By Amy Phan
Northwest Asian Weekly
Imagine a piece of art taking only 15 seconds to complete. While most would barely have time to pick up a brush, Toyko-born artist Etsuko Ichikawa would have already completed a few works already — on average, she says each piece takes her about 3 seconds.
Debuting her 14-piece collection, “Traces of the Molten State” beginning in early October at the Bellevue Art Museum, the 45-year-old describes her pieces as “pyrographs,” a term she uses to describe her technique of using melted glass to draw on 300-pound sheets of paper.
“I like using fire because it’s not always welcoming. Anything can happen. I’m just able to capture a slice of moment,” said Ichikawa.
The result is an unfiltered look into an artist’s split decision-making process — does she make the molten glass veer left, right, up or down? Does she add one more twirl here or there? Keep the glass one, two or three seconds longer on the paper?
Ichikawa credited her technique to an accident at Pilchuck Glass School, where she enrolled in 1992. She described being asked to bring molten glass to a professor, but accidentally dropped the glass on the floor. The ‘accident’ was “beautiful and visually shocking.”
Ichikawa has been in the Seattle art scene for a while, with work shown at Bumbershoot and the Davidson Gallery to name a few. But when Bellevue Art Museum curator Stefano Catalini
approached Ichikawa last year about exhibiting her work, she said it was the first time she had to develop an idea and stick to it.
“The idea took about one year to develop,” she said.
Though she makes it a point to not think about the process of her work too much, “allowing the work to just come out naturally,” she said the exhibition was challenging because it gave her free-spirited art process some guidelines.
Painting with molten glass is a deviation from Ichikawa’s earlier years. As the only child, her tailor father and stay-at-home mother noticed her drawing skills early on and encouraged their daughter to pursue her skills more seriously.
At age 12, she enrolled in an all girls’ art school in Toyko. She went on to Toyko Zokei University where she received a bachelors degree in painting with a minor in sculpting. However, she said she was always interested in using space as an expression. “I get inspired by things that aren’t necessarily visual, all the background stuff,” Ichikawa said.
Though painting with molten glass is more dangerous than the two-dimensional techniques she studied, Ichiwaka has never hurt herself while creating the pyrographs.
“It’s when I get home that I burn myself from a candle or something.”
She also described her intuition of noticing the daily energies of people and things, believing her ritual-laden Japanese background to be an important contribution to her insights.
“Four years ago, I could not have said that,” she said.
After graduating from university, she moved to Seattle in 1993 and set out to pursue art professionally.
Deciding that she wanted to be an “international artist,” Ichiwaka remembered avoiding her Japanese culture when she first started — an attempt to be more “universal.”
But a conversation with a friend changed that.
“She said ‘I think that’s a sign you are becoming American,’ when you miss your own culture and want to belong,” Ichiwaka said.
The talk set Ichiwaka back on track of capturing subtle beauty and sensibility.
“Now I’m open and free to feel that I’m from Japan and my culture,” she said.
Her newfound approach made her unafraid to show “unfinished work.” She was also less controlling about the art itself.
It’s not so much an unwanted compliment anymore when others’ describe Ichiwaka’s work as seemingly “Japanese.” Rather than translating the description to mean limited in artistry, she said, it helped her realize that her Japanese heritage is an important and inevitable aspect of her work.
With “Traces of the Molten State” slated to run until March 2009, Ichiwaka said she is finally ready to take a break after ten years of working nonstop.
“I need to rest and recharge. I want to look at what I’ve done and re-evaluate myself and my work.” ♦
For more info about “Traces of the Molten State” or Etsuko Ichiwaka, visit www.bellevuearts.org.
Amy Phan can be reached at email@example.com.