Nishiki Sugawara-Beda uses painting to cultivate the visual power of written language as she examines the linguistic complexities of meaning. An avid traveler whose curiosity to explore the world began in her early twenties, she found that immersion in different cultures—from remote areas of Nepal to urban centers like Istanbul— became a major influence in understanding the nuanced layers of language in both written and verbal form.
Born and raised in Japan, Sugawara-Beda has lived in the U.S. for over 15 years; she has served as Assistant Professor of Painting at the University of Idaho since 2013. From her studio in Moscow, Idaho, she focuses on the importance of process, drawing from the eastern and western influences that have shaped her unique aesthetic. Her recent solo exhibition in the Doris Ulmann Galleries at Berea College debuted the artist’s most recent body of work, Words Walking. This series of paintings pushes the boundaries of traditional Japanese calligraphy as a way for Sugawara-Beda to converge language with abstract forms. The resulting visual lexicon transcends what can’t be expressed in Japanese or English, and her multi-layered paintings reveal the elusive nuances words can’t convey. At a distance, the paintings are both dynamic and serene as the subject matter establishes depth between background and foreground space through gradual, achromatic tonal shifts. When viewed up close, the surfaces have a gentle, undulating quality, with unexpected textures and marks accentuated by the various effects of ink on paper. The gestural rendering of Japanese calligraphy is sometimes obscured as it’s fused alongside figurative form and pattern. Japanese tradition is key to her process, and she’s admittedly aware of mindful practice through the act of being humble to remain “in the moment of mindful expression at all times.”
In her thirties Sugawara-Beda returned to Japan to study with a master calligrapher/ Japanese painting master, adopting the ancient art form in order to reinterpret it as her own pictorial vocabulary. In Words Walking, she integrates Japanese Sumi ink with watercolor and acrylic paint on mounted paper surfaces. The media provides a system to move between multiple paintings at once, and she views her role in this intuitive process as that of “a performer on the surface of the paper.” Color plays a vital part in the mix, becoming something like a thread to connect the paintings with one another. Viewing them collectively evokes a quiet, visceral awareness to a continuum of movement and change. In this way the imagery establishes an immersive dialogue, engaging the viewer to become, as the artist describes, “the missing element.”
One of the first things I notice about this body of work is that your palette has shifted from brighter to more muted, monochromatic tones.
At the end of 2015 I gave birth to baby girl, so everything was new to me. Just being a mother was so very new. I was trying to be as open as possible to the new things that were coming, so I decided to create this series thinking about things that can happen. This is the overall theme for me, so these paintings were like opening the canvas so a new color can come in. I needed one color to unite the pieces, like chapters, all combining like one book, with the single color functioning as a main character. Some chapters have many things happening and some less, allowing the reader to digest what happened before. Those surprises are things I like. I like to surprise myself, and hopefully the viewer as well. And color is part of that. The color was a strong element for me; it’s another language, so it’s a big component. I started using Sumi (ink) in my work more and more. With various tones of black and gray you can see the shifting of values, and I was intrigued by the subtle tonal differences I’m able to achieve. The color had to be limited for this tonality to be highlighted, and ultimately for the viewer to enjoy this delicate nuance without destruction.
Since you compare the paintings to chapters in a book, were specific writers or books influential to this body of work?
It was a general comparison, but for this particular body of work, I was definitely influenced by books about child development. As I was experiencing a newborn baby for the first time, these were somewhat go-to books for me. Each chapter was built upon the previous chapters, but at the same time, I can pick one chapter and comprehend it without others, much like my paintings. Written work you don’t usually skip chapters but visually you can see all at the same time then skip back and forth. When painting I definitely go back and forth.
The way the paintings are arranged on the wall feel suggestive of movement as if there’s transformation from one image to the other. Is the idea of a collective motion something intentional?
When I was making the work together at the same time, I’d make them one by one and then go back. One element that I’ve introduced to the painting I can introduce as a formal issue to others. But I was not consciously creating that way, but I was conscious about the visual uniformity of the imagery, kind of a linear way of thinking about it, again sort of like a book.
You work on paper and mount it on wood panel. Can you describe why paper’s surface is important to your process?
Painting on a paper surface is very key to me. If I do this on canvas with Sumi, it doesn’t work in the same way. The paper gives the finality; it’s like a final decision. If I paint this with oil paint, it can be wiped off, but with paper, it drinks up the ink and I can’t go back again. That finality to me is like a piano recital, so every time I create some mark, it has to be right. I might be making a mistake, but it has to be the right mistake to make it work. Because I was previously painting with stretched canvas and the pieces had more of an object feel, I wanted to have that with the paper. I have experimented with various ways to present works on paper, but in the end, affixing it to the wood panel gives a good surface to paint and move water on it. For this work I glue the paper first and then start painting, though before I painted first then glued, which was difficult because I had to be very careful not to mess up the finished surface. I also had to think ahead that paper would expand when glue was applied on the back. Different paper gives a different effect, and paper as substrate always works best for this media and what I’m trying to do with it. I use water medium, watercolor and acrylic. Watercolor is always activated with water, while acrylic is more permanent. Once I add the acrylic, that part is sealed so it will no longer accept watercolor. It is an interesting detail that can produce a magical layering effect.
After living in the U.S. for so long, what made you decide to return to Japan to study with a calligraphy master?
As a Japanese child, I learned Japanese calligraphy at school, which is part of the general curriculum. I did understand the overall concepts, approaches, and techniques; however, I needed to understand why and how the tradition was created. A jumble of cultural experiences was all in me after travelling to various countries, and I felt I’d lost my own cultural identity. I needed to ground myself somewhere. In order to really understand myself, I started looking to Japanese culture again, and calligraphy is part of that. The aspect I’m borrowing is in the approach. When you draw, when you write something, you have the meaning and you think about the word…let’s say an apple. As you’re thinking about the apple, you can think about the taste and texture, the thoughts, the feeling, how it tastes in your mouth, and you translate that feeling to the paper. The state of your mind is needed to translate the meaning of the language and shape of the form. I borrow that aspect. I digest it. I translate that spirit onto the paper. I’m not aiming for the appearance of calligraphy, but I’m borrowing an aspect and sometimes the shape of it.
Who are other Japanese artists that inspire you—both traditional and contemporary?
I appreciate so many artists, but from the Edo era, Katsushika Hokusai inspires me for his innovative approach to both life and art. A Zen monk, also from the Edo period, is Sengai Gibon, for his free-spirited painting and attitude toward life. A contemporary artist I look to is Senju Hiroshi. He uses Nihonga (Japanese Painting) approach and technique to create paintings that transport viewers to another world, a spiritual world.
Do you have upcoming exhibitions or new projects in the works?
My next solo exhibition will open in November of this year at the Thompson Gallery of Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. I’ll also have work in a three-person exhibition at Dayton Visual Arts Center, scheduled some time in spring of 2019. I was recently awarded a Seed Grant from the University of Idaho, allowing me to visit Japan this summer to study and experience the traditional Japanese cultural practices of Sado (flower arrangement) and Kado (tea ceremony). I will also practice Zen in Kyoto. I’m very excited for it!
For more information, visit www.nishikibeda.com.
Words Walking was the title of Sugawara-Beda’s solo exhibition in the Upper Traylor Gallery of the Doris Ulmann Galleries at Berea College, Berea, KY, February 27—March 31, 2017.
–Kim Rae Taylor