1.What’s your reaction to people who see your painting as Japanese-American? How do you think it’s important for you and your audience?
When I create a piece of art, art is like a window. I am on one side, and the viewers are on the other, and we are both trying to look at each other. This window, art as medium, is to connect and see each other in various levels. They can see my side of the window, and I can see their side, too. We are both inside and outside at the same time.
The understanding of this window’s location is important. It is on top of a hill. From both sides, we need to work a little bit to get to the window. There is implicit trust on the part of viewers and the artist. The artist trusts if they put enough effort into their work, the window is clear and polished. And the viewer trusts that if they do a little bit of work to get to the window, they get to interact with something profound. What is profound is the expression of full humanity that can be seen through the window. In order for the viewers to fully engage with artwork, they might also want to understand where the artist and his/her mind is coming from. I think my background as Japanese-American is one layer of many, and understanding it might further enhance the audience’s experience of my artwork.
2. Your painting contains Japanese calligraphy that are words and that bring meaning to you and your painting. I wonder if you consider yourself as an abstract or representational painter?
How would you explain that difference in your painting knowing that calligraphy is a representation of meaning and symbols itself?
This question is an interesting one. Many years ago, I was trying to paint true to my being and communicate from the bottom of my heart, and I started incorporating a written language as a shape that can carry the meaning of how I paint – authentic and true to myself. Basically, I wanted to tap into unconscious yet mindful mark-making. This understanding came much later in my artistic career, by the way.
A written language allowed me to use the shape of characters I am very familiar with so that I did not have to create new shapes. This let me focus solely on meaning because I did not have to think about creating structure. When I don’t have to think about the structure, that opens up a space in my mind where I can more deeply interact with the meaning. This allows me to bring all my focus to being present, and engage with the meaning. When I fully engage with the meaning in this way, I almost become the meaning itself. This is the ideal approach that Japanese calligraphy aspires to.
I was trying to represent the meaning of the written language through my body as a performer. This, of course, led me to consciously borrow the approach of Japanese calligraphy. As I mentioned, I was trying to represent something. Something that is not visible, yet, almost tangible in my mind. So, my answer for this question, whether I am an abstract or representational painter, is both.
I remember vividly, when I just started my graduate study at Indiana University, one of the professors told me that they wanted to have one good abstract painter in their program. This comment made me realize that my painting appears as an abstract painting to others, while to myself I was representing something, so I was not thinking about abstract painting at all.This comment made me realize that my painting appears as an abstract painting to others, while to myself I was representing something, so I was not thinking about abstract painting at all. - Nishiki Sugawara-Beda Click To Tweet
3. Why is it important to incorporate Japanese culture in your painting? What does your painting stand for?
It is important to paint something that you know. We can’t pretend. This is why we, artists, should always continue to research and expand our cultural and informational repertoire.
My journey to face my own culture, the culture that I have grown up with, was something that I had to do when I started questioning who I am and how I can communicate from my heart to viewers’ hearts directly, communicating human to human, beyond different cultures and perspectives. My hypothesis was that if we as human beings are basically the same being, we have something in common. I call this a core. If this is the case, I also have this core. If I understand this core myself, I might be able to find a solution to communicate with others from heart to heart. This is why I started to look into my Japanese culture to find a clue to look for my core.
However, my painting does not aim to represent Japanese culture. It often has the appearance of Japanese culture, but what I do is borrow the approach as well as the tools to find myself in Japanese culture, so that I can produce art authentically and communicate spiritually.
4. Do you think that painting matters in today’s culture? Why do you think that painters should paint?
We all should do what we do the best. Some people call this a calling, and some people call this a passion. What matters is that we acknowledge our differences and live harmoniously while we do our best to be good citizens and support each other.
I am in love with painting. The look of it, the process that provides me time to find myself, the diversity of paintings that I see over thousands of years—all these as well as other aspects of painting continues to fascinate me.
As to your big question of whether painting matters in today’s culture or not, I would like to say yes, absolutely. I believe painting is a fantastic medium to communicate something beyond our imagination, and provide both painters and viewers subtle yet substantial experiences to enrich our lives. But, it is only if we are willing to climb up the hill to get to the window and see the other side.I believe painting is a fantastic medium to communicate something beyond our imagination - Nishiki Sugawara-Beda Click To Tweet
5. What is your latest body of work about? Are those paintings about ink and black acrylic paint only or there’s much more in it? Does your black series touch existential problem or death symbolism problems in art? How would you explain that approach to your work?
Several years ago, my painting was full of colors. I was using colors as language to create narratives, mood, and visual impressions of my work. For my recent work, I decided to limit colors for various reasons.
One, I had an occasion to have a solo show where I exhibited my sculptural installation and paintings in the same gallery space. The sculptural installation had white and a little bit of red, so I did not want to create visual competition with my sculptural installation and paintings. Two, I wanted to see the subtle color variations that Sumi ink can provide. Sumi ink is used in Japanese calligraphy and ink painting. It offers a wide range of the color black. Using the whiteness of the paper, Sumi ink can also offer various grays by adding more water. Three, I became a mother at the end of 2015. In order to welcome and celebrate myself as a mother and my daughter’s life, I wanted to limit colors so that I can listen to the sounds of colors and consider them from a new perspective. From that space, I am open to their new possibilities, possibilities that grow and deepen as life blooms.
6. I know you mentioned in one of your interviews that your life is focused around positivity. How much philosophy is in it and how much of motivational approach is hidden in this lifestyle?
It is all about my intention for life. We live our lives in a variety of ways. I am simply choosing a positive way of living, appreciating what we have and are, doing something that brings positivity in my life as well as others (I hope!), and aiming to be a good citizen of this universe.
Philosophically speaking, I try to follow Zen teaching. I am always humble in front of many Zen practitioners. If I can practice a little bit each day, I am happy and I will continue to do so.
7. How do you start painting? What’s the first step?
In my Decision Making series and works before that, I started with words or phrases that deal with a certain theme. But in my recent work, I dropped borrowing language and started using abstract images that I have in my mind. I even stopped using a brush. What I do instead is think about what I learned in my research and looking back through my sketchbook to fully understand and feel the understanding using my intellect and body. And through that, I get some image in my mind.
8. As an educator, could you tell us why there’s so much pressure on students to explore and experiment with all kinds of media rather than focus on one particular one?
I don’t give students pressure, or at least I try not to push them to a one direction over another. With empathy, I present options and possible strategies. Ultimately, I would like to present various tools for students to find their own ways of approaching artmaking.
9. Where is your state of mind now?
This summer, I am moving to Dallas where I start my new artistic life and teach at Southern Methodist University. I am full of hope (with a little bit of nervousness), and I am looking forward to a new and exciting life.
I have been thinking about space and time. In Ken-ich Sasaki’s essay, Perspectives East and West, he discusses the intricate relationship between space and time in Asian perspectives. As time and space are inseparable, I am intrigued by this relationship.
10. Do we need art or culture in our society?
Cultures are everywhere, right and left, and up and down. We need to choose to look at them with an open heart. As for art, yes, we need art like we need science and literature.
11. What is your point of view in American culture? How do you incorporate your experience as Japanese in the United States?
The United States consists of immigrants from various countries throughout its history. It is only natural to incorporate my own culture and experience into the country that I reside. “How” is the question. I do not use words like bring, impart, or use. I would rather use the word “share” for my cultural experience.
12. What’s your ultimate goal?
I want to understand who we are. In daily life, I want to be real, kind, and aware. As a curious person, my goal is to continue to explore and search for ways to understand who we are.