Armed with just a tiny steel dip pen, Japanese artist Cyoko Tamai tears through paper, pulling up fibers to create three-dimensional fuzzed relief sculptures from just ink and paper. When you think about it – and it’s evident that Tamai has done plenty of that – a painting, on a microscopic scale, is just multitudes of fibers stained with ink. And that’s how Tamai approaches her canvas: in pursuit of “the finest lines that are the smallest unit of painting.”
And it’s not just any type of paper that Tamai is deconstructing. “This is the world’s thinnest handmade paper,” she told us recently, holding up a delicate piece of washi paper that looked like it was about to burn off like morning fog. We were standing in her makeshift studio at the Japan Society in Manhattan where Tamai is in the midst of a summer residency program. The paper was the work of another artist, a Japanese Living National Treasure, actually, named Sazio Hamada. “I consider my work a collaboration between myself and Hamada-san,” she told us.
Beginnings in Music and Film
Cyoko Tamai was born in Kochi Prefecture and grew up in a family of music-lovers. Both her brother and sister played an instrument. So when Tamai went to college she enrolled in Tokyo University’s Department of Musical Creativity and Environment, which combined one of her other passions: film. “I really loved movies, especially the old black and white films of Hiroshi Inagaki,Keisuke Kinoshita and Mikio Naruse.” Actually, It’s not too much of a stretch to see the connection that black & white films had on Tamai current love for white paper and black ink.
However, making music was not where Tamai would end up. “I was always interested in visualizing the invisible,” says Tamai, explaining how she transitioned from music to painting. After obtaining her BFA she pursued an MFA in Japanese Painting, from which she just graduated this year.
Cyoko is currently working a several smaller works – she she committed to completing one a day – and a larger scroll, all of which will be showcased at the end of her residency program. There is an upcoming open studio event this Saturday (July 19, 2014) where anyone can go visit her and see her work.
A return to her roots
Tamai describes a rather coincidental discovery in which she learned of a legendary craftsman in her hometown of Kochi. It was Sazio Hamada who, in 2001, was declared living national treasure for his skilled craftsmanship in creating Japanese washi paper. (Here’s a video of the grandson, who has now taken over, demonstrating the craft) She decided to make a pilgrimage down to visit Sazio Hamada. “I showed him my work and he was like, ‘why don’t you try using this’ and he handed me a big wad of paper. That was when I first started using his paper.”
When the Music Stops
I was surprised to learn that Tamai approaches each blank canvas with an equally blank state of mind. She has no preconceived ideas as to how the piece will turn. But once she sits down and begins picking away it’s as if she’s entered a trance-like state. Her body is at ease but the process is a violent one, reminiscent of a tattoo artist rupturing the skin with needle and ink. As she picks away, one is keenly aware of constant, steady beat created by her pen. The pen moves around her canvas. Sometimes she is doing the moving while other times she rotates the canvas. It was an odd scene to observe and one that begged the question, “how do you know when your finished?” Tamai pondered this for a moment and then replied, “I just sort of know. It’s like the music suddenly stops.”
(many thanks to our very talented photographer and videographer Kaori Sohma)