Sayuri Sasaki Hemann's Floating World

Sayuri Sasaki Hemann's Floating World


Detail of Sayuri Sasaki Hemann's Tidepools installation at the Portland International Airport

Featuring a landscape of handmade fiber barnacles, jellyfish, corals, and other creatures that reside on the sea floor, Japanese American artist Sayuri Sasaki Hemann’s recent installation is an ethereal ecosphere situated on the bustling thoroughfare of Oregon’s Portland International Airport (PDX).

Dedicated to the victims of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, Tidepools, was installed permanently on Concourse D, a frequent passage for flights going into and out of Japan. In her proposal for the installation, Hemann noted the strong historical and cultural connections between Japan and the Pacific Northwest, two places separated by one voluminous body of water.  

With the recent completion of the installation, I asked Hemann to tell us a little about her fascination with the underwater world, as well as her passion for fiber art and community engagement. Here’s what she had to say:

When did you first become interested in craft, and more specifically, fiber as a material?
Fiber and I go way back. As a child, I grew up seeing many environments, shifting through landscapes to cities and drifting between languages. Crafting and using my own hands to create something tactile became a natural refuge for me, in a way, to process the world and the changes that happened around me.

I was exposed to fiber as a material from an early age. I grew up watching my mom make matching clothes for me and my two sisters. Pleats and gathers, plaid skirts, floral dresses, gingham check culottes. At that time, I didn't quite appreciate it, as I dreamt of wearing skirts without the obviously handmade elastic waists. Seeing the process of my mother's creative use of fabric was the start of my ongoing interest with cloth, textiles, threads, and fibers.

My grandmother on my mom's side was a big influence on me creatively. She loved making things, she would sew purses out of old kimonos, not because it was "the thing to do," but because it was ingrained in her to never waste any resources she had in front of her. She lived through the war with scarcity and raised four kids, so she had to live wisely. Her way of living will always inspire me. She had the most amazing vegetable and fruit garden that yielded for her whole family. Her hands were so big and wrinkly - filled with stories and years of hard work. 

My grandfather on my dad's side had a tailoring business of western clothes back in the time when Japan was going through recovery after the war. My mother keeps a handful of wooden hangers (with our family name "Sasaki" carved into them) that grandfather used in his shop. My dad and his siblings were always the best dressed in class with fancy western-style suits that their dad tailored for them. Although I never got to visit him at work, I like to think of the connection to my fascination with fiber as well.

In college I majored in drawing and painting, but for my senior art thesis project I used tulle as a canvas to paint and create a multilayered installation suspended from the ceiling. It allows for movement and interaction.

I continue to be fascinated in fiber as a material throughout my life. To me, fibers speak of human touch, human connections and human history. Whether woven, printed, fused, felted, stitched, knitted, crocheted, or knotted, I am infinitely drawn to the way fibers have the ability to embed meanings and stories in the warmest of ways while creating patterns and form - whether it is simple or complex.

Where did your fascination with the underwater world - in particular jellyfish - come from?
I never lived close to the ocean growing up, but I was always mesmerized by the underwater world: its creatures, its colors, its movements, its mysteries, ever since I remember. In elementary school, among exotic and scary creatures like alligators and crocodiles, I was most fascinated with sharks, so I checked out all the shark related books from the library repeatedly.  

But my first official fascination with the underwater world and its magic and its dreamy quality dates back to when I was in high school. I took an International Baccalaureate certificate program in studio arts in my last two years of high school, where I focused on one theme for two years. I chose the sea as my theme, of course. At the end of the two years, we presented our explorations in an art exhibit. Lots of watercolor works with sponge textures for splashes, collages, and indigo shibori-dyed cheesecloth layered with fish-printed quilt. There was no jellyfish sighting in this body of work, though.

My jellyfish fascination came long afterwards. I had the experience of visiting an aquarium in Osaka while I was back working in Japan for three years after college. I remember being so drawn to the jellyfish tank. Everything about it was magical: the movement, the way the jellies reacted with light - calm, beautiful. So drawn to the world away from the busy, hectic everyday life. That mesmerizing experience remained deeply in my heart. It just captured me like no other. From then on, it became one of my goals to try to recreate the magical experience. I am still working on it.

What was the impetus for the Tidepools installation at PDX?
I had a temporary installation called Underwater Flight at PDX for seven months in 2012 on Concourse E. This installation was a part of my ongoing URBAN AQUARIUM project, in which I started back in 2009 by placing handmade jellyfish aquariums in places where people don't expect. The glass case, which was 40 x 4.5 x 9 feet, housed about 400 jellies backlit by natural light during the day and twinkled with spotlight at night time. For the seven months that they lived there, the jellies were loved at the airport. A month after I took down the temporary exhibit, the jellies were invited back, this time on a much smaller scale, but they would be housed pemanently!

When I first learned about the placement of this new permanent exhibit and its proximity to the gate for non-stop flight passengers to and from Narita, I knew I wanted to dedicate this piece to the lives affected by the tsunami/earthquake of 2011. The creation and dedication of Tidepools was a way for me to contribute in my own small way.

A couple of days after the disaster struck, my father, then 59 years old, passed away after a battle with cancer. When the whole world was stirring over the disaster, our family dealt with a more personal loss. This project let me separate those two events that happened so closely, and let me honor lives were affected by the disaster by creating the pieces that go towards it.

Through my expression by creating this smaller, intimate piece, I wanted to create a witness to the ever-changing currents of travelers that pass by the exhibit every day. Just as the creatures in the tidepools witness all the waves that crush into the pools and rejoin the big big body of water.

You invited friends and family to contribute to the process of making barnacles for Tidepools. Can you tell us a little about the role of community in your work?
To tell you the truth, this invitation for friends, family, and the community to contribute came out of necessity more than anything else. I needed some help stitching barnacles by hand. I had this vision of having clusters and clusters of barnacles that required hours and hours of hand-stitching felt pieces together. I had less than a month before my installation date, and there was no way I could create these clusters by myself along with other items I needed to create. Then I had this brilliant idea of inviting my friends and family into my studio to help me at "It's a Barnacle Night!"  I made some flyers, created an event page, emailed friends and family, and voila. More than 30 people came to "It's a Barnacle Night! ~Iowa City~." Things were are a little crazy, but everyone came together for one purpose: to make barnacles for my project.  What an amazing feeling this was, and I was so inspired by these wonderful souls who came out and stitched stitches with me.

Having the first barnacle night be a success, I continued to organize one more in St. Johns in Portland, where I had one of my first URBAN AQUARIUM jellyfish installations in 2009 for the St. Johns Artwalk. The St. Johns community has always had a special place in my heart, so I knew I wanted to have it there. I had only 10 days to organize this event, and I needed to find a place to host the event. I talked to couple of friends there, and after a few messages, people came forward to contribute space for the event. I was able to invite the public, and I had around 30 participants for this event too. Some people were friends or friends of friends, others just saw the flier and came together to join the crafting. 

The most inspiring and magical things that I had never imagined happened on those nights. There was so much energy, and people were there to stitch barnacles. I saw friends teach each other while talking about mermaids and catching up. I met new friends and reconnected with old lost souls - all this while making barnacles. People gathered around to make things. For what? For the beauty of creating, and becoming a part of something. For me, that was so energizing and inspiring. I am forever grateful to all of my barnacle makers that participated.

The biggest lesson that I learned from this is that I am supported by a web of wonderful souls that surround me. What I could become is not just someone that creates artwork in a studio, but a catalyst for the community to make something together. Sharing skills and ideas and connecting to people, talking, and creating together is beautiful. That is something I would like to continue to do, to plan projects that invite the community to create something together. This experience has definitely been a big influence on my work going forward. To see pictures of the events, search for #itsabarnaclenight on Instagram.

Are there any artists or makers, either current or past, that you particularly admire? If so, how has their inspiration appeared in Tidepools and/or your other works?
I am inspired by so many artists and makers for so many different reasons. In this day and age, we are constantly bombarded with visual images and information, and it is so hard to separate and process this constant information. I know for sure that what inspires me enriches me as a human being and then I am able to create and produce through my mind and body. 

Specifically, I am inspired by Mandy Greer for her use of different materials and her diversity in her creative application from creative costume making to creating fiber installations. I am inspired by Egon Schiele for his ability to make the most honest and expressive lines translated through his eyes and body. I am inspired and touched by the concept of Anish Kapoor and Arata Isozaki's moving concert hall Ark Nova created for having concerts for disaster-stricken areas and their people. I am inspired by Brazillian artist Ernesto Neto for his appreciation of the different qualities in cloth and fabrics, and how he uses them in spacial context is intriguing. 

When I see different textile techniques I am inspired to create different expressions, like using ombre dyed silks for anemones, or wet-felted vessels for sea floor elements, etc. Everything I am inspired by may not visually appear in Tidepools or other works, but may have influenced me in my creative decision making.  

What are you making now that Tidepools has been installed? What’s next for you?
I am currently working on a private commission, and then, what is next? So many ideas and plans are in the works. There are three things I want to shift gears towards: From the amazing experience I had with working with the community, I would like to pursue working to create projects that bring together people in the community, to continue exploring work meandering between art and craft, and to collaborate with people.

For more on Sayuri's installation, check out the amazing behind-the-scenes video.