in conversation: Miyuki Shinkai
This is not your first experience at the Japanese Canadian National Museum. You did some research there ten years ago . . . what was that about?
In 1999, I was invited to create an installation at the Alternator Gallery in Kelowna and decided to create a glass apple orchard in the gallery. I did some research on orchards run by Japanese immigrants in the area and their experience with the internment. I wanted the 500 glass apples to represent Nikkei pioneers’ fulfilment in life after overcoming various hardships. They succeeded in creating a foundation in Canada so that Japanese people like myself could be welcomed and live here comfortably. To me, that was so important. My version of a glass orchard was all about celebration. It looked great in there because all my red glass apples shined so brightly from the ceiling and the reflection on floor and wall was so beautiful, too. It was a treat to myself and people who helped to organized this event. The following year, I met Alvin Erasga Tolentino, the Filipino Canadian contemporary dancer, who wanted to dance in this installation. Alvin insisted on arranging a visit to the JCNM to learn about Nikkei history and connect to our ancestors’ emotional journey during the internment period through their journals, which I translated for him. Based on this experience, he developed choreography and even created a sound track consisting of Japanese folk songs and journal reading in Japanese by myself. I had never worked this way before, and I remember I became so emotional and I cried out “Okaa-san” in my reading, partly because I just found out I was pregnant. I had tears in my eyes. Alvin wanted Wayne (my husband/audio manager) and I to go up to the Capilano Mountain with him to record nature sounds and our abstract voices surrounded by magnificent nature, all the big yellow cedars on top of the mountain. I can still visualize the moment. Our final creation was presented for the Asian Month event in May 2001 at the Centre A in Vancouver. We even approached JCNM to show our work, but they were not ready for an art showing yet. So when the invitation to participate in the Kizuna project came to me after nearly ten years, it was time to accept their invitation.
You grew up in Japan. Tell me about your upbringing . . .
I liked always being busy doing many different things—multi-tasking. I took piano lessons, Japanese calligraphy lessons, abacas lessons, and tennis club after school. Unlike my children, since grade one I walked and biked to all these activities with my friends and sometime by myself in the well-populated area where we lived. Even when I was very young, I walked or tricycled around the neighbourhood by myself to visit my favourite old ladies—they were always around the corner, especially early in the morning and evening. It felt so good to get out and about. I would hang out at their place and talk and talk, very curious about the world, I think. My parents kind of knew I would not stick around them too long, they were far too busy doing their things and they were very young themselves.
I did all right in school, I was never number one, but I tried hard to be a good student. Japanese schooling is so strict and teachers are up on pedestals compared to here, we had about 50 students each class, and some year we had 5 to 10 classes in each grade, everyone has to be quiet and very disciplined and also very competitive. I always had a strong connection with my teachers. I read many, many books, my favourite was traditional literature from Taishou, Meiji, and early Shouwa eras. I read Dazai, Mishima, Natsume, and Akutagawa, very complex novels full of psychological struggle, confusion and drastic social changes and the westernizing period of Japan. I found it so fascinating. Almost all these well-known writers had educations in the western world, mostly in Europe at that time, so I was always fantasizing about travelling overseas since I was very young. Also, I have to say that I was very tall—this was very annoying as many times I was teased that I would not find a husband if I stayed so tall. I didn’t feel like I made an effort to fit in to the qualities of the typical Japanese girls, who were petty, pretty, and assertive.
So you came to North America . . .
I always dreamed of going to the United States and doing what I wanted to do. If everything worked out, I could even find a rich, tall husband in the States—that kind of thing. The idea of leaving Japan was almost defiant. My family and relatives thought this was a crazy dream, like becoming a Japanese Idol singer, so they didn’t take it seriously, but I did so well in English language class and international politics almost from day one. It was really effortless compared to any other subjects, so I started to say I would like to become a flight attendant, ambassador, or work for international cooperation so I could go overseas all the time. During the economic growth in Japan, Americanized style and pop culture was everywhere around me—we thought it was better and more successful than Japanese traditional style. And now it’s almost all over. It really didn’t take many years. It amazes me that what I was really longing for is failing badly.
When did you discover an affinity for glass? Do you remember the moment you decided to devote your life to it?
When I was a graduate student at Georgia Southwestern State University, I was in a type of scholarship plan. There were four of us, the Japanese graduate students in the school. We were trained to become Japanese language instructors and had to teach one hour-long class per day in the university or local public schools. As part of the exchange we got to take any classes we wanted, even outside of our department—fine arts or scuba diving course, which I took full advantage of. I hung out at the art building, taking drawing, painting, carpentry, ceramics. And then there was an opportunity to take a glassblowing class. I still remember so vividly the first time I watched my instructor blowing glass: he was making a goblet for the Christmas gift. The glowing fire from the furnace, the glory hole, pipes and tools and coordination to manipulate this soft material which then cools and becomes fragile, it was so time-consuming and a nerve-wracking. My mind was blown just watching the whole process, I really thought there was no way I could do what he was doing.
My father in Shiga is a hobby potter. He used to throw pots and vases, sculptures in Shigaraki, the town of yakimono (pottery). He was a contractor dealing with concrete foundations especially, so he was a naturally good potter and very artistic. His friends were artists there, they made conceptual works and showed in exhibitions. One artist, Ms. Kiyoko Kouyama, was a female potter, which was very rare at the time. As a child, I used to hang out in their property in the mountain and saw what they were doing. Often, they had foreigner apprentices staying and learning Japanese pottery. I think the Shigaraki style stayed in my mind—their rawness in material and natural form. I had a same sort of influence from my calligraphy teacher—showing emotion and boldness in the strokes was well-appreciated. So in my early glass-making class, I did the same thing, I was there to express and listen to the material rather than polish my techniques. Like so many American ceramic/glass teachers, my instructor studied Japanese pottery and loved my interpretation in glass. Without his cheer leading, I would have had no career in glass. Remember, I went with the goal of getting an MA to become an international diplomat. Glass making was just a hobby to start with, but it was the most difficult thing I had ever done. I had to think and draw over and over again all day long, practice and concentrate. I got really hooked. Glassblowing was so infectious, I had to make an effort to get it right. It is also a very meditative process—you must fully dedicate yourself towards making a piece otherwise you lose it. Birth, life and death, accident, good or bad, discovery, collaboration—it states a lot. I like this part so much—glassblowing is a very poetic and philosophical experience.
Your husband is also a glass blower. How did you meet?
After the first year in Georgia in 1993, I decided to get away from the super hot summer and applied for a summer job in the north. I flew to Anchorage, Alaska to work for Japanese tour company as a tour guide. While there I saw some local glass blowers work in the Anchorage museum and went to visit a female glass artist’s studio. I wanted to see how she ran her business at home and so on. She and her husband, who was also an artist, welcomed me and fed me well and told me to come back to assist her in the production line. She was planning to have a Japanese glassblowing student from New Orleans. Her plan was that I would hang out with him while he was working in her studio so he would be induced to stay longer, but instead, one day I stopped by, I saw this English guy working in her studio. This guy had taken the Japanese boy’s position after meeting him at a bar in New Orleans. In the end, I hung out with this guy anyway and talked about glassblowing all day long. That’s Wayne, my husband now.
You have spent time at Pilchuck Glass School near Seattle. It sounds like a remarkable place. What was it like spending time there?
Pilchuck is in Stanwood, WA near Burlington, much similar to the environment here in Northwest. It’s basically a summer school founded by the world famous glass artist Dale Chihuly 32 years ago. His vision was to explore glass making, both technically and conceptually. Inviting the best glass artists from all over the world has been a mandate, so their operation and campus is top notch. It’s very a expensive course to take, but it has a world-class level in experimentation and improvisation. It’s really the American-style scale, you know—Best of Best—let’s make it happen. They push so hard on marketing and promoting Pilchuck. One of their biggest events is an annual live auction in Seattle, where they raise over a million dollars to keep the school going. Longer we live in the small community like where we are, we realize how impressive Pilchuck is and the founder’s strong vision was to dedicate. It’s always in our mind, we have to do something even mini mini mini version of Pilchuck sometime in our community because it is the place changed our life forever. That’s how powerful the art institute can be to everyone’s life.
Making a living in the arts is always tenuous. How do you make a living as a glass blower?
Basically we do anything to survive. Some years are easy, some years are very tough. It has been tougher and tougher, so maybe we get stronger and stronger accordingly, I guess. I like being busy, so I book lots of craft shows and market sales on weekends besides exhibitions. We have done many wholesale shows and gallery consignments along with commissions, public art projects, and collaborations, grants, anything goes sometimes. Then sometimes we don’t want to do anything but create our own art. This is how we live and how we are developing ourselves. There is no separation: our art making career is our life work itself. One thing I can say is I have been very lucky to meet many interesting people and had lots of philosophical talks at the markets, shows, and studios. I am very fortunate in that way. I think I have met many guides in my life through my art practice.
The Sunshine Coast is so different from where you were brought up and the big cities you have lived in. What bought you here?
The town of Ritto, Shiga, where I was mainly brought up has population of 62,000. It’s like a suburban town—it takes 30 minutes to Kyoto and 50 minutes to Osaka by train. We used to walk and bike everywhere. Train station, department stores, drug marts, grocers, schools, friends’ places, everything is so close. If you go 30 minutes by bike you are in different world. There is so much to see, old and new: bits of nature and rice fields preserved by communities and just right next to it are rising commercial stores, new businesses, and high rise condos. Then right around the corner there is an old, old traditional Japanese house and immaculate Japanese-style garden kept up by hard working grandpa and grandma. Change is so quick and unstoppable. It’s still like that. My three children (eight, six, and two) and I were there for New Year’s Day in 2010. Now that I have kids, I appreciate so much more the Japanese high-density and town development. Here, I don’t enjoy driving my kids everywhere and everyone discourages kids from going out by themselves because of safety issues and transportation and road issues. I want to demand a safer and healthier neighbourhood in my area, I am working on this right now.
My parents house is situated on Toukaidou Gojyusantsugi, an old national highway. Many kings and shogun in Tokyo travelled on this road to meet the emperor’s family in Kyoto. There are lots of temples, shrines, and monumental religious objects—my parents have never tired of studying and revisiting these places because so many deep messages and teachings are available; it’s a very important part of their life.
The population of Gibsons is only 5,000, and it feels like one third of them are holiday part-time residences, so there is no comparison to where I grew up. This is very rural, we are surrounded by raw nature, mountains and sea. Here, everyone knows everyone.
When your second child was born, you and Wayne got the news that he needed heart surgery. Can you talk about that—what that experience was like and how it affected your life and your art . . .
It was such a shocking experience, our second child was born with a heart defect. There was a huge sense of disbelief—this cannot be happening to me. It took us a long time to really digest that it was happening to us, what it means to us, what we should be learning.
Everything changed after that, all our priorities changed. Up until then, I think, I was very much duty oriented. After this experience, everything became upside-down, so to speak. I learned to accept that I know nothing and started all over. It was a very humbling experience. I really felt so powerless at that time, and so appreciated everyone—particularly the nurses and doctors in the hospital—who helped us unconditionally get through this. I try to take more time to appreciate people around me.
I researched a lot about spirituality, life after death, and what we come here for. I became interested in learning about the soul and incarnation. From my soul studies, I now know that each soul has a different progression and a different goal in this life, so competing with someone else and feeling discouraged is absolute nonsense. This lesson eliminated much of my frustration and impatience in my career. To me, art-making is always a therapeutic process, a healing and confirmation time. The more I make things, the more I will be able to develop my thoughts and seek a fundamental philosophy in life. Art expression has always been a way to deal with the concept of life to me, I think I have never really been interested in the technical aspects of an art form, each project has a progression. I am still searching and developing, it’s kind of an ongoing life experience through art.
In your artist talk, you talked a lot about the environment. How do you manifest your concern for the environment in your art and in your life?
Honestly, somedays when I catch a ferry from Horseshoe Bay, I don’t even know how I ended up on the Sunshine Coast. It happened so spontaneously. Wayne really wanted this place for our little girl to grow up. She was one and a half when we left East Vancouver. It has been seven years now. The longer you live on a coast, nature becomes part of your life. There’s such a strong connection/reconnection you establish with nature. For example, we watch all the big trees grow in backyard, almost reaching up to the sky. Wild animals and birds live around these trees and you start to realize we are nature, too. My kids are all tree huggers. They have started showing a lot of true Canadian characteristics. They love learning about aboriginal stories at the schools, symbols and messages from the creatures and learn to share nature. We talk a lot about the similarity between native stories and our Japanese folk tales, we believe the stories come from the same source, perhaps . . .
Where do you see your art progressing?
I don’t even know what I am going to do next. I am happy that the local arts and craft movement is coming back again. People want to see and talk to the maker directly. The farmers market in Sechelt here and Trout Lake in East Vancouver where I go, grow so much and it’s great to see the concept becoming mainstream. But like so many other artisans, I have a hard time selling our lines of glass products. People have no place in their home, their places are saturated with cheap throw-away reproduction stuff, so these venues are not an easy outlet for us anymore. Ideally, we’d be selling a few at high ticket prices to patrons to cover our expenses, but it does not happen often enough . . . how about public spaces . . . everyone wants to see blown glassworks, it’s so precious and so spiritual. I am trying to keep really open-minded about the future for us. We just have to follow our heart, then the door will open to us, it’s got to be, we have three little piglets to feed! Meanwhile, I keep writing grant proposals for having more installations and exhibitions. I love traveling. In a way, I am following my first intuition, a traveling ambassador, using art as the communication.
Of all the artists involved in this project, you are the only one born and raised in Japan. Did you learn anything about the Japanese Canadian experience through working on this project?
I am very privileged to be one of this group out of so many talented Japanese artists in the Lower Mainland area. I believe it’s a natural outcome from being part of the Powell Street Festival community (for the past ten years, I have taken my goods there to vend) and sharing our beliefs with many Japanese Canadian friends. Now that I have three young nisei in my home, it’s becoming more and more meaningful to hear their upbringing stories. The three other artists who installed work together for this show were so wonderful. Everyone was so calm and deep-thinking, quiet and hard working and respecting others, very modest. Very Japanese discipline. No one was like “me, me, me” like some other group shows I have experienced. It was a beautiful. Thank you, Beth and Miko for this opportunity and your assistance. And thank you to the JCNM supporters. Congratulations on the tenth anniversary, I think it’s amazing.