Expression Through Living Art

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Published:
March 20, 2018

Artist Kiyomi Fukui is the daughter of a Japanese Adventist pastor, graduate of La Sierra University, and a resident of Long Beach, California. She talks to Spectrum about how her garden art exhibitions represent life beyond tragedy and how her new project creates a visual representation of collective honesty.

Question: You are a Japanese-American artist with a number of awards and exhibitions to your name. Last year you created several garden art exhibitions, including Apologetic Garden, the Green Thumb Project, and the Listening Garden. Can you tell us a little bit about those projects? Why do living plants interest you as an artist? Isn't your control somewhat limited by the plants growing or not growing in different ways — and maybe not how you intended?

Answer: To me, living things literally represent life itself. The Green Thumb Project was my thesis project for my graduate studies. It was a garden of plants grown from seeds embedded in paper-cast sculptures made with a mold I took from my mom's thumb right before she passed away. I casted countless thumbs, propagated many plants from them, and created a garden inside a gallery, where willing participants were able to take thumbs home with them. I loved the idea that the life essence of her thumbs spread beyond the gallery space, and live on somewhere else in the world. 

With my other projects that deal with living materials, they metaphorically represent rebirth, reconciliation, and the life beyond sadness and tragedy. Listening Garden was actually a project by my dear friend and independent curator/performer/writer, Natalie Mik, who invited me to participate by sharing my embroidery. She created an installation with branches and plant matter, in which she acted as a garden keeper to host events and performances. She has a beautiful and brilliant mind, and you can read about her projects at www.nataliemik.com

Also, I think it's interesting that you brought up the term “control.” I've always loved working with my hands and producing intricate details that require a lot of control. It makes me feel at ease because to have that control gives me assurance and security. 

Maybe that's why I felt compelled to work with organic matter which often has a mind of its own and does whatever it wishes. I think it was a way for me to let go of my ego in relation to art making. I guess to me, nature generally represents something totally out of my control and is a reminder that I am merely a tiny part of a greater eco system — yet with my own small role to play. 

With most of my works that deal with actual living (or decaying) materials, I like to set up a situation for them to do whatever they do best: growing, living, decomposing, and so on. I see a garden to be a small-scale representation of the cycle of our life. 

You also create embroidered jewelry based on fungal forms. This must be related to your interest in plants.

I started making such accessories under the label Kindred Spirits in 2016 when I finished my graduate studies during which I mainly explored developing my conceptual works. I had an incredible time exploring critical discourse during my MFA, and it really opened my eyes to the potential of art-making, but it did wear out my desire to simply enjoy “making” without bringing the art to my committee, peers, etc, for discursive feedback. 

At the time, I wanted to stop thinking and move my hands. To me embroidery (or tatting and crocheting, for that matter) was a means of escapism. I chose fungi as my form since I've always been fascinated by their function and in ecosystems as well as their beautiful forms.

I named this series Kindred Spirits in an homage to many great friends I have met who always sparked inspiration and the joy of art making. I love this name since I keep finding that same level of kinship with more and more wonderful artists and friends, and I secretly count them toward this homage. It was also inspired by one of my favorite paintings from Hudson River School, Kindred Spirits by Asher B. Durand, which was painted in homage to the friendship of Thomas Cole and William Bryant after Cole passed away.

What other projects have you been working on?

My current project is tentatively titled Sincerely Small Talk. It is an exercise in sincerity, where participants are invited to share one true statement about themselves then add their thumbprint to my collection on a prepared etching plate — a piece of flattened copper coated with pressure-sensitive layer called soft ground. This ground will allow me to permanently etch the thumbprints on the plate so I can produce prints of the collection. Through the impressions of the participants, a visual landscape of collective honesty will be formed. We are planning to share this work at an event at Museum of Latin American Art on May 22.

In this age, an obvious lie can easily be accepted as an alternative fact, and the value of truth and honesty is in question. As infuriating as this political climate can be, I became increasingly curious in the use of trust, honesty, and dishonesty in daily life. I find myself asking: When was the last time I was conscious of being honest to myself? The emotional, internal landscape of being honest to oneself can be incredibly lonely. You are the only person who understands whether you are being truthful at the moment. In other words, there is not much we can do to understand one's truthfulness from an external point of view. As I collect thumbprints, I have no choice but to accept and trust each participant's honesty. Thus, this exercise is meant to re-orient our focus to the experience and the balance between honesty and trust, even in small talk.

As you can probably guess, many of my projects do not fit the conventional mold of sellable or commercial art. In another example of my work, Rise Above, I posted a call for participants to come together to share their personal trauma with strangers. In the Apologetic Garden, I asked participants to write a letter of apology to whomever they wish and then had them place their letter in a handmade envelope with seeds to be planted in a designated garden space. 

In regard to money and art, I made a deliberate decision not to concern myself with making money through such participatory practices. I am always seeking participants, venues, and other opportunities, but not primarily for financial incentive (though if anyone wants to pay me to do these I will not refuse!). 

My husband, Michael Nannery, who is also an artist as well as a huge artistic inspiration of mine, always tells me that art can be another form of cultural currency that is not tied to monetary currency — the currency most revered by contemporary society. By focusing on mental and spiritual transformation rather than the acquisition of money, a greater value may be found within the experience of art.

That being said, I make art objects for the sake of making and self expression such as print and fiber pieces for Kindred Spirits. Some of them are made to produce monetary value, particularly the jewelry and herb-infused functional objects. I think of them as an extension of my daily life that I hope to find a home for them in someone else's life. 

At the same time, I try not to concern myself with what might sell and what might not because ultimately I'm only making these for my own personal enjoyment. I see beauty in the objects I make. If someone else feels the same way about the work, it makes me happy, but that is not the aim of its production. 

All this talk of money might make me sound naive to some as it is a necessity for survival in this society. My primary source of income comes from teaching art to kids and adults at various schools and institutions. I love sharing knowledge, and I am grateful I can get paid to help someone create their vision to life or simply to share the joy of making.

So right now anyway, you are not able to earn a living as an artist? 

From my artistic practice, the answer is no. Fortunately, I am happy to be paid to pursue my passion of teaching. When my students respond to the excitement of new knowledge and process, I am gratified. 

Teaching is all about empowerment.  There are moments I get to witness the excitement of students and their transformation of energy into something even more wondrous. I could not be luckier to have those moments while getting paid! 

Often my salary is not quite enough to cover living expenses, and I work freelance to supplement my income. Some freelance projects are not so exciting, but other times I actually have really fun projects such as creating a mural for a private residence, book design/illustrations, and designing/curating a presentation room for a local family-owned business in Long Beach. 

I am not going to lie in claiming making a living as an artist is easy. It is a lot of hustle, but by the grace of God and lots of help and support from Michael, I am absolutely grateful that it has somehow been working out for me.

You grew up in Japan, the daughter of a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. Was your childhood different than your peers around you because of your religion? 

I think it was quite different from many artists I meet. I used to feel isolated and lonely as the experience of being a pastor's child can be complicated, but now I see that most everyone's background and stories are complicated. We all come from unique backgrounds, and within that diversity, I don't feel so different from others anymore. 

To elaborate on the loneliness, I mostly felt self-conscious and thought I was always being judged for who I was. I always sensed that I was supposed to meet certain expectations and that who I was would not be seen as an ideal Adventist. I guess I was just caught up with who I should be and not with who I am. 

I am now finally starting to feel comfortable in my own skin. I wish I could go back in time and tell my young self to stop worrying and start looking at what is more important: the part of the Bible that tells you to accept that you are accepted. 

I have also come to realize that this kind of loneliness is universal. The details and stories might vary, but I think the core of the feeling is mutual in the upbringing of many. (That being said, when I met Michael, we found out that we were both pastor's kids which felt like providence.) 

Perhaps what we all need is to learn more about each other and have a willingness to sympathize. 

Where else do you find your inspiration for your art?

There are many sources from which I draw inspiration: nature, Michael, gardening, conversations with friends, and so on. It seems my greatest inspirations come from things that I immediately want to avoid such as my insecurities, traumas, and mistakes. I am bound by self-esteem issues, and I have always struggled with self acceptance. 

As personal as such experiences may be, I believe they are quite universal. I have come to realize that my weaknesses have value in reaching those who are in need of connection. 

You left Japan to attend La Sierra University. Why did you choose La Sierra? 

In my high school days, I dreamed of going to an art school, but my parents were not supportive of this option. I was born in Michigan when my father was completing his Master's degree, so studying in the U.S. was always an interest of mine. When I was looking for a school, I mainly looked at Adventist colleges, and the La Sierra art department stood out to me due to its lineup of faculty members, student work, and the presence of the Brandstater Gallery. 

You graduated with a degree in graphic design from La Sierra University in 2012. You had several successful exhibitions when you were a student. How did your studies at La Sierra and your teachers there influence your art and help you to grow as an artist?

I cannot thank each of the La Sierra faculty enough for the education I received. They were always there for me every step of the way, and I could always count on their support. 

One thing I appreciate the most about La Sierra is the quality of attention each student can get. That is not something you can easily receive in other art programs. Tim Musso, who I consider my life-long mentor, went far out of his way to provide amazing experiences which included taking us to galleries in Los Angeles and even trips across the country to printmaking conferences. I was without a car during my undergraduate studies (imagine having to walk around everywhere in Riverside during summer!), so without him, I would not have been exposed to so much of the art world. Furthermore, his attitude as an artist continues to be an important inspiration to me. 

Not only Tim, but the entire art department faculty at La Sierra are incredibly generous and dedicated to nurturing their students.

You earned your Master's in printmaking from California State University Long Beach. Why did you choose that degree and that school? What did you learn as an artist during those years?

I have always had an affinity to CSULB because Tim always took us to its events and exhibitions (he had also received his Masters degree there). After graduating from La Sierra, I was looking for graduate programs around the country and applied to a few different schools. I was very close to moving to Tennessee as the school there offered an amazing printmaking program, but at the last minute, I found out I was also accepted to CSULB MFA program in printmaking. When I received my acceptance letter, I had little hesitation in deciding to attend CSULB. I liked the idea of being close to LA, which is one of the greatest art hubs in the U.S., and I also liked that it was a state school, offering quality education at an affordable price.

That being said, graduate studies were not easy. The timing made it particularly difficult. During the first year of my time at CSULB, my mother was fighting cancer in Korea, where my dad was working at the time. I was devastated when she finally passed away in my second year. My whole time at CSULB, even before she passed, I was grieving. The emotion was so strong — I had no idea what to make, and everything I made related to this personal experience. 

Second, I was exposed to conceptual art — a part of contemporary art of which I was previously unfamiliar. It felt like my brain had been cracked open. Before that, I was only making object-based aesthetic art. Conceptual art was like a whole new world to me. 

As exciting as it was to explore the new (to me) potential of art, it was also difficult to let go of my insecurities that come from exceeding my comfort zone. I also learned what I didn't want to do: pursue art for ego and self assurance. Though I still find myself making art under such conditions, I try to remind myself what I value more and to focus on the kind of message I want to convey. Through the struggle of finding my voice (which is ongoing), I try to learn how to have a light heart and to be free in making art.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I have always known I wanted to express myself through some art form. I remember when I told my parents I wanted to go to an art school, they thought this desire came completely out of the blue — but to me it was a natural course of thought. I remember hiding sketchbooks under the covers in my bed so I could draw until I fell asleep. I mostly drew bad copies of comic books, but I remember thinking they were all great masterpieces. 

I wrote (very embarrassing) novels throughout middle school, and I also found a collection of short poems I posted on a secret blog in high school. 

I found immense joy in having a means to release what was bottled inside. My methods and media have changed, but I think the excitement and zest of making and sharing art remains the same to this day.

What do you consider your greatest achievement so far?

This is a very difficult question. I am incredibly hard on myself, and I have a difficult time focusing on anything besides self-criticism. I think that is why I like to escape in the quiet time of making art in an attempt to tune out worries and self-doubt. A lot of my practice requires participation from the audience. Through this format, I find the greatest value in my audience sharing that they had a profound experience with my work. Usually, I am providing situations for my audience to participate in a moment of contemplation if they choose to. Apologetic Garden during Mind Games, a pop-up art event curated by Michael, might have been an ideal format for such engagement. The letter writing station and garden were presented as a shrine inside a cavernous basement of a seafood processing factory along with many other incredible artworks and installations. I had many people share the profoundness of their own apologetic experiences. I personally participated as well that night, and I found myself crying my eyes out. The act of writing a letter, especially knowing that no one will actually ever read it, really forced me to face my own unspoken inner guilt.

See more about Kiyomi Fukui and her art at www.kiyomifukui.com.

Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.

All images courtesy of Kiyomi Fukui.

 

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