Between Two Worlds: Poured Paperworks fills several of the Castellani Art Museum galleries—some illuminated in usual art-museum fashion and one programmed to cycle through a lighting sequence that begins at a dusky level and fades to black.
Artist Sarah Brayer has been living and working in Japan since the early 1980s, where she focuses on the 1,500-year-old tradition of handmade paper. Brayer was born in Rochester, where she began her art practice and currently lives in Kyoto. Brayer’s art material of choice is washi (from the Japanese words wa [Japanese] and shi [paper]). Washi is made in laborious, collaborative fashion from dyed plant fibers. Other types of washi include resilient origami paper and shoji (wood and paper screens).
Washi is a Japanese folk tradition, and, for that reason, this work fits in well with the ongoing folk arts programming at the museum. Brayer’s show is funded by New York State Council on the Arts and the Japan Culture Center of Western New York—the latter headed by well-known US-Japan arts advocate Takako Michii, the center’s director. Michii is a longtime proponent of Brayer’s work.
Japan has always been a culture that values paper, including washi products, manga (thick serial graphic novels/comics), elegant paper used as window coverings, opaque screens in interior spaces, and durable waxed paper used for traditional cultural objects. There are paper boutiques filled with stacks of gorgeous sheets. And the smallest of purchases in some stores are wrapped meticulously by shop girls in colorful or imprinted paper—everyday things framed as gifts for their buyers.
Brayer learned the art of washi at the family-owned Taki Paper Mill, where she is a longtime resident artist. The mill is located in the small city of Echizen, which is renowned as a papermaking place and is home to a Paper and Culture Museum. Videos showing Brayer’s art-making process in Echizen is installed within the Castellani show: her TED talk, posted below, also features papermaking.
Unlike many practitioners, Brayer, instead of laying down flat fields of paper pulp to make washi, creates color fields of the material. With bowls of fresh pulp, she pours different layers of various hues, manipulating the layers with her hands as she moves across the screen of washi-in-process. "Washi paper has a unique texture and beauty that is elegant and sensual. I saw the potential for creating art while watching the process of making paper," Brayer says. Much of the work on view resembles traditional Japanese scroll painting (long verticals mounted to silk), and features recurrent nature themes. Other work, abstract and geometric, draws from modernist inspirations, such as Moonlight Mondrian, which comprises two overlapping rectangular pieces of washi, offset and in an irregular cross. This piece hangs in a vestibule of sorts made for this show, hung in black fabric and blocking out light. Beyond the vestibule is Brayer’s Luminosity Gallery.
The work in Luminosity Gallery is infused with areas of phosphorescent washi: the material stores light and, as the timed lights dim, the artworks begin to glow. With an ethereal soundtrack—Luminous Cicada—by Rochester-based guitarist Steve Greene (who has been commissioned by Brayer before), the effect is a space that calls to mind the Rothko Chapel in Houston. In a room glowing with backlit screens and artificial light, the experience of standing amid the glowing work is meditative; benches invite viewers to stay a while.
Kate Koperski, the Castellani’s executive director, is struck by the audience response to the work, and especially Luminosity Gallery. "It has been amazing; we should have a written comment book—I will add that to the exhibition," she notes. "Sarah was concerned about what the response would be, but we have been polling visitors and students who all say it’s like nothing they have ever seen before. One visitor said that the rising and falling light levels reminded her of the beauty of light patterns created by moving clouds."
When asked about her desire to make glowing artwork, Brayer related it to her experiences in the natural world. "I am a scuba diver," she says, "and have seen bioluminescence in the seas. I have done a lot of painting on location in low light settings, like moonlight or dawn, and I hope to see the Northern Lights."
Between Two Worlds: Poured Paperworks, handmade paper-based artwork by Sarah Brayer, hangs through December 21 at Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University.
Artist, photographer, and writer Nancy J. Parisi is a longtime contributor to Spree.