When an artist works in more than one medium, patterns and themes translate from one to another. For Mayumi Sarai, whose work is on view at the New Jersey State Museum through July 1, the common element in both her sculpture and printmaking is the circle, or clusters of circles, like beads or bubbles or planets on spokes.
In her “Four Seasons” print series (woodblock, collograph, lithograph and woodblock, and embossing made with master printer Eileen M. Foti), Sarai clusters stones, spheres, bubbles, eggs, or strands of spheres with color and texture.
These shapes suggest either the smallest forms of life at the molecular level, or planetary bodies of the cosmos, and suggest how they might be one and the same.
The sculpture that fills the galleries here comprises hand-chiseled wood balls and bowls of varying sizes. Sarai works alone in her studio, without assistants. Though a single sculpture can take up to a year, she finds the process of working with wood meditative.
The sculptor works on more than one piece at a time and will start working on one component and get ideas for the next, in a sort of improvisatory, spontaneous way. She doesn’t begin with a drawing, but just carves balls, and the shapes dictate themselves.
Sarai, who divides her time between Bayonne and Colchester, New York, was born in Aichi, Japan. It was an industrial area devoid of trees, she recounts. Growing up, she loved to paint, draw, sew, and make things with her hands. Her father managed a cab company, and her mother worked with him. “I never expected to be a sculptor,” she admits. “I thought it was so difficult.”
In high school she studied painting, in which she was confident, but she found the process of having to go to an art supply store to purchase tubes of paint too separated from daily life. By the time she was in college, she discovered carving in wood that she could personally collect. “You can carve anything, even a wine box,” she says.
She earned a bachelor’s of fine art in sculpture from Nihon University College of Art in Tokyo and came to the U.S. in 1991 to study at the New York Studio School, where she received several scholarships and awards. In 2001 she received a New Jersey Printmaking Fellowship, and in 2010 she received both a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant and a George and Helen Segal Foundation grant.
Though others have said Sarai has a Japanese sensibility to her work, she says it’s not something she thinks about. “After I came here, I started to appreciate carved wood sculpture more than when I was there,” she says.
Of her process Sarai writes: “A large portion of my work consists of the accumulation of very elementally carved wood, round forms. This almost obsessive repetition of the same elements is an essential part of my sculpture. Usually my work begins with collecting discarded tree branches and tree limbs. Using a hammer and chisel, I shape and hone the wood into modular units. I love spending many hours in my studio carving these repetitive forms. I want to challenge and transform the material into something very handmade.”
She will not use exotic wood or wood that is only available from a store because she wants the material to be an extension of her life — something she can gather on her five-acre property near the Catskills. “But I have to use Japanese cutting tools,” she says.
She describes her studio as “not fancy, a woodshop in the basement with lots of sawdust. There’s lots of carving going on.”
Sarai has a large van for collecting wood. To determine if it’s a wood she wants, she will touch and hold the wood, then carve it to see how it behaves. She has piles of different woods — cherry, magnolia, pecan, maple, oak. Sometimes people donate woods to her. The woods need to be stored inside so they can dry out. Sometimes Sarai will work outside, carving.
Her “Monster #2” is a cluster of blackened wood balls in a mass. Each ball shows the chisel marks, the wood grain.
“Texas Drawing #1” is graphite on paper and looks like a horse chestnut fruit in its pod, a round shape made up of tiny round blisters. “Texas Drawing #3” is a cluster of clustered blisters.
In “Sycamore Moon #2,” Sarai uses twigs from the plane tree, carefully saws them into short, straight segments with squared edges, and finely chisels them into dowels with a hint of their organic origins. They are joined together into a basketball-size sphere, floating in space, casting a shadow that suggests the material’s origin as a tree, with branches and roots.
And that’s only the intro to the exhibit.
Walk into the main gallery and you are overwhelmed by the possibilities created by this artist — a mask formed by the chiseled and blackened balls; another mask-like shape, but the opposite — here the wood is hollowed out into cup-shaped forms, the wood pickled white instead of blackened. The irregular cup shapes suggest organic trumpets, perhaps flower parts. This piece, with its orifices, may have given birth to the black balls.
“Ring Cycle” is a giant lasso of balls strung together, and then another circle of rings like a moon on the wall, all in a naked wood. “Double Portrait” looks like hair shorn from a blond woman and a dark-haired woman hung side-by-side, long dangling tresses of balls.
The centerpiece of the exhibit, “Black Sun,” takes up one wall, with 21 constellations of orbs protruding from larger orbs, black as the title decrees. Is this the universe, or our DNA?
Curator of Fine Arts Margaret O’Reilly saw Sarai’s prints, made during a fellowship at the Rutgers Center for Printmaking, before becoming acquainted with her sculpture. “Everyone has done the four seasons, but I liked her direct and fresh approach,” says O’Reilly. “When I saw her sculpture at another show, I could see the esthetic affinity. Her work — simple, powerful and direct — never left me, and I wanted to give her a show.”
Visitors to the museum often come to see dinosaurs and may not have an understanding of fine art. “That’s what’s great about a general museum — you can show new things, and visitors are happy to see it and will embrace it. They appreciate fine craft,” says O’Reilly.
The exhibit of Mayumi Sarai is part of the New Jersey Artist Series, established in the late 1960s, to feature the work of visual artists working in the state. O’Reilly tries to strike a balance to appeal to both artistic and general audiences, and while Sarai’s work definitely falls into the esthetic realm, a group of general visitors were interacting with the work on a recent morning.
Visitors bring their own meaning to the shapes. “Children interpret her explosion of time and space as the big bang,” says O’Reilly. “You can see how she manipulates the shapes of what might be DNA strands.”
The cups suggest either dried seed pods or blaring horns.
Sarai is also referring to the figure, says O’Reilly, and the work is on a human scale. “You can relate to them. This could be a crouched figure ready to pounce.”
A photograph of the artist shows her with her hair in a braid, coiled like some of these shapes.
Nothing is glued in Sarai’s sculpture. It is engineered with hidden dowels. Though each piece looks to be composed of a uniform wood, the nature of the found wood — often unidentified — means it can be mixed. The finishing stain gives it uniformity.
“The obsessive quality drew me to this work,” says O’Reilly. “I like serial structure.”
Mayumi Sarai, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Through Sunday, August 6. Free. Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m. 609-292-6464 or www.newjerseystatemuseum.org