March 2021 Vol. 2, No.3
Leonie Castelino’s Art for the Soul
The American melting pot is a beautiful thing. Leonie Castelino is the very personification of that, as an Indian-American who defines herself as a textile artist and contemporary Bojagi practitioner. With more than three decades in the fiber arts genre, she has reached international acclaim, having exhibited worldwide. Most recently, for example, she was again invited to the prestigious 2021 From Lausanne to Beijing International Fiber Art Biennale. In 2018, she was an honored artist at that exhibit, one of only 13 international artists.
Bojagi is a Korean textile technique of ‘wrapping cloth’. The Selvedge fiber magazine defines it as¹:
“Bojagi is traditionally a square piece of cloth skillfully constructed from a variety of leftover scrap fabrics, commonly made from silk or ramie. It has played an important role in Korean culture for centuries as a tool to wrap, cover and carry items, as well as for special occasions such as religious rituals and marriages. These functional yet beautiful items were not just a means of self-expression for the maker but were used as an integral part of everyday life.”
Despite her evident success, her path to the arts was unconventional, in large part because of societal limitations on the role of women. Leonie Castelino was born in Bangalore, India and raised in Mumbai. She immigrated to the US in 1976. Now residing in Mahwah, New Jersey, she found her path to the arts as an adult, in large part because societal norms in India discouraged pursuit of the arts as a career. As a young woman from an upper crust family (her father was a marine engineer and her mother a mathematician) she was expected to get a “proper” degree. She consequently earned bachelor and master’s degrees in geography from the University of Bombay in Mumbai. Despite that imposed educational path, she had a passion for crafts. “It’s what the women in my family did. I learned early on to use a sewing machine. Women practiced needle arts – stitching, embroidery, drapery and upholstery. It was a skill, a craft women practiced.” She was denied the opportunity to self-actualize as an artist. Even after she immigrated with her husband to Woodside, Queens, she enrolled in an MBA program in Baruch College, rather than art school. Reflecting on that fateful decision today, she understands that at that time she was not ready to process the societal dictates, and to emancipate herself from those unwritten limitations. Today she knows, “I was indoctrinated.”
Creative people tend to channel their intrinsic existentialist struggles and innermost feelings through artistic expression, be it in music, dance, writing or visual arts. For Leonie Castelino that cathartic path was delayed. She did her duty, first by entering the business world as a research analyst, then as a homemaker mother of two. Yet, her yearning for artistic self-expression was undaunted. She found an alternative path through arts workshops. While working and studying for her MBA, she still made time to attend courses at the Fashion Institute in Manhattan where she “…learned how to make fashionable clothes.”
Castelino gave up her business career in 1990 to look after her two sons. The domestic homemaker life in the New Jersey suburbs was lonely and isolating. She continued to follow her passion in any way possible. “Art workshops helped me survive over the next ten years: Japanese textile arts of Shibori and Rozome with renowned teachers, and the decorative arts at the Isabel O’Neil Studio in Manhattan. Four women were instrumental in my arts career: Eleanore Pettersen, one of the first licensed female architects in New Jersey, changed the trajectory of my life by inviting me in 1990 to join ALTRUSA, a service
organization for women. There, I found acceptance, fellowship and connections. I met artist and printmaker, Cornelia Baker, who nominated me for my first solo show in 2003, which was transformative. I became a textile artist! In 2006, I discovered Bojagi in a workshop by Chunghie Lee, the internationally renowned fiber artist and lecturer, and a Fulbright Scholar at the Rhode Island School of Design. I found my medium! That’s when I became a textile artist, a contemporary Bojagi artist. With invitations to exhibit, New York curator Bibiana Huang Matheis is major powerful influence who gave me encouragement and opportunities to experiment with my installations.”
Since that time, she has been a full time artist, devoted to fiber arts. She uses both commercial fabric and self-dyed textiles. She prefers silk-organza fabric, which she obtains in her travels in China, Korea, India and in the Garment District of Manhattan. Stylistically, Castelino leans toward freeform design. No advance patterns. “I may start off with an idea, but I create as I go, piecing the fabric into a sculpture.” Usually, her projects are made specifically for each installation exhibition. The resulting hanging fabric sculptures are playful, colorful, projecting shape and form, 3-dimensional art that she defines as “each piece is an experimentation.” Some of her compositions are colorful shapes patchworked into a flowing form. Other times she incorporates embellishments and imagery, even writing. Castelino’s imaginative constructed installations feature irregular grids. She uses light as an illuminating play on translucency, interacting with shadow. Mosaics, stained glass or quilts all come to mind. Each piece is airy, subtle and yet vividly
rich and gentle. Her piece Homage to Paul Klee interestingly brings to question whether the German artist was not himself influenced by Korean Bojagi, and here Castelino closes the loop back to Klee.
Some pieces, such as Homage to Haenyeo are distinctly conceptual: Castelino celebrates the famous Haenyeo female divers in the Korean province of Jeju whose livelihood consists of harvesting a variety of sea life from the ocean. Other pieces are abstract. Unless we are told, the artist’s symbolism and meaning of each piece is elusive. The viewer sees tapestries, quilt-like compositions and virtual dances of color. Like the physicality of the artworks, which are essentially fabric veils, the artist’s message is also veiled and mysterious.
“It’s about being a woman, about not being allowed to dream or to be who we want to be.”
“My work has a social activism message. My installations are celebrations of women. I made pieces that protest missing girls in Asia and the world, for example. The cocoons in my work represents dreams of who I am. It’s about being a woman, about not being allowed to dream or to be who we want to be. Each cocoon has an opening for escape. I am for woman, but not as victims. It’s about emancipatory freedom and achievement.”
“I make art for the soul”, said Castelino, “I love what I do.” At first denied her freedom to be who she wanted to be, the artist found her rightful place in the arts, which in turn freed her own humanity.
¹Selvedge Magazine. September 30, 2019.
Writer. Photographer. Producer.
Contributing writer to the Hammond Museum and Japanese Stroll Garden, Frank Matheis, is a music, visual arts and culture writer and photographer. His latest project was the book ‘Sweet Bitter Blues’ co-written with National Heritage Fellow Phil Wiggins (University Press of Mississippi, 2020). His Hammond Museum and Japanese Stroll Garden column ‘In Other Words’ features member artists in all disciplines. He is also a contributing writer to ArtsWestchester, Living Blues magazine (Center for Southern Culture Studies) and thecountryblues.com.