Pieces of the story


These are pieces of my father’s story. I chose to use oyster shells as the pages to write it. The “book” will be assembled into ancestor chimes with bells and will hang in a tree in Carkeek Park in Seattle. It is part of an group installation called Rootbound Heaven and Earth curated by the Center of Contemporary Art Seattle. My piece will be facing the Puget Sound where my father’s family once raised oysters.


Another view of Hiroshima, thoughts on two bombings

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Seeing the Hiroshima Exhibition at the Anthropology Museum at University of British Columbia was so timely. It was happenstance that I should be in the Northwest only a few days before the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor bombing.

Being Japanese American always leaves me feeling so out-of-place and awkward when confronted with these two devastating bombings, one in my homeland, the other  in the country of my grandparents.

I remember going to the Pearl Harbor memorial and feeling shame and sadness. I felt like the enemy at the memorial. I could not help but wonder how my mother who grew up in Honolulu dealt with it. She was there the day of the bombing. She had just left the movie house with a friend and thought it was just another air raid and then she heard the explosions and saw the smoke.

In Japan at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and I again felt alone and shameful. As I viewed photos of burnt people and leveled buildings, waves of shock and repulsion went through my body. It was hard to be in the presence of these images.

It was refreshing, but equally as painful to see the 48 photos of Ishiuchi Miyako. Instead of black and white photographs of piles of rubble and dead or injured people, she focused on colorful and frayed, but not too damaged clothing and artifacts left behind after the vaporization of their owners. It was as if I could visualize the young vibrant woman who may have been on her lunch break or the tot who left behind her dolly. Miyako chose particular articles that spoke to her and an assistant carefully laid them out on top of a light box so she could photograph them. The lace on the collar of a dress was arranged to lay flat and the arms of a shirt were made to curve to express movement. Some of the pieces were placed in the sunshine as if to re-energize them, bringing them back to life. It was the missing wearers that visitors were left to fill in or perhaps they transported themselves into the photographs framed on the wall.

I appreciated the way the exhibition was hung. Children’s clothing and toys were placed low on the wall, at kids’ height. Some photos were hung higher and some closer together. They seemed to be speaking to each other. The dimly lit room begged viewers to talk in hushed voices and to move with respect through the space. I liked how the photographs were reflected in the sheen of the floor. It reminded me of a timeless, still pond.

This was not the first time I had encountered Ishiuchi Miyako. I had seen her work in 2005 at the Venice Biennale. There I saw her equally beautiful and poignant exhibition of remnants of her mother’s clothing and articles – a lacy negligee, a used lipstick, a handkerchief. I fell in love with her work and it was a joy to see her again in Vancouver.

I believe I has here to see her photographs to give me the time and space to reflect on horrible acts of war – whether they happen in my country of birth, my country of ancestry, or anywhere in the world.

Altered cultural and everyday objects express liminality

At the reception, I had a few people want to have access to my artist statement,
so I decided to post it here.

photo by Susan Friedman

I dedicate this exhibition, “In Liminal Space”
at Enso Art Gallery 
to my mother Doris Shintani,
and to all beings in the midst of transformation

Liminality: “…in-between situations and conditions that are characterized by
the dislocation of established structures, the reversal of hierarchies, and uncertainty
 regarding the continuity of tradition and future outcomes.” ~ Arnold van Gennep 

I alter cultural and everyday objects to construct stories to reflect our current times and to offer space to ponder and question. These installations are an expression of the ongoing process of destruction and creation.

In Japan, when a woman puts on a kimono it becomes part of her body. Though the kimono appears to be a flowing and simple gown, the layers that bind the woman’s breasts and the rest of her body makes for a very constricting uniform. Breathing is difficult and only small steps may be taken. The restrictive nature of wearing of it is thought to instill tranquility and peacefulness.

As I cut away the red flowers and leaves from the ivory kimono, I felt somewhat uncomfortable. I am destroying a symbol of my Japanese culture. I wonder, who was the woman who wore it? What was her life like?

I cut out the black flower pattern from this used kimono that was gifted to me.

photo by Susan Friedman

The cutting becomes a meditation. I feel a connection to the larger community of women who create and mend clothing. However, I was doing it in reverse…I was taking it apart.

My alterations reflect the loosening connection to my ancestry and culture, and the kimono is reduced to a skeleton, a web. The garment still maintains its elegant and simple structure even after deconstruction. I contemplate making more breathing space in my life to support a simple, healthy, and creative life path.

The kimono installation became a premonition of the Japanese devastation that was yet to come. The deconstructed garments represent not only the personal space but also the liminal space where the transformation of tradition, culture, and structure takes place.

This is the first kimono I cut up. I meditated on the loss of connection with my ancestors and culture

photo by Susan Friedman

The altered umbrellas question our concept of safety and shelter in a world of seemingly unending disasters. I long for an uncomplicated time when holding something over our heads protected us from what fell out of the sky.

The “Pearls Left Behind” installation created out of pizza rounds, conveys the connection of two war times – America’s war with Japan in the 1940’s and the current Iraqi wartime. Both of these events resulted in racial profiling, prejudice, deception, and death. Does history repeat or does it simply rhyme?

The “Vision Quest” ladder reflects my optimism that this threshold offers opportunity for evolution of human consciousness.

I hope my exhibit at Enso Gallery stimulates contemplation and discussion. I welcome your feedback.

 photo by Susan Friedman

Creating the Deconstructed Kimono

I want to write about the process I went through to create one of my newest pieces, the Deconstructed Kimono.

Since I’ve belonged the ARTTAG group, a subset of the NCWCA (Northern California Women’s Artist Caucus), I’ve been motivated to work with different materials and to branch out and experiment. The ARTTAG process allows each artist to be the inspiration for another artist. Working with a theme, we create a piece and then mail it to an artist to be their jumping off point to create their own work to send to another artist. A game of ‘telephone’ of sorts. After three rounds the artists gather for a sharing of food and art revealing and discussion. Often it is surprising how many threads tie the works together, even though there has been no written or verbal crosstalk during the creation process.

A theme we recently explored was Presence/Absence. I received a jacket embellished with photographs of a lifetime from another artist. Each photo had writing identifying the people and sometimes some background on what was happening at the time. This art piece was a poignant and beautiful tribute to the full lives of the artist and family members and friends, and their connection to the person who once wore this garment.

As I sat with the art piece in my studio for a couple of weeks, I decided to challenge myself to still focus on a garment, but to do the opposite of embellishment for my response art piece. I wanted to see if I could remove parts of a garment as a way to express memory and connection.

I opened my cedar trunk to pull out a kimono that was given to me by a friend who got it at a used clothing store. I have received a few kimonos from people who thought maybe I could do something with them. I also have family kimonos that I treasure and want to keep intact. These other kimonos I do not have a tie to, I have no idea who wore them or what their history is. So I decided to take this very culturally symbolic garment and experiment with it.

The first cut into the kimono was a difficult one. I felt as if I was violating a sacred article of clothing. I even talked to a fellow NCWCA member who grew up in Japan and she said something like ‘no problem, do it.’ So I proceeded to cut all the embellishment out of the kimono. I cut and cut and cut the orange flowers out of the fabric for 3 days. And it felt great. It was meditative to sit with this task and only this task for hours. I got into a rhythm, not unlike when one sews or knits.

While I was deconstructing this kimono I had many thoughts. Who was this woman who wore this? Was she alive? How did she feel when she wore it?

Memories came up. I had been dressed up in a kimono for Obon Odori a few times as a child. This is a special festival to honor ancestors who have passed on. People, mostly women dance in a circle with fans and umbrellas and rhythmic hand instruments. As I found out, kimonos are not comfortable to wear. They are very restrictive for walking and breathing. I recall sucking in my breath while being bound around my waist and chest with beautiful ornate thick fabric (an obi) wound around and around me. The obis were cinched so I could only walk with very short small steps. I felt beautiful but not very pleasant in my exotic garb. At 10 years old I already knew this wasn’t something I wanted to wear daily.

So while I was cutting away the beautiful flowers from the kimono, I had nostalgic thoughts. The kimono for me was a tie to my Japanese culture that is so easily slipping away from me. I no longer live with anyone who speaks Japanese and I of course do not know the language. I rarely cook the cuisine, let alone make gohan (rice) and tofu for every meal like we used to eat as children. My family elders are passing away. This cutting ritual became an honoring of my cultural loss and memories.

I left a few orange flowers on the band that goes around the kimono neck and the rest of what was left was just the creamy ivory skeleton. It had a web like quality. I had transformed this cultural icon into something new. The removed flowers now lay at the feet of the kimono. The piece resembled a tree that had lost its leaves. The remaining kimono still held it’s simple yet strong shape – it would never lose its beauty and it’s form.

Recently the ‘Deconstructed Kimono’ was installed in the San Francisco Foundation Boardroom, curated by APICC, Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center.

The artist’s secrets, creating the Pearls Left Behind installation

My process of creating still surprises me even after a few years of art making. This year I have taken another route – proposing work to galleries before creating it.  This is an interesting and more collaborative way of working with curators. I propose ideas and get feedback from them on fit with the theme and other work going into the show, taking into consideration the site for the exhibition.

Most recently I created an installation for the Re-Claim Exhibition for the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center. I proposed 2 different directions and they selected the idea of expanding the Remembrance Shrine I created 3 years ago.

The newly created Pearls Left Behind installation is a collection of reactions to memories of Japanese American Internees featured on the Remembrance Shrine Over three years viewers wrote their responses on white strips of paper and tied them to the shrine at seven exhibitions throughout the Bay Area and in the Pacific Northwest.

I had not looked at the reactions until 2 months ago. As I removed them from the hanging raffia on the bottom of the shrine, I counted 133 responses. I was very moved by these thoughts about the “camps”, peace, apologies, war, and shame. A discussion about this painful time in US history does not often happen and here were 133 people who had something to say about it. I could see each written expression as a pearl of wisdom, as gifts to be shared.

I transcribed all the handwritten reactions, typing them into my computer. I felt almost as if they were prayers and confessions and wishes to convey to the internees. I selected 1/3 of the writings to feature in the new installation. By the time I completed the piece the actual number of “pearls” I ended up with was 41, apropos since the war started in 1941.

I knew I was going to incorporate cardboard pizza rounds into the installation but I had not exactly figured out how. I started playing around with cutting the circles. I knew I did not want to just write on them as they were. I began hand cutting the circles into rings, getting 3 rings out of each flat. Next I applied tracing paper to each ring. The translucency took on some of the same quality as the Shrine’s rice paper and Noguchi’s lanterns that were an inspiration.

I thought I was going to transfer the typed text by using adhesive lettering. When I spoke to the signage company they were not able to work with the thinness of the font. As a result I ended up tracing printouts of the text, using different thicknesses of sharpie pens.

Some people asked me why I did so much handwork instead of using laser cutting for the rings and getting the text printed on large architectural printers. In my prior occupation, I directed retail merchandising campaigns, creating banners, store displays, and signage. I did not want to use mechanical production methods with this installation. An organic treatment was applied to the material to give a handmade look to the original machine punched out cardboard pizza rounds. The hand cutting, painting, and handwriting of these selected 41 responses became my meditation for the last two months. I really wanted the making process to be part of the honoring of the viewers’ thoughts. I added gold paint to the rings, allowing some of the cardboard to still peek through. I used simple hemp string to join the circles together. The honesty of the materials was something I did not want to cover up.

The final part of the installation was the structure from which the pearls or thought bubbles would hang. I knew I wanted to incorporate the mulberry branches pruned from the tree in my childhood backyard in Lodi. We drove around with these on top of our van for a couple of weeks and everyone thought our car was a moving installation. Perfect since I named the old ‘80s van Babar after the storybook elephant. My partner came up with the idea of wrapping the branches with barbed wire and how we came upon a bunch of it rusted to the right color is another story.

There were 3 meanings to the title Pearls Left Behind. Pearls were selected because of the saying “pearls of wisdom”, because of the shapes of the circles, and also as a tip of the hat to my father’s family, who lost their oyster farm in Washington when they were interned.

It is my hope that some internees may see these words on the installation and find them healing. May they see that there is some understanding about what happened, and that what they experienced still matters. We must not forget because unfortunately some one else may be on the hot seat of persecution next time.

“In the Bag” show at Olive Hyde Gallery, ends 7/11

My “purse” sculptures were originally created in an artist collaborative made up of Melissa Harmon, Judy Johnson-Williams, Lauren (JJW’s daughter), and Naomi Raine. We wanted to focus on feminism and we settled on the purse as the vehicle for our works. These pieces are much smaller than I usually work and I enjoyed the precious feeling the size difference made.

The Olive Hyde Gallery in Fremont did a wonderful job of jurying and displaying the work. The gallery is in beautiful California style building which was once a private residence which was given to the city. It is located across the street from Mission San Jose and is also near Ohlone College. Catch the show before it ends on 7/11/09.

Olive Hyde Art Gallery
123 Washington Blvd.
Fremont, CA 94539

What is a purse? I find it interesting that originally purses were used by men because they were the ones going out into the world and needed a place to carry their possessions. Later as women began emerging from their cloistered homes, they carried their purses hidden under their skirts. Eventually purses became more visible as fashion statements.

The purse as canvas, served as a way for me to explore different feminist issues in my life and culture. Since the purse has an outside and an inside it brings up the public view the seen view, and the hidden, internal inside. And because the purse is meant to be carried with you, it brought up questions for me like– what do I take with me? What is necessary? What is something I can’t let go of?


I use found objects, often those cast off, in my work. Their lovely patina, familiarity, and attractive shapes, combine to create a new piece with all kinds of feeling and meaning. For example a self portrait piece, “Osmosis Purse”, explores how I move in the world, exposing myself to issues and culture, trying to maintain an open framework. The strainer has a translucent open weave and reflects the osmosis between the inner and outer world. The strainer and the old mattress spring, .contrast with the light in the center of the assemblage.


I explore memory in two of the pieces. “Maki Purse” resembles a “maki sushi roll” which my mother and grandmother used to make for special family events. In the center of the purse is a set of chopsticks which are the exact same as the ones my family used to eat dinner with. The purse acts as a precious memory holder for me.



The “Feed Purse” is made of dry pointed vegetation and resembles a bird’s beak. It deals with eating discomforts.


I continued with the assemblage direction, incorporating organic matter. The “Family Jewels Purse” uses shells to hold my father’s family who raised oysters on the Puget Sound in Washington.


“Hana Mama Purse” has an almost spiky ring of playing cards circling it. The cards are from a game called “Hana”, meaning flower in Japanese. When I was growing up, my mother played this game once a month with a group of women. Besides bowling, this was the only time she took for herself and her women friends.

American/Asian: A Tale of New Cultures

As many of you know I am currently showing my work up in Seattle at the wonderful ArtXchange Gallery. Ander and I drove my 3 assemblage pieces from Half Moon Bay, California to the gallery. It rained a bit on the ride up and the truck bed cab was not completely water tight. Luckily I had double wrapped everything and used big tupperware like bins, and everything arrived safe and sound. The drive up was like a pilgrimage back to where my father grew up and where we used to vacation during childhood summers.

I found the ArtXchange Gallery to be very professional and beautifully laid out. The staff were incrediably delightful and helpful. It is a contemporary international art gallery that “aims to inspire cultural exploration, the expansion of global community and the exchange of ideas through art, film and photography. They exhibit contemporary art from around the world that reflects the diversity of influences shaping today’s global culture.”

I appreciated the breath of the work in the show – ceramics, painting, assemblage, video, fabric, collage, photography. The show is also culturally diverse with artists from Japanese, Chinese, East Indian, Vietnamese, Filipino influences. You can view and download the show catalog and hard copies are also available from blurb, by clicking here.

I enjoyed meeting the other artists in this group show and I look forward to spending more time with them. I really connected with Malpina Chan, a wonderful artist who uses family images, collaging and transfer techniques. It turned out she was born in Lodi, California – the same town I grew up in! William Song and I spoke about his painting and the influence of the New Mexico pueblo dwellings. That high desert has always been a haven for me. I was intrigued by the use of rice sacks and encaustic in Deborah Kapoor‘s work. Jonathan Wakuda Fischer uses spray paint and stencils he creates in photoshop to create his paintings and he winked when I asked if he does any renegade street art. June Sekiguchi creates wonderful structures of delicate cut wood with beautiful iridescent colors. I resonated with her love of the book “How to Wrap Five Eggs” by Hideyuki Oka. I spoke with Arun Sharma about the exquisite film he made called “100 Flowers”. He used his wife’s face as the screen for projection. Joseph Songco photographs caught the vendors at the Pike Fish Market and he told me stories of the people he met there. Hopefully i will be able to meet the other artists in my next trip.

American/Asian: A Tale of New Cultures is up until June 27th. I will be returning to Seattle participate in a closing event. Please come by if you’re in the area!

Here are some images from the reception:

Hina Matsuri, Girl’s Day, March 3


When I was a young girl, my mother and I would set up my Girl’s Day dolls on March 3. My grandmother purchased these for me and to this day they are one of my most prized possessions. The Castle came all packed in a box and had to be assembled and the dolls unwrapped and set-up. I felt a little guilty for having such a lavish set of dolls because my mother’s dolls had been burned during the war because they could not have any Japanese materials.

In Japan they have quite large doll displays, which makes mine look minuscule. We never got into all the other rituals around Girl’s Day, but I found out that “it is a day that Japanese families pray for their daughters’ happiness and prosperity. Families with daughters display special dolls arranged to reflect social order. Peach blossoms, cube and diamond-shaped rice cakes, and white sake are part of this celebration. The peach blossoms are symbolic of several ‘feminine’ traits as well as happy marriage. They are used in Hinamatsuri rituals to remind the participants that girls should aspire to these qualities.” via trendhunter. I’m glad we didn’t go through all that since it sounds so sexist!

Next year I plan on having a Girls Day celebration in my new, larger art studio for all us gals and any little girls that want to show up.

See my work in Lineage Show, opening 2/6/09

The Red Door Gallery and Collective Presents:


Past, Present, and Future at The Red Door Gallery
Opening reception February 6th 2009 6-10 pm

The spiral nature of memory and history can rarely be unpacked, but seem to arrive like embalmed messages or communiqués, preserved although never exact. Different combinations of our lives’ stories and those of our ancestors can reveal networks that open our understanding of who we are in relation to others – past and present. Any given view of history and memory can shape the stories we tell ourselves and the connections we make. Where am I, where are WE in all of this? Everywhere…

Featured Artist (in the Main Gallery): The Red Door’s New Member!
Kimberley Campisano

Juried Artists showing in the Outer Gallery: Laurel Anderson-Malinovsky, Lorely Bunoan, Amy Conger, Chris Kanyusik, Tzipora Krupnik, Kate Orrange, Judy Shintani, Ribitch

Exhibiting Red Door Collective Members: Jais Booth, Heidi Forssell, Yasmin Lambie-Simpson, Lisa Rasmussen, Lauren Odell Usher, Ceylan Yildirim-Fadiloglu

The Red Door Gallery will also feature amazing work by elders in our community through a connection with the powerful organization Art with Elders

Opening Night Scheduled Performers:

Cheja, Kelly Good-Morgan, Dennis Somera, Ribitch
Performances at 7PM and 9PM

The Red Door Gallery and Collective

Two pieces on immigration

I (Judy Shintani) just finished up two pieces which had to submit today to the Women Artists on Immigration Show. The show is organized and presented by Women’s Caucus for Art with the Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles.


This piece is called Motion. I am conveying the push pull nature of immigration. Events which may push some one to move to another location are: natural disasters, wage rates, war, genocide, abuse. Education, relationships, jobs, self expression are things that could pull one to move to another country, state, town. I wanted to convey these different motivations that cause a stream of people to move small distances or around the world. I think about my grandparents who moved from Japan to the USA. People have been immigrating for a long time and they will continue to do so. The deteriorating propeller gives that sense of time.

This piece is called Bottom Drawer. While I was working with my friend Carla to remove overgrown plants from their pots, all these lovely, crawly, dark, roots appeared. They were completely root bound and had to be pried out. They had grown around and around into a big ball in the bottom of the pots. It made me think of unsaid, unseen things. For example what were the experiences of my grandparents immigration? I know some of their hardships. I know they were imprisoned on American soil during the war, but these experiences I did not hear about from their lips. They either died before this could be communicated or were not discussed. Bits and pieces have been expressed by their children but I do not have the whole story. My life goes on and I acknowledge I am here because of their desire to leave their homeland and explore something else. I don’t think about it that often. We put a lot of things in the “bottom drawer” and they see the light of day when we decide to pull it open.