Before Ayami Aoyama carves into massive pieces of rock, she begins by simply listening to what the stone has to tell her. In viewing her work on view at Grounds For Sculpture through September 18, in an exhibition aptly titled “Silence,” the visitor would be wise to listen to the stone along with her.
Aoyama compares “Source of Life,” a monolithic marble piece near the entrance to the Domestic Arts building, to “a puddle becoming vapor, rising like a tree. But I don’t usually have a concept,” she says. “The material is there, telling me what to do. I want to accentuate what’s in the stone.”
“Ayami’s sculptures resonate with the natural world,” says GFS curator Tom Moran. “Her contemplative works are imbued with distillate, poetic, and sensual imagery that she has unleashed from a Pandora’s box of possibilities. She is able to recognize the moment when she has essentially unlocked the form she is seeking.”
Working from her home studio in the Harbourton section of Hopewell, on five acres she shares with her husband, artist Rory Mahon, Aoyama didn’t know how tall “Source of Life” would actually be until she got her neighbor, sculptor Harry Gordon, to help stand it up — with the help of scaffolding.
And that answers a burning question about Aoyama — how does she transport her enormously heavy works from here to there? Some weigh more than a ton. “There are tools,” she says, such as a chain hoist. “Some guys try to muscle it, but I listen and approach it gently.”
Aoyama calls her fives acres “a junkyard of brick, wood, stone, and mirrors.” There is a foundry Mahon built on the property, with an air compressor that helps to power a hammer. She acknowledges that accidents do happen, and the couple’s two sons, Finn, 12, and Kaito, 8, who occasionally help out, are taught appropriate precautions.
Summer is Aoyama’s favorite season because the long hours of daylight mean she can get more work done in her outdoor studio. During shorter days, by the time she gets home from work she may only have 30 minutes of light during which to work, but now she gets a full two hours before she has to go inside to cook dinner.
Water is inspirational, she says, and is part of the process for polishing. “Water makes the stone shinier, and you can see more grains and patterns that are always there but the water brings out.” She cites the work of Masaru Emoto, a Japanese author, researcher, and entrepreneur who claimed that human consciousness has an effect on the molecular structure of water and believed that water could react to positive thoughts and words, and that prayer and positive visualization could address water pollution.
Another water-inspired work, “Water Crystal,” spins on a custom-made lazy Susan; it is made of a French blue granite. “I wanted to present the stone as weightless, to be kinetic, and to show its freedom,” she says.
About that day job: Aoyama is a supervisor at Antiquity Stone in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, which does the fabrication for Jeff Koons’ sculpture. “His work is very precise, the opposite of what I do,” Aoyama says. Before she took that job she was senior staff sculptor at the Digital Stone Project in Mercerville, and before then, a sculptor and instructor at the Stone Division, across the street. While at the Stone Division, she repurposed parts of stone that were cut off from clients’ work to use in her own.
She likes to contrast smooth shiny surfaces with rough and raw edges to show the beauty of the material and compares it to the masculine and feminine in the rock. “You can see clear patterns inside. I enjoy pounding it, cutting it. It smiles to greet you in the sunlight. The broken edge has a raw powerful feel, like the Earth is broken. For me, the first cut is rich, like a baby speaking its first word or contact with an alien — the curiosity for the material keeps me going, discovering new things.”
Born in Aichi, Japan, Aoyama grew up surrounded by myths and stories that fueled her. “I grew up in a dreamlike old castle town, like something you’d see in Europe,” she recounts. “The castle used to be an orphanage, and spirits of the children were everywhere. The next door neighbor swept every evening at the hour the children’s spirits were to have come. I was always feeling these encounters.”
She adheres to the Japanese proverb, “Eight millions gods dwell in everything.” It explains her belief in the forces in the stone.
“There’s a god for everything,” she says. “For stone, for the kitchen, for the bathroom, even a needle. Don’t throw away the needle but give it back to the shrine to show your thankfulness to the gods. Stone sculpture is something beyond me. When I finish a piece, there is some kind of spirit, a character beyond my reach.”
Her father, a policeman, “was a down-to-earth person who would rather talk to inmates than high-ranking officers. [He reveled in] the stories they told.” Then he would come home and relay the stories to his family. “How strange my household was. He’s still a storyteller,” she says. Aoyama’s mother made all her clothes. “As a child I had strong taste so we shopped for fabric, and she found the pattern to fit me. She was very talented and could make whatever I wanted.”
Aoyama earned her bachelor’s degree in oil painting at Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Art and Music. Her interest in Renaissance art took her to Italy, where she was able to see the works of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Bernini, and others she had studied in books. Her own painting, by contrast, was abstract.
She came to the U.S. in 1996, studying at the Art Students League in New York. While there she became interested in stone carving, inspired by the work of Isamu Noguchi. Sculptor Jonathan Shahn was teaching clay modeling in the classroom next door. He observed how passionately she worked and recommended the apprenticeship program at the Johnson Atelier Stone Division. She apprenticed from 1998 to 2000, and then served on the faculty until 2003. Aoyama has also studied at the Sculpture Center School, New York, the Craft Student League, New York, and the Lacoste School of the Arts, France, and in 2013 did a residency at the Noguchi Museum in Queens.
Both Finn and Kaito are learning to speak Japanese on Sundays at the Japanese school based at Rider University. Aoyama used to speak Japanese at home, but when Finn was 3 he told her to stop speaking Japanese because it embarrassed him. “I’m not a tiger mom,” says Aoyama, who took her sons to Japan several summers to visit her family and get a thorough immersion in the language and culture. In Japan school is still in session through mid-July, so she enrolled them in the elementary school from which she graduated. This year, however, she has had too many commitments to travel. On the other hand, she was happy that Finn’s class made a trip to Grounds For Sculpture to see “Silence.”
The Madonna theme emerges in several of her sculptures, including one titled “Madonna” in Italian premium carving marble. “I knew if I carved into the white I could bring out the pink warmth,” she says. “It had something hidden, pink crystals like someone’s heart. I could guess from the outside.” She saw in it the pureness of a female and a womb-like container. “I only know Madonna as a stylistic image, not religious.”
Aoyama also has an installation at Tyler State Park in Newtown, Pennsylvania, “The Circle of Life,” that features a white whale, Earth, “Luna Rabbit,” and something like a spaceship. Surrounded by trees, “You walk around the circle and come back to the whale, which is like returning to the womb,” she says. “It’s like the transformation of life, connecting to space and connecting to stone.
“I’m lucky to have these two exhibitions,” she continues. “Stone is so heavy and involved. You can’t just go and place it like paper, but I feel like I have had the best opportunities in this area. I have so much gratitude for the stone. With this show I am saying ‘thank you.’”
And it’s not over — she will also have an exhibit at Ruth Morpeth Gallery in Hopewell in September. Get out the chain hoist.
Ayami Aoyama: Silence, Grounds For Sculpture, 80 Sculptors Way, Hamilton, through Sunday, September 18, Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Fridays and Saturday to 9 p.m. during summer). $10 to $15. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.