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Light Houses

Light Houses

Four artists light up their architecturally influenced works to tell stories, create moods, and explore ideas—all with the mysterious poetry of illumination.

Light Houses

Four artists light up their architecturally influenced works to tell stories, create moods, and explore ideas—all with the mysterious poetry of illumination.
Winter 2024 issue of American Craft magazine
Author Jon Spayde
Ayumi Shibata’s Konjiki no No, 2022, paper, string, 8.25 x 5.5 x .25 in.

Ayumi Shibata’s Konjiki no No, 2022, paper, string, 8.25 x 5.5 x .25 in.

Shibata works on a new piece, Cyouwanomori, which translates from Japanese to “forest  of harmony.”

Shibata works on a new piece, Cyouwanomori, which translates from Japanese to “forest of harmony.”

I put into my artwork a vision of hope for the future.

Ayumi Shibata

Konjiki no No, 2022
AYUMI SHIBATA

It’s called Konjiki no No, Japanese for “the golden fields”—a glass case through which light is shone from behind and below, in a darkened environment, to gild a land-and-townscape made entirely of cut paper.

The fusion of nature, human habitations, and something like a temple in the piece’s imagery sums up the passionate idealism of Ayumi Shibata. “The theme of my work,” she says, “is to create a sustainable, harmonious world. I put into my artwork a vision of hope for the future—for example, an ideal city or a forest where animals, humans, and nature coexist.” Shibata’s oeuvre contains many such visionary marriages of glass, layers of cut paper, and light, as well as other cut-paper works, large and small.

Born and based in Japan, Shibata lived in New York from 2012 to 2015, and it was there that she discovered her vocation. One day, after meditating in a quiet church in the hectic city, she opened her eyes and saw “seven-colored light spreading through stained glass all around my feet and the floor. The beauty of it shook me to my core. At the same time, I recalled how much I loved arts and crafts in school, especially cutting black paper and pasting colored cellophane to make something that looked like stained glass.

After some years of cutting paper as a hobby, she turned professional in 2020 and since then has contributed to international exhibitions as well as to haute couture shows and the stage sets of Japanese folk music icon Ryoko Moriyama.

She’s developed a genuinely religious devotion to paper, pointing out that the Japanese word for it, kami, is a homophone for kami, the country’s ancient deities. She celebrates the spiritual power of light too. “Life can’t be nurtured without the light of the sun,” she says. “We’re alive in the hands of the Great Love.”

ayumishibata.com | @ayumishibatart

Hi 5 Taxi Cab, 2022
TOM FRUIN

As sunlight streams through it, Tom Fruin’s Hi 5 Taxi Cab house seems to be a sweet sanctuary in stained glass. Yet the piece is rooted in city grit. The rich colors come from plexiglass scavenged from bankrupt sign shops and demolition sites. The patchwork patterning owes its origin to “quilts” Fruin made in the late 1990s by stitching together plastic bags of drug detritus from the sidewalks of his then-funky, now-gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood.

Fruin, a Southern Californian who relocated to New York in 1996, loves patching things together, at scales ranging from those quilts to two colorful faux water towers. And he loves scouting going-out-of-business sales and EPA cleanup sites for stuff to incorporate into sculpture.

In fact, scavenging was what first connected him with his new city. He’d pick up urban refuse, including empty drug packets decorated with the dealers’ colorful “brand” logos, seal the items into clear bags, and sew the bags together. “I assumed these ‘quilts’ were going to be abject, but they ended up being really beautiful,” he says. “I hung them off from the wall about six inches so that when the light went through them, it projected the colors onto the wall.”

Fruin with his Watertower 1. Photo by Guerin Blask.

Fruin with his Watertower 1. Photo by Guerin Blask.

Tom Fruin made Hi 5 Taxi Cab, 2022, from steel and found plexiglass, 10 x 8 x 8 ft. BELOW: Fruin with his Watertower 1. Photo courtesy of Fruin Studio.

Tom Fruin made Hi 5 Taxi Cab, 2022, from steel and found plexiglass, 10 x 8 x 8 ft.

Light from a single lamp shines through the stained glass of Hi 5 Taxi Cab. Photo by Matthew Pugliese.

Light from a single lamp shines through the stained glass of Hi 5 Taxi Cab. Photo by Matthew Pugliese.

It wasn’t long before he’d embarked on his Icon series of translucent buildings, to which Hi 5 Taxi Cab belongs—works that can be found from Copenhagen to Hoboken to Buenos Aires and beyond. Many of the Icons move around from site to site, but the series’s most famous exemplars are two “water towers” installed on top of Brooklyn buildings. Fruin put lighting systems into them so they would glow and pulse at night—and even Hi 5 has a single lamp inside, “like a fire in the fireplace,” he says.

Originally sited at New York’s South Street Seaport, Hi 5 Taxi Cab joins several other Fruin structures this winter as part of the “Enchanted Forest of Light,” a holiday feature of Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge, California.

tomfruin.com | @tomfruin

Layla May Arthur. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Layla May Arthur. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Where We All Meet, 2022
LAYLA MAY ARTHUR

The year after she graduated from Academie Minerva, the art and design school of Hanze University in the Netherlands, paper artist Layla May Arthur entered a competition, open to alumni, to create a sculpture for a new university building. She was competing with artists with substantial careers—but she blew them away with Where We All Meet.

Arthur, born on the English Channel island of Jersey, combined styles from many nations in this architectural composite, as a tribute to her fellow international students at Hanze. “I try and make it so everybody can look at my work and find something they can connect to, that tells their story,” she says. “In Where We All Meet, I didn’t indicate where the architecture is from. People look at a part and say, ‘Oh, this is definitely Italian.’ It’s really Spanish, but I don’t tell them, and it starts really nice conversations.”

Arthur’s work, which ranges from immersive, dramatically lit installations to small works promoting businesses, requires a sharp blade, almost infinite patience, and midnight oil. “You work a whole day and you’ve made something that’s a few square inches,” she says, “so you tend to work long hours, so you feel like you’ve achieved more.”

The artist fell in love with her medium when a traveling exhibit of paper art came to Jersey. “I loved the fact that it was only paper, and that they were completely transforming it and telling a story,” she says. For the viewer to appreciate the stories told by Where We All Meet requires clear exterior light and crisp shadow. “It’s placed in a corridor, and the lighting and shadows change throughout the day, like in a normal city. That means that it’s never static, which is what I like about working in 3D. It’s important to me to make an experience rather than just an object.”

laylamayarthur.com | @laylamayarthurpaperstudio

Ted Lott. Photo by Mark Andrus.

Ted Lott. Photo by Mark Andrus.

. . . you turn the corner and you see your house in the distance and the lights are on—warm and welcoming light.

Ted Lott

Carpenter Gothic #2, 2018
TED LOTT

Carpenter Gothic #2 is a strange chair; it’s a miniature building; it’s a chair interrupted by a building.

“Sometimes people see the miniature first and sometimes the furniture,” Ted Lott says of the work, which is one of a series. “It’s fun to notice where people land before they go the other way. Then there’s that moment when they realize it’s this, but also that!”

If you focus on the miniature dimension of the work, you also enter into a mood. Each story of the building is illuminated by a six-watt chandelier bulb. “The idea,” he says, “is that it’s evening; you turn the corner and you see your house in the distance and the lights are on—warm and welcoming light.” The Grand Rapids, Michigan–based wood artist’s father died while he was working on the piece, and he’s sure that the need he felt to add that warm light to it was an homage to family memory.

The tiny exposed ribs on the walls and ceilings are another homage: to the stud frame style of building, in which the supporting frames of walls are nailed together before being erected, combined, and covered with paneling and drywall.

Stud-framing is widely considered less artisanal than the far older post-and-beam approach, in which walls are built up from the ground. But Lott, a scholar of construction history who has worked on house-building and historic preservation teams, is a fond advocate. “I think it’s an amazing invention. Stud-framing takes more skill than post-and-beam*1, and it’s a much more efficient way of building. And I like to reveal it, because it’s usually covered up.”

The items of furniture in the Carpenter Gothic series are all found pieces, generally a century or more old, in styles that Lott admires and that he feels mesh with his archaistic buildings. It’s another way this artist harmonizes dimensions—physical, personal, technical, and historical.

tedlott.com | @tedworks

Ted Lott’s Carpenter Gothic #2, 2018, is made from Eastern white pine, found objects, and electrical components, 85 x 19 x 21 in. Photos by Ted Lott.

Ted Lott’s Carpenter Gothic #2, 2018, is made from Eastern white pine, found objects, and electrical components, 85 x 19 x 21 in. Photos by Ted Lott.

Ted Lott’s Carpenter Gothic #2, 2018, is made from Eastern white pine, found objects, and electrical components, 85 x 19 x 21 in.

Ted Lott’s Carpenter Gothic #2, 2018, is made from Eastern white pine, found objects, and electrical components, 85 x 19 x 21 in.

*1 Correction Letter from Ted Lott:

First, let me express gratitude for the inclusion of my work, Carpenter Gothic #2, in Jon Spayde’s article “Light Houses” in the Winter 2024 issue. Of the few magazines I subscribe to, I'm most delighted to discover copies of American Craft in my mailbox, and it's a great honor to be featured inside.

I do want to offer for the record a slight correction. While I believe, as was quoted, that stud-framing is an amazing invention, I would not go so far as to say it takes "more skill than post-and-beam." Indeed, one of the most valuable features of stud-frame construction is its accessibility. A reasonably handy person can pick up a set of simple tools and build a basic stud-frame structure without years of training. It is a democratized way of building.

Of course there are degrees of difficulty to any task, and while the inclusion of nonlinear surfaces creates additional levels of challenge, the same would be true of a curved post-and-beam.

A small correction, but an important distinction.

Thank you for your work highlighting the many-faceted community of artists, makers, and more. I eagerly watch my mailbox in anticipation for the next issue!


—Ted Lott, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Windgate Foundation logo

This article was made possible with support from the Windgate Charitable Foundation.

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