Fall arts preview 2021: The bearable lightness of artist Kaori Fukuyama

At this point, a lot of San Diegans are familiar with the work of Kaori Fukuyama even if they don’t know that they are.

Take a stroll down University Avenue in the heart of North Park, preferably in mid-afternoon, and viewers will witness panoramic strands of colors draped over the side of the building that houses a Target. As the sun keeps rotating, the colorful shadows — a result of the sun’s beams being filtered through polycarbonate panels installed on the side of the building — will retract and protract depending on the time of day.

Yes, “Wave of Change” is a refreshing piece of public art compared to the Instagram-friendly murals that are peppered throughout the neighborhood. And given the accomplished nature of the piece, it’s surprising to learn that, at the time she installed it in 2019, it was Fukuyama’s first large-scale project.

“At the time, I had no experience in doing public art,” Fukuyama recalls, adding that she would often sit at the corner of University Avenue and Ray Street mapping exactly how the sun would hit the side of the building.

“I thought that I didn’t want to do something like a traditional mural,” Fukuyama continues. “I wanted to do something more dynamic, much like how North Park is very dynamic — always changing and adapting and evolving.”

Adapting and evolving; the same could be said for Fukuyama herself, who only began working in three-dimensional art practices a little over three years ago. Since then, she’s had several solo exhibitions, was awarded the San Diego Art Prize and, most recently was selected for an Under the Wing Mentorship Program, where she will work under the tutelage of L.A.-based artist Nova Jiang to install a large-scale piece of public art inside the planned T1 ticketing lobby of the San Diego International Airport.

“Ms. Fukuyama was selected to participate based on her commitment to making the transition to public art as well as her desire to help mentor other artists if selected for the opportunity,” says Chris Chalupsky, who oversees the Arts Program at San Diego International Airport.

“I really love Nova’s work. It’s different from my work, but in a very great way,” Fukuyama says. “Her work is more interactive and puts the audience in the center. She does a lot of research on the site of where her work is going to be, which is really what I’d like to do more of in the future. Plus, it really ties into my background.”

The “background” Fukuyama is referring to is that of landscape architecture, which she had originally planned to be her profession up until recently. She grew up in Kumamoto, Japan, before coming to the U.S. to study landscape architecture at the University of Oregon.

“I always liked art, looking at art and making art, but I never thought of myself as an artist,” says Fukuyama, who began taking extracurricular art classes while at college.

She got an architectural job offer right out of college and moved to San Diego in 2004, but also began painting as a creative outlet. She began taking additional art classes at places like UC San Diego Extension and the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library.

“I felt the need to do something very creative just for myself,” says Fukuyama. “The landscape architecture felt very limiting and has a lot of constraints. It’s about what the clients need and not necessarily my own personal expression.”

Fukuyama says she had the “immediate feeling of being home” while painting, and while many of her early pieces were abstract in nature, she began to notice that she was naturally attracted to light and shape.

“I think when I was painting, I realized I was really trying to capture the different qualities of light,” Fukuyama says. “Then, slowly, I began to want to explore them in more than one way. So I began to explore three-dimensional objects and how light hits that object.”

A 2019 artist residency at Bread & Salt, the Logan Heights art space, afforded Fukuyama the opportunity to pursue this new direction. While there, she began to experiment more with sculptural works that, while wholly original, would have fit right in with the Southern California Light & Space movement of the 1960s. Most recently, she further explored North Park with “Shape of Memory,” an installation piece showcased in the Art Produce space on University Avenue. Using vintage photographs of the neighborhood, Fukuyama assembled them to hang like a chandelier, with light beamed through it to create an illusory effect.

Still, Fukuyama is humble and feels as if she’s still a relative newcomer when it comes to her installation work despite it becoming what she’s likely most recognized for. She says she spent a “solid 10 years” working solely in abstract paintings so public and installation works still feel relatively new to her. She’s accomplished so much in a short of amount of time but, in many ways, she still feels as if she’s just beginning her artistic journey.

“It was a slow burn,” says Fukuyama, who will also have a piece in an Art Produce fundraiser show on Sept. 25. “It was always there, though, and I feel like I didn’t have the confidence back then to commit to it. It’s nice to finally embrace that.”

Combs is a freelance writer.




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