A Steveston Beginning: remembering my mother – new works by Judy Nakagawa
Visitors to the second floor of the Nikkei Centre in Burnaby will be familiar with a sculpture hanging over an opening in the floor. The 2007 piece by Vancouver artist Judy Nakagawa is titled GONE and calls to mind dozens of cocoons, held together by wire, forming a kind of organic hive. Many of Nakagawa’s works not only use natural materials, but evoke nature itself, with a distinct lack of pretension or artifice.
A Steveston Beginning: remembering my mother is a collection of works by Nakagawa with an accompanying audio installation by her niece, Carolyn Nakagawa. On display at the Murakami Boatworks at Britannia Shipyards from October 8 to 30 (weekends only), the show references Nakagawa’s mother during her early years in Steveston. The work speaks to a time when clothes were hand-sewn, stories were transmitted through books and the fishing nets used to make a living on the sea were tied by hand.
Bulletin Interview: Judy Nakagawa
Your work has a very organic feel to it – for the most part your pieces evokes images and textures of the natural world. Is this an intuitive choice on your part, and if so, where do you think it comes from?
It really starts with the material. Usually I start working with a material I like, then start playing around with different ideas, not expecting anything. I work and rework the material many times and after awhile – sometimes weeks – I start to see something taking shape and then I just go with it. Not always successfully. Sometimes I get stuck and I’ll put a piece away for years, then pick it up again. That’s what happened with the piece Neural Navigation.
Because I do so much manipulation I have to like the feel of the material in my hands. There is a real tactile relationship that develops. I work with wire, fibres, paper, wood and textiles and they are all satisfying to work with. Also they are lightweight, which makes it easy for me to move and manipulate them. I’m not good at working with tools, they’re usually too noisy, so things are made by hand.
Wire is my favourite material to work with. It is easily bent, but hard to break. It can be easily manipulated into a shape but it still maintains its quality as a line. It can look fragile but it is strong.
Your recent work, at least, looks very labour intensive, with lots of knotting and other fine-motor work. Did you find the act of creating the work in any way meditative or therapeutic? If so, how?
Doing my work is very meditative. I have tied thousands and thousands of knots! The repetition and rhythm of doing the work allows me to access a focus or mindfulness that I don’t usually have. This state of mind is probably why I love doing what I do.
Your upcoming show is titled Steveston Beginning: remembering my mother. Can you talk about the pieces and how they relate to your life and your parents’ lives?
That is a tough question. My parents didn’t really talk about themselves very much, to the point that I don’t really know things about their lives that I feel I should know or that I wished I knew. A lot of how I feel about them is more a “sense” of them – my father’s gentleness and generosity, my mother’s drive and intelligence. I like to think that my work captures some sense of them, though I’m not sure I could be more specific.
How did the exhibit come about?
The main reason for the show is to recognize my mother, her life and her beginnings in Steveston. Around the time of her passing there was a lot of serious illness in my family and it felt like I never really had the opportunity to fully grieve her death.
A couple of years later, while walking in the Britannia Shipyards in Steveston with my brother, he noted that our mother was born in the area and spent her early years there. Seeing the old cannery buildings and the Fraser River I thought about what it must have been like to grow up there, in the early 1920s. I suddenly saw her life in a different way.
Several months after that visit, my sister-in-law brought me an old pattern-making exercise book with pattern pieces drafted by my mother. I thought it would be nice to make a sculpture using the idea of sewing, because my mother used to sew a lot. Then I thought about what that would look like somewhere in the Britannia Shipyards.
Eventually I asked the people at Britannia Shipyards if I could have a small show there to remember my mother, and they liked the idea. It felt like the right thing to do.
In the process of working on the pieces for the show, I found that I developed a much deeper appreciation of Mom’s life, her struggles and her achievements and I am grateful for that deeper sense of her. Its given me the closure I feel I was seeking.
There is a written component by your niece, Carolyn. How did the collaboration come about?
Once I had a sense of the pieces to be included in the exhibit, I asked Carolyn if she would like to write something as part of the show. Carolyn is a gifted writer and I wasn’t sure if she could find the time to prepare something given that she is busy working on multiple projects. To my great delight she accepted the invitation and wrote a beautiful poem that has turned into the audio installation for the show. Not only is it moving on its own, it added a whole new dimension to the sculpture.
How do you conceptualize your works? Is it carefully worked out in advance, or do you just start working, and see where it takes you?
I don’t really know what my pieces will look like when I start, but I usually have an intention in mind. For example, in Complicated Heart, I began with the intention of making a piece that made a statement about Mom’s life. After toiling away with the components parts for months, a heart shape emerged and I felt that was the right shape and the right statement for the piece.
In Neural Navigation, I wanted to make a piece that documented Mom’s life while she was in the care of a nursing home. I thought about how Mom had to navigate her new reality. I knew she was processing a lot more in her mind than she was able to communicate, so I started tying knots, with each knot representing a neural connection. One knot led to another and I ended up with work that looked a lot like a map.