The artist Sarah Brayer has a show in Kyoto at the end of this week that promises to be quite exciting. Those familiar with Sarah’s work, know that while consistent in its grace and beauty, over the years it is has also undergone a remarkable series of transformations in both media and styles. Already known internationally for her poured washi paperworks and aquatint prints, recently she has begun to explore the medium of glass. I’m looking forward in particular to seeing her new glass works which she created during her recent sojourn in Beijing.
It was a crisp December evening last winter when Sarah invited me up to her studio in north Kyoto for a private viewing of her “Luminosity” exhibit. Though we had corresponded before, this was my first time to meet her in person, but I found her to be a charming, friendly lady with whom I was quickly at my ease. Arriving at the studio, she asked me to wait outside while she went in and got things prepared. Having done so, she turned off the lights, and ushered me into to that large shadowy space… I gasped. Hanging soft all about me in the dark were great silver-white, luminescent clouds, in which I discerned visions: of dragons, planets, and constellations, the creeping tide and mist over the sea…
“There’s some music that a friend wrote to accompany it,” Sarah said quietly and she turned on the sound. And so for maybe five or ten minutes (or perhaps millennia) I sat surrounded by these swirling, phosphorescent phantoms while listening to the ambient sounds of bells on the ocean, the call of cicadas, and the shifting weight of the stars.
The long moment passed. Sarah turned on the lights, and everything was the same yet totally different.
To make the images in the Luminosity series, Sarah pours photo-luminescent pigments directly into washi paper as it is being made. After exposure to sunlight, these phosphorescent pigments continue to glow in the dark for several hours. So what you get is two separate works in one; for the images change according to whether you see them in daylight or at night. It seems like a simple idea, but Sarah Brayer is the very first artist to try this technique. Now I knew all of this in advance of seeing it of course (I’d done my research), but knowing how the art is made does not prepare you for being totally immersed in it. It was truly extraordinary. (1)
After viewing Luminosity, Sarah invited me into her home to meet her husband Masato Fujiwara (or Masa). A quietly spoken man, Masa was busy working his own miracles in the kitchen. And what a kitchen! I stood and looked at its size and the convenience and grace of its design.
“Masa built this,” said Sarah proudly. And before I had time to react to that she added, “Actually, he built the whole house.”
“Wow,” said I. “That’s handy.” I asked them how they met and it turns out they were introduced by another artist, Michael Hofmann, at the legendary open-mic event, Kyoto Connection (2). “When I knew he was a builder, that was it!” said Sarah, smiling. “You know he built the studio too.”
Looking at their big, beautiful house, decorated with Sarah’s own artworks, it’s easy to see that this is a very successful couple. Sarah Brayer’s artistic achievements also stand her proud. She has exhibited internationally over 120 times, her artwork has been collected by both the British Museum and the Smithsonian, and in 1992, she was the very first artist invited to exhibit at the Byōdō-in temple. How has she attained such success? Well, one time she told me: you have to be obsessed.
To really become a master, an artist has to have tremendous confidence in what they are doing, no matter what. They have to dig into their art and perfect it sometimes to the point of obsession.
Born in Rochester, New York, Sarah lists her earliest influences as her own mother (a painter), and the artist Vermeer, whose paintings she admired for their “quiet stillness and slow dissolves”(3). Later in the ’70s, studying printmaking in London, she became interested in the influence of Japanese aesthetics on the color aquatints of Mary Cassatt, and also in Raku style ceramics. And so, in November 1979, Sarah arrived in Japan with two simple intents: to make more art and to continue traveling. At that time she had no idea that she would be settling down here, but she soon found a ready-made circle of expat artist friends such as Michael Hofmann, Daniel Kelly and Brian Williams. “When I heard that Brian Williams had already been here for seven years, it seemed like forever!” she laughs, “And now here I am 30 years later.”
Here in Japan, Sarah studied etching with Yoshiko Fukuda (1937-1986) and Japanese woodblock printing with Toshi Yoshida (1911-1996), and in 1986 she opened up her own print studio in an old kimono weaving factory. That same year she discovered the art of poured washi, and her interest in this technique led her to the historic washi paper center of Echizen in Fukui prefecture. In a video interview with the collector Michael Verne, she describes walking into the Taki paper mill in Echizen: “When I saw …the scale of the screens and then put that together with my love of texture, I thought, this is an art medium that has really not been explored – and that’s what I want to do.” Sarah has been working in the village of Echizen ever since; the only non-Japanese artist who has worked in this 800 year old home to living national treasure paper-makers.
Over the years though Sarah’s art has changed. Her earlier works were more realistic depictions of cityscapes and landscapes, ladies in bath houses, children in the rain, or pathways through the snow. As she has continued to experiment with her art however, so her imagery has become more (though not entirely) abstract, as she follows the flow of a waterfall, the curve of a wave, or the passage of light through clouds. “Now,” she says, “I work more from a kind of inner vocabulary that I’ve developed over many years of looking at my surroundings.”(4) Perhaps it is the fluidity of washi paperwork, or the combination of chance and design that goes into its making, that has encouraged her to explore the mystery of these more essential images. On her website she writes,”…the pace of the work and rhythm allow me to work in a stream of consciousness. The images are literally pouring out, and I am not always conscious of where they are coming from.” Again in the Michael Verne interview, when asked how her work has changed she says “It’s gotten bolder, and it’s more fun. It’s more like play, not work.” Certainly there is a playfulness to Sarah’s art, but this hides the precision of her technique and a quiet confidence gained from years of practice in her craft. It is also very clear, that though Sarah can be playful in conversation, when she talks about her art she is choosing her words very carefully indeed.
When I visited her home she showed me the following print, “Beam Raising”, a work created as a memento of the building of her house in 2006.
Smiling she asked me, which of the workers depicted in the picture I thought was Masa. Perhaps the fellow on the upper left looking on, I guessed. Maybe he’s the fellow telling them all what to do. “Maybe,” she said. “Or it could be any of them – or all of them, don’t you think?” Sarah doesn’t like to be pinned down, or to have her art pinned down either. After all, as she told me, if you decide a piece of work means this, and this alone, then the story is finished and you don’t need to go back to it. However, if you don’t tie it down with simple definitions then there is so much more to explore. It’s that mysterious, suggestive quality that gives Sarah’s work its ongoing power.
My own first encounter with Sarah’s art was with the washi paperwork, “Revealing Red”, that adorned the cover to Kyoto Journal #73. (5)
Here we see that playful quality in Sarah’s art. The moon, like a coquettish girl, is partially revealed from behind a screen, and the full intensity of its light, being merely hinted at, becomes so much more powerful in our minds. This image of the moon, is a common motif in Sarah’s art, and though she wouldn’t want it defined as having any one symbolic meaning, I think it is a part of her ongoing attempt to create a sense of light actually shining out of the artwork. She has also risen to the challenge of depicting the sun in two glorious twin pieces: “Amaterasu” and “Apollo”.
Here the sun is seen glowing through many layers of red, orange, yellow and through the final latticework of the etching that goes on top. Sarah said she began to make this image in the winter when she felt a need to use a “warmer palette” (6). The name is appropriate. In the Shinto myth, Amaterasu was a sun goddess who hid in a cave, denying the world her light and heat. Here we might imagine the goddess re-emerging in the spring, in a flood of life-giving color and energy.
In the companion piece “Apollo” we see the sun’s light shining through rushing water, but also the washi has been used to create what Sarah calls a “paper window” (7), a framing technique that pulls us into the picture and beyond it. It is fitting that having tackled these subjects, and tried to create the illusion of light coming from within the image, Sarah then poured the light source directly into the washi itself! In the Luminosity series that so impressed me last year she began an exploration of the night that her latest show continues in both washi and glass. Sarah says,
My show at Gallery Shinmonzen will feature new luminescent paperworks (smaller in size than what you saw at my studio), and glass works made in China while I was on a fellowship at the Schoolhouse Mutianyu, Beijing for the month of September. This was my first foray into glass as a medium. I loved the fire energy in the molten glass, and the speed in which I had to work to manipulate the glass to make images. I layered glass frit, luminescent pigments and metal leaf into transparent hot glass. I was assisted by Jiang Ja mei, the glass artist in residence.
Gallery Shinmonzen is a converted machiya, recently renovated, and the scale of the pieces in the show will reflect the intimate size of the building. There will be 25 works in washi & glass.
Amazing! An artist who has worked for three decades with paper and printmaking, is now expressing herself with a whole new material!
Sarah once wrote on this site of arriving in Japan as a young ambitious artist with “a backpack and wanderlust”. Though she fully intended to keep on moving, somehow she ended up settling here. Through her art however, Sarah has never stopped traveling. Her journey has continued through her printmaking, her washi paperworks, her innovative use of photo-luminescent pigments and now it continues through her experiments with glass. In all these beautiful works we see a bold, adventurous spirit, ever eager to explore new artistic territory. As an artist Sarah is very far from settling down.
You can view some of the new works here online, but of course to really appreciate them you need to see them for yourself, in the dark, shining brightly. I remember my last Luminosity exhibition, and it was magic.
Sarah Brayer: new works in washi & glass
Opening reception: Friday November 18th, 18:00 – 20:00.
Location: Gallery Shinmonzen (ギャラリー新門前)
2F Hanami-koji, Higashi-iru, Shinmonzen Dori, Gion.
The gallery is a 10 min walk from Hankyu Kawaramachi, Sanjo or Shijo Keihan.
(1) For a glimpse of Sarah Brayer’s Luminosity, take a look at John Wells’ video LUMINOSITY: Night Paperworks on youtube.
(2) The Kyoto Connection, was “a monthly open-mike event of comedy, poetry, music, storytelling, and general mayhem that lasted for almost fifteen years…under the guiding hand of Ken Rodgers.” Now sadly discontinued, it was immortalized in Pico Iyer’s The Lady & the Monk.
(3) Sarah Brayer – Print Editions 1980 – 2000
(4) Interview with Michael Verne, video by B. Verne, 2010.
(5) Sarah’s “Scintillate”, an aquatint etching of hands playing with light, has been chosen as the cover for the upcoming Kyoto Journal #76.
(6) See “Sarah Brayer talks about her latest work” a video by B. Verne, 2010.