We’re proud to have another round of artist spotlights with our artist members! Reiko Fujii tells us about her glass kimonos and the next step to this project’s evolution.
Brian Pan: Tell me a bit about yourself.
Reiko Fujii: I was born in the summer of 1950, the eldest and only female of five children. My parents were second generation Japanese Americans who met after spending nearly 4 years in different American prison camps during WWII. The stresses from my family’s unjust imprisonment, lingering racism, pregnancy before marriage and other factors contributed to my mother’s severe mental breakdown on the day after I was born. She never fully recovered. My father was a stern autocrat who was frequently absent during my childhood. I spent the summers of my youth at my maternal grandparents’ farm in Riverside, California, where I was immersed in Japanese traditions and culture. I have fond memories of my hardworking grandparents.
These formative years have been the source and inspiration of my art during my adulthood. I have been on a quest to learn about my ancestral history and document it in a series of artworks and performances. My irrational guilt over my mother’s breakdown and my lack of confidence stemming from years of fraternal dominance have been slowly healed through my art as introspection. Love of nature, humor and joy have emerged as my healing process has progressed.
My art is really about the all-encompassing life experiences. I don’t work in one medium. I don’t just do painting. I don’t just do documentary videos. I don’t just do installations. I work in glass — I work in everything. My purpose is to be able to express whatever is inside in whatever medium I feel would more clearly say what I’m trying to express.
BP: How do you choose which medium to use?
RF: For the glass kimono – I was taking a glass class at the time. I went on a trip to Japan, and visited the town where my father grew up. Esumi is where his ancestors had been buried for 400 years, so I went to the cemetery, and then to the house that he and his parents built 70 years ago.
I got this idea – since I was learning how to work with glass – that I would express the honoring of my ancestors in glass. Since glass is luminous, and I see the ancestors as luminous, since they are not here physically, I chose this medium.
I decided to make something to wear because I had seen a photograph of Chinese armor from the Qin Dynasty. They made their armor out of stone, and the stone was connected by wire in overlapping squares. So I figured, if they could make something out of stone to wear, I could make something out of glass and connect it. I decided to use the shape of a 3”x 3” square, and put an image of my ancestors on each of those little glass frames.
My father came from a Buddhist background. The Buddhists keep a record of every single person who is buried in their cemeteries. The log is in Japanese and it’s a record of all my ancestors. When my father was alive, he told me about many of them. When I went to visit his ancestors’ house, where nobody lived anymore, we found some photo albums. All of the albums had old pictures in them that nobody had seen for years. My father explained to me who the people in the pictures were. He lived in Japan for several years and knew about his family history very well.
BP: Can you elaborate more about the kimonos?
RF: It seems that a lot of synchronistic events happened after I started making the kimonos. I felt like the ancestors were encouraging me to keep going with the history of our family. Many really wonderful and beautiful things have happened since I started making my four kimonos.
The first one I made and wore was on stage in San Jose. It was made of double-paned window glass, and I worked on it until the day I had to wear it. The first time I wore it – I didn’t realize how heavy it was. I almost tipped over, but I caught myself. I just concentrated on walking.
The kimono made the sound of wind chimes before I came out on stage for the performance. People were blown away because they could see that I was wearing a glass robe. After I had made the first kimono, I found out that with the Obon festival in Japan, the ancestors are called back with the sound of wind chimes. So that was a synchronistic thing to happen since I didn’t realize it while I was designing and making the kimono.
After that first performance, my friend and I were talking. He said, ‘You should wear that kimono in Japan.’ And I said, ‘You’re nuts, people will think I’m nuts if I do that.’ And then I thought about it, and said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to wear it where my ancestors lived and have been buried.’ That’s why I ended up going on the Journey of the Glass Kimono. Two of my good friends and my husband went with me and documented the trip.
Since I work in video, too, I made a 7-minute documentary. That was another part of the art and is what I mean by life experience. It’s not just about the kimono. If you look at the kimono on the armature, it’s just that. There’s nobody under there; just the kimono. It’s totally different when you see a picture of me or my daughter wearing our kimonos. Even when you’re looking at the picture, you can’t see that it makes a sound or how it moves when I walk. For most people, they look at the picture of the kimono and say that’s the art. But it’s not. It’s only a little piece of it.
That’s actually how I do a lot of my work. It’s not just the piece that I made. It’s the whole process of making the piece. Most of my work is healing for me, and transformative, and helps me connect with others. I couldn’t do this work if I didn’t have the support of my friends and my family. My art is not just the piece; it’s not the object, the art is the whole experience of wearing the kimono in Japan, the sound it makes, and connecting with my relatives and family members.
BP: What were some challenges you had while making these kimonos?
RF: It takes almost 2000 pieces of glass to make each kimono. Each little piece has to be cut, and then they have to be fused. They have to be meticulously positioned in the kiln. I had to arrange each glass piece so there would be a way to connect the wires without drilling a hole. One hole would take forever. I couldn’t drill thousands of holes. Instead, I designed each square so that when the five to eleven pieces of glass were fused together, there would be an opening for the wire ties. And tying these squares together – you can imagine making four kimonos, it’s crazy. So I had to have help making them.
The first kimono I made was too heavy so I made a second one out of single-paned window glass to wear in Japan. And then six years later, I figured out how to fuse the pictures into the glass and made two more.
Do you know what a water-slide decal is? You put the picture in water for about 30 seconds, and it slides off. You slide it off and put it onto the glass. I had to fuse the glass together, and then put the picture on, and then fuse it again. The first firing went to 1300 degrees and then the second time it went to only 1100 degrees. All of this was meticulous, back-breaking work, and it took time but was worth it.
When I made the first kimono, the challenge was: How do I wear it? People can’t believe I have a glass kimono that can be worn. The synchronistic event of discovering the picture of the Chinese stone armor and how they made it just turned up one day. It’s a matter of being conscious and noticing opportunities as they come up. I think opportunities are everywhere. It’s just about being keen on what you’re looking for in life. Pick and choose those opportunities and then act on them. That’s what I do.
BP: What particular opportunity affected you the most?
RF: When I first started learning how to work with glass and metal sculpture, we had a lot of art shows at Ohlone College. Every semester I would enter an art show and would often receive recognition. That encouraged me to keep going with it, even though I didn’t think I was doing that great of a job.
One of my passions in life is to be able to make art based on whatever I want to express, not having to make it for someone else or to sell. I’m very honored and thrilled that my art is accepted. It’s about my life, it’s about my family, it’s about my joys, my happiness, my depression whatever else. Even if it wasn’t accepted, I’d keep doing it anyway. It’s amazing to be able to create whatever I want and have the confidence to say this is art, this is my art, this is my life.
BP: What are your future plans with the kimonos?
RF: Right now, I’m working on a new one. I’m now experimenting with rice bags. The pictures on this new kimono are going to be of people who were in the WWII American prison camps. What I had read originally was that personal cameras were not allowed into the camps, but people somehow were able to take pictures. Either friends came and took photographs or, in later years, personal cameras were allowed.
People have been giving me snapshots of their families standing in front of the barracks or doing everyday things. I have quite a collection of those photographs, and I’ve been given permission to put them on my new kimono. The reason I was thinking of Japanese rice bags as the material to use is because, in the camps, they didn’t have any extra materials, so they reused everything including produce crates and the cloth that the rice came in. My grandmother even made underpants out of them. The rice bag is symbolic of their having very little.
I’ve been experimenting with how to transfer the photographs of these people in front of their barracks or wherever they were in at the camps, onto cutout squares of rice bags. Then, I’m going to attach the squares to each other with safety pins because safety pins were used back then too. The materials that the new kimono will be made out of will represent the necessity and practicality of using whatever was at hand in the camps.
To see more of Reiko Fujii’s art and hear the sound of her glass kimonos, visit www.reikofujii.com.