 1950’s: “...the male artists never took women artist seriously.  They never included you in their discussions, never considered you equal in terms of art making.  You might be present, but discussions would never center around your work.”[iv]

How Suzuki and female artists of her generation made a push for recognition makes me think of an ex-cop remarking that so many of the young policewomen now seem oblivious to how many stereotypes and challenges were overcome by the women who came before them. Suzuki proposed new ways to see fibre -something many fibre artists continue to explore. “Lyra was akin to a living drawing created with fibre instead of pencil strokes” observes Kerri Sakamoto.[v] Taking fibre off the loom, out of the needle and using it to address a grand public space was the gift of opportunity to a new generation of artists. She was determined to avoid what fibre sometimes represented, works “all cute and sentimental and crafty”. [vi] Today, the medium has blossomed to the point where we have the options of myriad textile traditions, processes and collaborations without these perceptions necessarily fastening themselves onto our work.  

Suzuki explored many other expressive media -printmaking, painting, installation and, in a work near the end of her life, video. She was responding to her experience of cancer, the diagnosis, the treatments, the process of living with it. In her video, she uses signal flags to send semaphore versions of the words “bombard, invade, radiate”. The flags are textile signifiers. Also, using layers of black clothing to alternately cover and reveal her body is a way to incorporate textile at a most basic level. Textile was but one of many expressive languages she spoke in her creative quest. “The energy of Suzuki’s work is found in her determination to force changes to occur and thus confront choices.”[vii] How she chose to conduct herself was a courageous choice and a marker for us.  

Suzuki projects such a refreshing lack of cynicism. Her work with children reads as an investment in cultural connection and the hope that art will make us more articulate. Her list of board, council and jury work is as long as your arm. Suzuki established a directory of Japanese Canadian artists, organized a major exhibit of Japanese-Canadian, First Nations and Inuit artists, and helped found the Gendai Gallery in Toronto which showcases Asian-Canadian artists. Suzuki reminds me of a passage that Joy Kogawa writes of a central character in her classic novel Obasan: “In the face of growing bewilderment and distress, Aunt Emily roamed the landscape like an aircraft in a fog, looking for a place to land -a safe and sane strip of justice and reason.  Not seeing these, she did not crash into the oblivion of either bitterness or futility but remained airborne.” (Kogawa,86) Suzuki has certainly been one of those who has remained airborne; the fibre community in Canada and abroad owes her much respect and gratitude.


[ii] Curtis, Andrea “Shelf Defence” Toronto Life, Toronto Dec 2002, Vol. 36, Iss.20.

[iii] Gagnon, Monika Kim “Grand Gestures and Little Hooks: Aiko Suzuki’s suspensions and other works” Catalogue 2003.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Sakamoto, Kerri “Lives Lived” Globe and Mail, June 6, 2006

[vi] Dault, Gary Michael “Sculptor’s determined to prove artistic worth of fibre hangings.”  Toronto Star August 12, 1978.

[vii] Patterson, Pam Cancer: “A Metaphoric Re/Vision: Aiko Suzuki’s Bombard/Invade/Radiate.” Fuse Magazine Vol28, No.4, November 2005.

Photograph of Aiko by Kazuyoshi Ehara. 

all images used with permission from the estate of the artist 

for a look at Akio Suzuki's website http://www.aikosuzuki.ca/



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