Washi paper and sumi ink are typical materials used in traditional Japanese painting, but Cyoko Tamai has developed a unique application for them. The 27-year-old artist creates works by using a steel dip pen to pull out the paper’s fibers and stain them with sumi. The result is a distinctive body of 3D art that brings to mind the tactile features of clouds and peach fuzz and otherworldly landscapes.
Tamai is spending the month of July in New York for Japan Society Gallery’s Summer Artist Residency Program. Resurrected by Japan Society Gallery Director Miwako Tezuka last year with the artist collective three, the Summer Artist Residency Program brings emerging artists from Japan to work on long-term projects in New York. During the 1950s and ‘60s, Japan Society nurtured the careers of Munakata Shiko and Yayoi Kusama, and Tezuka has re-established that dedication to up-and-coming artists.
After an exhaustive search, Japan Society selected Tamai, who attended the prestigious Tokyo University of the Arts and earned an MFA in Japanese painting, from dozens of candidates.
“Last year was the pilot year, so it was completely done by Miwako, but this year we had a lot more people involved,” says Japan Society Gallery Officer Masako Shiba of the selection process, which included input from Mori Art Museum Director Fumio Nanjo and members of Japan Society Gallery’s supporter core group known as the Director’s Circle.
They considered artists from different disciplines who use different media, but they were firm about one particular criterion.
“We wanted to focus on someone who has never been active in the States, specifically someone . . . who never had an artist experience living in New York,” says Shiba. “[Tamai] fit that profile perfectly, and we figured that it would be great to have her experience New York and show her artistic evolution through her works.”
Tamai did not set out to be a visual artist; studying music was her first choice.
“While I was doing music I wanted to create something non-visual in a visual way,” says Tamai. “Music and art are both similar because they express something, but I felt visual art is literally visual. So I was interested in showing what energy or spirits or other things that are invisible but exist in a visible way. That’s how I went into art.”
To create her style of art using the technique she developed, Tamai went on a nationwide search in Japan to find the paper that precisely met her standards: Strong, beautiful paper that contains long fibers. The search unexpectedly led her to her hometown of Kochi Prefecture on the island of Shikoku. Measuring at .03mm, this paper is the thinnest in the world and is handmade by Sazio Hamada, a Living National Treasure.
Tamai sits seiza on the floor of her gallery space at Japan Society, pulling the individual fibers from the washi. Take a look at her technique in this video produced by Japan Society.
What may seem like a long and tedious process is actually comforting Tamai, who lists Egon Schiele and Kazimir Malevich among her favorite artists and says she’s leaning toward Conceptualism.
“I enjoy the act of pulling out the fiber and inking it,” says Tamai. “It’s not about being patient. It’s not just the way I feel; it’s the sound of fibers being pulled, and all the elements coming together.”
She has also refined her technique over time. Some works that would have taken one month to complete now take only an hour. But “complete” is a subjective term for Tamai, who admits that she’s not quite sure what the work will look like before she begins. When she sits at a blank sheet of paper, she simply starts pulling fibers, turning the paper at different angles, surprising herself with what she creates.
“I want to have more variety [during the residency] because I didn’t want it to be just pulling out fiber and inking it,” says Tamai, who is infusing more color into her work, using colored paper in addition to white. “I tend to have smaller works, but I didn’t want to limit myself. I purposely broadened the size of my works.”
Tamai is staying at the Globus Family’s tatami mat ryokan, an atypical place usually not found in the city.
“I usually take a walk in the morning outside in Union Square, a busy area in New York. It’s so lively and active,” says Tamai. “Then I come back to this serene tatami mat room. The contrast is quite amazing.”
Washitsu accommodations notwithstanding, Japan Society Gallery has structured Tamai’s time to allow her to drink in as much of the typical New York atmosphere as possible. She’s been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Jeff Koons exhibit at Rockefeller Center, among others, and she’s taken walks on her own through the West Village and around the UN.
“I definitely feel like I’ve been influenced by the city of New York,” says Tamai, “and I’m very grateful of the fact that the condition of this residency is perfect for me because I have artistic freedom, freedom in the sense of seeing what’s around and then allowing me to express it in my work.”
She expects to produce at least 21 works while in New York, and Japan Society Gallery is holding a casual open studio on July 19, where Tamai will discuss her works in person.
“I feel like my artistic expression itself will change drastically through this residency,” says Tamai, “and because of that how I will be seen in Japan will be different.”
Many thanks to Masako Shiba for arranging and translating the interview with Cyoko Tamai!