© Lucy Arai, 1977
Women artists of the American West are a diverse cross-section of the entire population. I never thought of myself as a woman of the American West until this project. Yet, my mother always told me that the West Coast would be more hospitable to my art. So in 1988 I moved to California with my husband. This edge of America has always been the western anchorage of the bridge between my mother's native Japan and my European-American father's country. I grew up spending summers car camping from Michigan to California, exploring every state in between. It is in the San Francisco Bay area that I have found my home. It is the only place in the country where I feel whole and vital, not culturally and racially compromised and polarized as a result of my dual heritage. Ongoing documentation of my art over twenty-five years, through slides and journals illustrates the excelleration of growth and development that is a direct result of being in the West, particularly through the evolving presence of the circle.
The art that I commit my life to is a disciplined practice of hand-stitching on sumi-ink painted Japanese papers using sashiko, a traditional embroidery technique. It is what I learned from my uncle when I lived with him in the early 1970's. It became the way we communicated, for I do not speak fluent Japanese and he spoke no English. My uncle would take me to museums to show me examples of the stitching, then demonstrate, while I imitated him. After years of practice and formal art training in western art, my work embodies the subtle refinements achieved only through years of practice.
My formal training in art was in sculptural ceramics. The forms evolved from carved and patterned spheres into thin arcs of clay weighted off-center with rocks and rope. The discipline with which I worked in clay came directly from the lessons I had with my mother in Japanese folk crafts, such as temari (embroidered balls). After months of copying her temari prototypes, I stayed up one night to start and finish a temari of my own design. At daylight I completed the ball and woke her up to show her. Upon close inspection, she said the colors were all wrong. She said the stitching was technically perfect, but I was not ready to create the balls on my own. After much angst and more practice, I did come to understand what she meant. There are very subtle things that are transmitted from a master or prototype that can only be received through practice, for they are beyond verbal transmission. She was right, my colors were off and even though I can now see this clearly I cannot fully articulate why. It is through this kind of disciplined practice that my sculptures in clay evolved into curves of handstitched layers of paper and mesh for greater scale and flexibility, then into compositions of papers layered and handstitched into compressed two-dimensional spaces. It is a perpetual process of practice, learning, experimenting, and refining.
The objects are neither Japanese, nor Western, yet there are innovations and assimilations of both artistic traditions. The lessons I have learned through my work and living in the West have taught me universal truths about human experiences and relationships. These truths are embodied in and explored through my objects, while object-making is a mindful and disciplined process though which I define spirituality and the interconnections between all things. This is possible for me only in the American West, where diversity is the status quo.
All text and artwork are © Lucy Arai.