View all News & Photos

Subtle Expressions of Culture: Peter and Beverly Sinton Discuss Donation of Japanese Textiles to Portland Japanese Garden

Peter and Beverly Sinton.

Portland Japanese Garden is excited to showcase the art of gift-giving through the exhibition Painting with Thread: The Art and Culture of Fukusa, featured in the Calvin and Mayho Tanabe Gallery from June 22 through September 16. Fukusa are ornate works of Japanese silk that were traditionally used in formal gift-giving rituals amongst prominent families in Japan starting around 350 years ago during the Edo period (1603-1868). The fukusa (gift covers) featured in the exhibition were generously donated along with a collection of uchishiki (decorated altar cloths) to the organization by San Francisco residents Peter and Beverly Sinton, longtime fans and collectors of Japanese textiles. This exhibition marks the first time the nuanced artistry of fukusa has been displayed in Portland Japanese Garden.  

In addition to a lifetime of collecting art, Peter was a journalist, writing for publications such as Time, Business Week, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Peter, a fourth-generation San Franciscan, has also served as a volunteer docent at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and board member of the Society for Asian Art. Beverly, a fourth-generation Japanese American from Honolulu, worked for a law firm and workplace evaluation company. She also volunteered at Shanti Project and Zen Hospice to support terminally ill patients, as well as the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. Ahead of Painting with Thread, Peter and Beverly sat down to talk about fukusa, their collection, and why they chose to donate these stunning and elaborately decorated works to the Garden. 

A Reflection of the Japanese Attention to Aesthetics 

Fukusa from The Peter and Beverly Sinton Japanese Gift and Altar Cover Collection. Photo by Nina Johnson.

 “In pre-modern Japan, giving gifts was not simply buying something and tossing it to your friend on his birthday,” Peter noted when asked to explain the purpose of fukusa. “Starting in the late 1600s, a complicated system of presenting ceremonial covers draped over gifts bestowed special meaning on the object beneath. The aristocracy, daimyo [feudal lords], and samurai class and eventually the wealthy merchant class in the historic capitals of Kyoto and Tokyo (Edo) put a lot of planning into it.” 

 Peter went on to note that the choice of fukusa suited to the occasion was a key part of the ritual. The suitability of the cover to the occasion signaled the donor’s cultural sensitivity. The design reflected their scholarship and aesthetic sensibility. The richness of the decoration, including extensive use of gold-wrapped thread, reflected the giver’s financial and social status.

An intriguing thing about collecting fukusa is that there are so many subjects — all imbued with special characteristics and meaning: Buddhist and Shinto themes, Chinese Taoist and Confucian scholarship, aristocratic culture, waka poems, Noh theater, folk tales, landscapes and heavenly spaces, the seasons, birds, beasts and creatures of the sea.  Motifs can be linked with annual festivals and major life events such as special birthdays, weddings, construction of a new building, opening a store, awarding of a decoration, passing an exam or expressing gratitude to a mentor or teacher. Not all fukusa congratulate or wish good fortune and long life. Images of lotuses and Buddhist themes could be bestowed with condolence offerings. 

An Enthusiasm that Began in Kyoto

Fukusa from The Peter and Beverly Sinton Japanese Gift and Altar Cover Collection. Photo by Nina Johnson.

“I’ve collected all my life,” shared Peter, reflecting on how he began his journey as a fukusa enthusiast. “I come from a family of collectors of all sorts of art in all generations—as a kid, I collected autographs, butterflies, fossils, presidential memorabilia and more. In 1998, our younger son had finished college and was teaching in the JET [Japan Exchange and Teaching] Program in Nagasaki and we visited him and toured some other cities. In Kyoto, we went to an antique store. It had lots of textiles and I saw a square textile. I didn’t know what it was, but it was beautiful and I bought it. And that was the start of my hunt for gift and Buddhist altar covers. A few years later I retired and became a docent at the Asian Art Museum and began focusing on Japanese art. For about 20 years I collected hanging scrolls, tea wares, including ones with kintsugi repairs, Buddhist statues but primarily gift and altar covers.” 

However elegant and intricately made, fukusa are an artistic niche that has faded in relevance in recent decades, to the point that many in Japan are unaware of their history. Because they haven’t captured the attention of art fans  in the way that woodblock prints or netsuke (miniature carvings) have, Peter’s efforts to collect these historic, more elaborate fukusa were not a simple matter. 

“You don’t find them just anywhere,” Peter noted. “In 2001 I discovered a wonderful online textile dealer based in Japan named Ichiro Wada. His company, Ichiroya, now no longer in business, bought thousands of antique Japanese textiles at local auctions  from people  who lacked either the interest or storage space to keep them. He would post items at noon every week day and you had to be quick to click the buy button or you’d likely lose out on the best pieces.  But now it’s our time to pass them on.” 

A Generous Donation 

Fukusa from The Peter and Beverly Sinton Japanese Gift and Altar Cover Collection. Photo by Nina Johnson.

 Peter and Beverly have spent decades amassing their collection of fukusa. In addition to finding joy in the act of collecting fukusa, the Sintons found it equally inspiring to share the story and beauty of fukusa with others. Enter Portland Japanese Garden. Itself a world-class example of Japanese landscape art, the organization has introduced the work of more than 75 artists representing Japan and its artistic traditions since 2007. “Traditionally, the role of Japanese gardens is to offer a place of quiet contemplation detached from the noise of modern society,” shares Aki Nakanishi, the Arlene Schnitzer Curator of Culture, Art, and Education. “But at the same time, Japanese gardens have always embraced, if not strived for a sense of symbiosis created at the intersection of architecture, art, and nature, which demonstrates the balance that can be achieved when nature and human ingenuity converge.” 

 “I think for Peter, one of the hallmarks of collecting is an enthusiasm that he’s eager to share with people,” Beverly shared. “We were delighted with the Garden when we went there and enjoyed it greatly—it was in so many ways the best experience of a Japanese garden outside of Japan that we’d ever had. It’s an institution that conveys yet another aspect of Japanese cultural and artistic values and so it seemed like a naturally appropriate place to share another aspect of Japan’s artistic output. Japanese gardens and fukusa both express a lot about the Japanese attitude towards aesthetics and the benefit of nature and beauty to existence, really. The Garden seemed like an appropriate place to introduce another way to understand and appreciate Japanese culture.” 

 “I love Portland Japanese Garden,” Peter offered. “It’s pruned and arranged more than nature, but it’s done perfectly. The care and gardening matches the care and thoughtfulness of giving a gift.” 

Inspiring Harmony and Peace 

Fukusa from The Peter and Beverly Sinton Japanese Gift and Altar Cover Collection. Photo by Nina Johnson.

 Founded in 1963, Portland Japanese Garden is a nonprofit organization with a mission of Inspiring Harmony and Peace.  Beverly feels that Painting with Thread and the fukusa that will be exhibited align with Garden’s cultural diplomacy and hopes to introduce Japanese culture in a way that fosters understanding and appreciation.   

 “I think that [harmony and peace] are very strongly expressed in the Garden,” Beverly offered. “To me harmony means connection—I think the connections that beautiful objects can inspire are a kind of harmony. And to me there’s an aspect of peace that means satisfaction. When you experience a beautiful garden like [Portland Japanese Garden], that kind of satisfaction and feeling while in nature is very important.” 

 “I think that fukusa can offer a profound experience that makes our existences deeper and create connection to things that are larger than ourselves—the beauty of nature or what people can achieve and accomplish. Artistic skill or a garden is an accumulation of skill, tradition, and value that’s passed down. I think that’s a wonderful way to connect with other people who may not even be present with us.” 

Painting with Thread: The and Culture of Fukusa will be showing in the Calvin and Mayho Tanabe Gallery from June 22 through September 16.