For Lucy Arai, communication has very little to do with words. In fact, the mixed media artist learned “sashiko,” traditional Japanese embroidery that appears throughout her body of work, without speaking at all. Spark tags along with Arai as she installs a commissioned piece and demonstrates her craft at the Asian Art Museum.
The daughter of a Japanese mother and a European American father, Arai struggled to reconcile her bicultural heritage with her own identity while she was growing up in the 1960s. In 1971, her parents sent her to Tokyo to experience her mother’s native culture firsthand. While there, she lived with her aunt and uncle, neither of whom spoke English — and Arai spoke no Japanese. So instead of communicating with words, Arai and her uncle began interacting through art as he taught her sashiko.
“He would see me make a mistake, and without blinking, without taking his eyes off the TV, he would take it out of my hand, take the stitching out, give it back to me, and I would have to figure out what I did wrong,” Arai says. “That’s how I learned, figuring it out on my own without the benefit of language.”
More than three decades later, Arai’s work continues to carry on its own wordless conversation. White and gray silk threads neatly march across handmade paper painted with sumi ink and indigo cotton dye. The rich black brush strokes of the ink create an unspoken exchange, a kind of aesthetic tension with the concentric circles stitched ever so carefully upon the paper’s surface.
In recent years, Arai has added gold leaf detailing to the conversation. Finished works often have forms reminiscent of Japanese landscape paintings, calligraphy and the natural world, though Arai, who has been known to stitch upwards of 18 hours a day, says she only discovers those resemblances after completing a work.
“I don’t have in mind that the work has anything narrative about it, and I don’t have anything specific in mind when I’m working. I look at my response and what’s going on with pigments mostly as gesture and formal elements, and it’s only after the fact that I see things that suggest landscape or narrative,” she explains.
Lucy Arai earned a B.F.A. in ceramics, an M.F.A. and a graduate certificate of museum practices from the University of Michigan. She lives with her husband in Oakley, California.