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More Than Meets the Eye

Sculptures with soul

Masako Miki’s “Kuchisake-onna (Mouth Tear Woman),” (2018, wool on foam, cherry wood), 42 inches by 71 inches by 13 inches

 

This month, Berkeley artist Masako Miki will install several sculptures from her Shapeshifters series at SF Design Week Hub on Pier 27 June 20 and 21. The installation’s signature pieces, inspired by the animism of the Japanese Shinto tradition—at the core of which is the belief that animals and inanimate objects have souls—will be hard to miss: The charming 3- to 12-foot-tall handfelted sculptures in expressive colors, singular shapes and sometimes even polka dots are like a fantasy anime. Think Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away come to life.

Their cozy felt-wool composition practically dares you to reach for them or, at the very least, want to be in their warm and fuzzy orbit. The deeper significance of Miki’s Yōkai (Shapeshifters) as symbols of fluidity and diversity may not be as outward as, say, their Instagram potential, but the artist doesn’t discount that particular merit either.

“My work is intentionally playful and inviting,” says Miki, an Osaka native who began creating the series to explore her unresolved identity as Japanese or American, and what it means to be an immigrant in society today. “The sculptures evoke feelings of welcome and connectedness,” she says. Their perceived lightness may also come from the absence of the notorious burden of disbelief.

After all, in Miki’s wondrous world of shape-shifters, otherwise ordinary things such as an umbrella, a mirror or a mushroom are no longer bound by their popular identities. Instead, they morph according to the will of their spirit and, more often than not, bear only a slight resemblance to their familiar earthly form at any given moment. Like humans, they are constantly evolving, and Miki’s sculptures capture only an instant.

“By their very nature, the yōkai embody themes of fluid identity and interconnectedness,” says Miki’s gallerist, Aimee Friberg, owner and director of CULT Aimee Friberg Exhibitions in NoPa. “Whether we’re speaking about gender or multiculturalism,” Friberg says, “I think many of us desire to see more empathy and inclusiveness in the world. People keep telling me that viewing the work has been the best form of therapy.”

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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