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25 September 2017Last updated
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Meet the Japanese artist making fabric playgrounds

At 77, Toshiko MacAdam still crochets thousand kilograms of nylon by hand

Shreeja Ravindranathan
8 Sep 2017 | 12:00 am
  • Toshiko MacAdam

    Source:Stefan Lindeque

Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam’s eyes twinkle with delight and a radiant smile grooves her face as she flashes back to one of her favourite memories: cherubic Italian children at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome eagerly jostling each other and queueing up asking for autographs and selfies with her and her husband Charles saying heartfelt ‘grazies’ for bringing.

‘We felt like we’re rock stars!’ Toshiko laughs as she recounts the incident from 2013.

Truth be told, the Japanese textile and fibre artist and her Canadian husband have been rock stars not just for these Italian tots, but for thousands of children around the world for the last 28 years, ever since Toshiko crocheted tonnes of braided, colourful nylon to create her first fabric playground or as she calls them ‘play sculptures’.

A young girl mesmerised by the architectural ingenuity of Toshiko’s maiden creation at Okinawa National Park, Japan in 1979 grew up to become a landscape architect.

That piece, Toshiko says, became a defining monument for the children that grew up in that area and every crocheted nylon play sculpture – there are less than 10 in the world – that Toshiko has since installed in Hong Kong, in North Carolina, in Singapore, in Spain, and in Italy and have become the refuge, the sanctuary and the property of the children in that area; ‘a place to claim as their own.’

Now, Toshiko is bestowing a similar haven upon the children of the UAE when the region’s first Toshi net gallery opens to public in OliOli (Hawaiian for joy), an upcoming children’s museum in Al Quoz.

Breaking the mould is Toshiko’s style – the cosmopolitan artist stepped away from the family business of medicine (her brother, father and grandfather are all doctors), worked as a textile designer in NYC and even taught art at various international universities before returning to Japan. Even her inspiration was maverick Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi’s upside-down architecture style and string models and now she has dedicated her life to shaking down conventional brick-and-mortar structures and rigids conventions surrounding playgrounds and play.

She even freed herself from the restraints of creating art for art’s sake as an up-and-coming fibre artist in Japan in the late sixties. Her avant-garde fibre art such as her Fibre Columns/Romanesque Church (towering columns of gothic string structures) earned her recognition yet her heart was riddled by a sense of dissatisfaction. ‘I made beautiful things for my artist’s ego, but I was not quite sure what I was doing.’

A serendipitous tale unravels the tale behind why she knits knotted plays structures for kids – she is paying homage to her muses. In 1970 when Toshiko was displaying her Atmosphere of Floating Cubes exhibition in gallery two rowdy children clambered over the human cell-shaped sculpture Far form ticking her off, their gambolling inspired her. ‘Suddenly this piece becomes alive and my heart started beating with excitement! I said to myself ‘fantastic, that’s the direction, I’m going to make playthings for children.’

She has since focused on things that allow her ‘to interact with people, donate her skill to community.’ Her first children’s sculpture was donated to a kindergarten in 1971 and today Toshiko teaches a fibre fabric fashion course at NSCAD University in Halifax.

Toshiko and Charles visited Dubai last month to install and runs trials on the Toshi nets before OliOli opens its doors to rambunctious kids in October. A roomful of adults stand with mouths agape, admiring the sheer size and artistry of the swath of rainbow-hued nylon mesh that hangs sinuously, in perfect balance from lightweight yet sturdy metal pylons (from World of Yachts) of the giant central loft in Al Quoz. It’s a kaleidoscopic spider web that drips into tubes bottomed by heavy spheres children can swing on and rises into taut, springy surfaces perforated with openings and dented with sacks. Toshiko’s rock star status holds with adults too and for good reason.

The 77-year-old artist hand-knits these colossal fabric structures by weaving thousands of kilograms of colourful, braided nylon threads – we kid you not. One ton of nylon went into making the handmade Dubai net in OliOli.

It took Toshi and Charles around nine months to create this play sculpture; larger projects like the 1981 Castle of Nets installation at Hokane open-air museum in Japan that catapulted Toshiko to instant fame took two years.

The manufacturing process that happens in their tiny studio called Interplay Design follows roughly this flow – Toshiko dreams up the design and envisions it into being through crocheting; Charles handles the technical aspects of liaising with Japanese structural engineer Norihide Imagawa (a regular collaborator with the MacAdams) who imparts structural soundness by calculating what kind of tension the nets will exert on the metal frames and cables that hold it. The MacAdams create their own bespoke raw material sourcing yarn from a supplier and hand dying in their workshop in Nova Scotia. The division of labour is best described in Charles’ words: ‘Toshi makes it, and I make it happen.’

As Charles describes the gruelling work Toshiko puts into crocheting the play sculptures, I realise it’s so much trickier and technically nuanced that the old lady hobby it’s chalked up to be.

‘We get emails from many people who crochet telling us they can make the piece if we come and just show them how. Well, are we going to stay there for 40 years to go through the entire process?’ Charles jokes about Toshiko’s inimitable knowledge and experience.

That expertise involves replacement and maintenance of the pieces every eight years as nylon is prone to fading and degradation from UV light and touring sites in advance to determine colours that suit the atmosphere: ‘we chose bright yellows and vivid shades keeping mind Dubai’s sunny weather and spending time in the desert.’ Charles explains.

Dressed in white linens that stand out in stark contrast to the vibrance of her sculpture Toshiko is a vision of grace as she deftly demonstrates knitting interwoven material – she spent 10 hours every day last year like this, on her hands and knees, knitting heavy 16-strand-braids of nylon into sections that are not too tight, not too loose but just right to resist the rough and tumble of play.

It might seem outlandish to most that these septuagenarians have dedicated the better part of their lives constructing play areas for children.

What drives Toshiko and Charles is their steadfast belief in every child’s right to play, one of the crucial rights safeguarded by the Unicef. Pictures of the MacAdam’s play sculptures were even featured on a Unicef calendar centred around children’s rights.

In 1970 Toshiko undertook an extensive study and research of dwindling play areas and spaces for kids in Tokyo from 197-73. ‘The empty lots in my childhood where kids would gather were disappearing from cities because real estate is so valuable. Kids were trapped in high rises,’ she explains.

Today, that alarming situation is ubiquitous - world over there is a deficit of playgrounds. In Dubai, the municipality announced 10 new playgrounds in 2016 but it’s a rare to see children play physically outdoors – blame the weather and smart screen-induced isolation.

‘It scares me that children wouldn’t pick up social skills, learn to organise themselves, to get bumps and bruises and learn about risk management and worst, forget how to imagine. Only human imagination can solve the world’s problems,’ Toshiko rues. You can top university but to become something great beyond that and to survive you need imagination.

‘[Imagination] is also important to preserve the Earth,’ adds Charles.

Thanks to the MacAdams’ play sculptures the children of the UAE will have a space to be inventive and indulge in play that isn’t defined by rules or badgered by disciplinarian teachers or parents. ‘In Hong Kong, a mother was furious we wouldn’t tell her child how to play!’ Toshiko, grouses at the ludicrousness. ‘On our sculptures, some kids quietly play house together in teamwork that isn’t competitive, some are wilder and run around like performers or monsters and some go into a state of trance enjoying the rhythmic motion.

‘Each child will find a way to play without us telling them!’

This concept of non-judgemental play is OliOli’s foundation and the motive that convinced the highly selective MacAdams to collaborate after Dubai-based team Asha and Purshotam Ramchandani, Suraj Mulani and Prakash Nihalan pursued the MacAdam’s for a year.

These free play proponents only have one rule set in stone: ‘the piece should have public access and be enjoyed by as many kids as possible. We don’t create pieces for private houses where a group of kids will play once a week,’ rationalises Charles.

Toshi’s nets holds a place of honour amidst all the nine galleries and 45 hands-on activities at OliOli.

How these structures’ elastic rebound mimics the floating, suspended environment of a wombs is an area of study the MacAdams are looking into. Their son’s delayed language development skills as a toddler spurred them on to this path, backed by findings of Toshiko’s neonatologist brother: ‘this repetitive [bouncy] movement is very important to develop the brain’s neuro pathways in young kids,’ explains Charles.

The MacAdams are ‘heroes’ to a number of millennials, including their son’s Japanese friends because of the change they’ve kickstarted, focusing on children’s right to enjoyment in an adult world that often side-lines them. But they see themselves as parents whose most ‘heart-warming moment’ was when their own son understood why his parents did what they do after meeting a couple who became friends as kids on the play structure at Hakone in 1981, then lost touch only to meet again in college recognise each other and get married. ‘27 years later they brought their kids to play on the new, replaced net at the same museum,’ Toshiko says.

These memories are the biggest legacies she can bequeath.

‘The textile will get worn out and turn into rags and we [will be gone] but the generation that has played here will remember they had a great time and then try to recreate that for their kids. That’s enough, right?

Shreeja Ravindranathan

Shreeja Ravindranathan