By Yoon S. Park
Northwest Asian Weekly
Who could have imagined that a little girl in Japan experimenting with paper cutting would one day grow up to illustrate books and exhibit works of art in America? Aki Sogabe has dared to give voice to her artistic passion, transforming everyday images and forms into a beautiful collection of work that spans decades and oceans.
While Sogabe enjoyed cartooning from a very early age, she wasn’t introduced to her lifelong passion of paper cutting until middle school. That’s when she saw a Chinese paper cutting in a newspaper, in black and white. Intrigued, she decided to use origami paper to copy the design and cut her first paper cutting. Sogabe continued her education in Japan, completing two years of design and illustration at the Japan Art Institute.
Sogabe, who is of Japanese descent, eventually married a Japanese American and moved first to Hawaii, then to Singapore, finally settling in Bellevue in 1978. Despite the demands of raising two children, Sogabe made time late in the evening and the wee hours of the morning to continue creating paper cuttings. Those early pieces were mainly given away as cards or gifts to friends and family.
Long before any gallery showings or book deals, Sogabe first sold her work to her dentist’s wife for a mere $50. An art enthusiast, her first patron encouraged her to join an artist club and that led to entry in the Bellevue Arts Fair. She has participated in the latter for almost a quarter of a century.
Upon a chance sighting of her work by a book publisher at a small countryside hotel in Hood River, Ore., Sogabe was asked to illustrate her first book. Much to her surprise, “The Loyal Cat” won instant critical acclaim, including The Golden Kite Honor Book Award in illustration and an award from the New York Society of Illustrators. Not content to stop at just one, Sogabe has gone on to illustrate nine books to date. Other notable works of illustration include “Oranges on Golden Mountain” and “The Boy Who Drew Cats.”
Humble to the core, Sogabe dismisses her artistic talent as the sole reason for her success. She stresses that luck and hard work are also essential to what she has been able to achieve in the publishing world. Her advice to those that would follow in her footsteps is to “stay hungry, work hard and never give up.”
In fact, she is hard-pressed to even name a favorite piece or book that she has completed. Rather, Sogabe definitively states that “I like the next one the best, or the next, next, next one.” Without hesitation, she confirms that the best is yet to come.
Not content to sit on the sidelines, Sogabe actively pursues her passions in life. She enjoys creating pieces involving scenery, and what better inspiration than regular hikes with her son? She has also passed along her passion to her daughter, an art teacher.
Another passion of hers is philanthropy. She donates many of her creations to benefit local charities. She has also volunteered for over 25 years at the Cherry Blossom Festival at the Seattle Center. Passing along the techniques she has learned over a lifetime, Sogabe periodically holds free hand-on workshops on paper cutting.
In addition to her works of illustration, Sogabe currently has installations of her works in Nikkei Manor (“Cranes in Flight”), Uwajimaya Village in Seattle (“Dragon Tower”), the Pike Place Market, and the Northwest Craft Center at the Seattle Center. She also has works displayed and for sale at the Wing Luke Asian Art Museum in the International District.
For her prolific career has a children’s book illustrator, Sogabe has been named an honoree at the Northwest Asian Weekly’s Asian American Pioneers Dinner as a pioneer in the publishing industry. While she gives credit to those Asian immigrants who have come before her for paving the way, Sogabe acknowledges that she probably shares something of a pioneer spirit with them.
While she was afraid of making mistakes in the beginning, she is now more interested in changing to something better. In introducing the ancient art form of paper cutting to the Pacific Northwest and her unique style of illustration, Sogabe has brought a piece of her homeland to her adopted country. ♦
More information on Aki Sogabe can be found on her official Web site at akisogabe.samsbiz.com.
Yoon S. Park can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.