Inspired by Yayoi Kusama: A Roundup of Polka Dot Artifacts

Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror exhibit has taken Toronto by storm, with long lines forming every morning in the hopes of getting into explore her unique, interactive installations.

Now 89, Kusama is an artist well worth celebrating. She has been producing intense, semi-abstract artwork that feature circles and dots since she was a child. Known as the “Priestess of Polka Dots” she uses this simple repeated pattern to reflect on the concept of infinity.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Ms. Kusama explained: “Since I was 10 years old I have been painting every day, and even now there is not a day that I do not paint.” She added, “I still see polka dots everywhere.”

Kusama has used polka dots as part of anti-Vietnam War protests, intricate paintings, sculptures, drawings, as a fashion statement in her line of dresses, and as part of her intricate, interactive mirror rooms. When looking at dots as a motif in artifacts, they also showed up in a diversity of places.

We found many dotted historical ceramics in handpainted, transfer print, and overglaze motifs. We also found dots decorating clay smoking pipes, thimbles, and glass bottle. Further back in time, many stone tools were made with cherts that feature tiny speckles. And perhaps most spectacular of all, we have a bright yellow contact era glass trade bead that features exuberant white, red and blue dots.

The use of the term “polka dot” first appeared in print in the essential resource for 19th century fashion, the Godey’s Lady Book. In 1857, Godey’s referred to a muslin scarf as being embroidered with “rows of round polka dots.” The term seems to be a combination of two currently popular items, dotty patterns and polka dancing. Polka was introduced in the Americas in the mid-nineteenth century by European immigrants, and the fast paced two-step dance became a bit of a craze.

Before machine fabriaction, the polka dot pattern didn’t really exist, as the evenly spaced layout and consistent sized dots were very challenging to create by hand. By the 1850s many middle class and upper class women were no longer wearing homespun clothing, but could instead purchase new outfits and machine made cloth. The success of Godey’s Ladies Book also allowed fashions to be shared more widely, helping the polka dot spread far and wide.

We hope you enjoy this collection of dotted artifacts as much as we did putting it together!

Written by Caitlin Coleman, Photography by Laura Burke


Rich, Motoko
Yayoi Kusuma, Queen of Polka Dots, Open Museum in Tokyo.
The New York Times, September 26, 2017.

Kelleher, Katy
The History of the Polka Dot, from Minnie Mouse to Yayoi Kusama.
Artsy, Apr 3, 2018.

Sigourney, L. H. (Lydia Howard)., Hale, S. Josepha Buell., Godey, L. Antoine.
Godey’s magazine. v.54 1857
Through Hathi Trust Digital Library.