This article is adapted from a Skype interview we conducted with Miki Nakamura on May 16, 2019. Although Nakamura’s English is very good, we were joined by Mindy Fukushi as a translator.
Miki Nakamura’s work is often inspired by sea life. She uses “pulled” kozo1 to make forms that she assembles into installations which include colored theater light. Meduses (2010) is a work that was motivated during a visit to an aquarium where she watched sea creatures. “Watching jellyfish was soothing and comfortable,” said Nakamura, and she wanted to get that same feeling into her handmade-paper sculpture.
Nakamura attended the University of Osaka in Japan where she learned writing for the stage, costume design, and stage lighting. She explained, “I understood the different shades of light but not the different shades of paper.” She wanted to make light fixtures with handmade paper, and realized in order to do this, it would be necessary for her to learn more about it. After graduation Nakamura visited the famous Awagami Museum in Tokushima, Japan where she applied for, and got, a job.
Under the direction of the Fujimori family, Awagami Factory produces beautiful washi papers from natural fibers like kozo, bamboo, mitsumata, gampi, and hemp. They describe on their website: “Awagami focuses on research and development in an ongoing effort to integrate washi into contemporary life often collaborating with international artists and craftsmen to explore new concepts.” Awagami Factory also publishes a journal, houses a library and museum, and conducts regular workshops and lectures.
Nakamura worked at Awagami Factory Paper Mill for three years. The first year she worked in the handmade paper section where she learned how to make a big sheet by hand, how to cook the fiber, dry paper, and dye handmade paper. The second year she worked in the machine-made-paper factory where she focused on how to keep paper quality consistent. The third year she worked on coloring and dyeing the paper. What an incredible learning experience those three years must have been.
Born in Japan, Miki Nakamura has been living in France since 2006. She chose to move to France because “art is better here.” She feels that in Japan there is great opportunity for design but because of limited space there are not many opportunities for people to make or to buy art. In France being an artist is recognized as a real vocation. There is an association of artists in France, and if you are a member, you get insurance and are treated as a professional. In Japan she had the experience of wanting to open a bank account but being denied because she was an artist. In the bank’s view, she did not have a job.
When asked how she felt about being a woman artist, Nakamura said that she could not comment on being a woman artist in Japan but in France she said, “It’s not about your gender; what is important is your art.” She continued, “People recognize the differences between art that men make and art that women make. For example, men’s artwork is often about power and strength and woman’s artwork is often about elegance and the details.”
Nakamura sells some of her work at galleries, but mainly she and her husband Jean-Michel Letellier earn most of their living by designing and fabricating commissions for public spaces, often making panels for hotels and restaurants. They customize each sheet of handmade paper that goes inside Plexiglas panels. Once a year they co-teach a week-long hand-papermaking workshop which draws an international clientele. Nakamura says they teach well together because they have different backgrounds and offer diverse ideas and techniques. Complementing Nakamura’s Japanese-papermaking background, Letellier studied hand papermaking in Nepal and Thailand. Their class covers many things including Chinese/Japanese/Korean techniques, coloring, lace papers, and big paper.2
Nakamura exhibits her work regularly in France, Japan, and Korea. We were first drawn to a photo of the artist in which she wrapped herself in a sheet of her handmade paper. As it turned out, this self-portrait was just a creative and casual moment of her stepping out of her routine of production. Then seeing her work! We were amazed by the drama of her sculpture made from “pulled” kozo and theater light. It is well worth a trip to see her work in person. Congratulations to Miki Nakamura who has a beautiful vision and is supported by her community.
1. “Pulled” kozo is a term that has wormed its way into the hand-papermaking vocabulary. Cooked, rinsed, but unbeaten kozo is pulled or stretched, showing the web of the fibers.
2. For information about their workshops, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.