When we think of 400-year-old art forms and 1,300-year-old mythology, there is a stillness, a stillness, a reverential respect. We act like we’re in a library or a golf game, as if there’s no fun or joy to be had.
But here’s the thing, we can have as much fun with ancient art forms as a little kid with finger painting, and Japanese book illustrator, writer, and art book artist Kazumi Wilds proves it.
“I haven’t thought much about it. I’m just enjoying myself,” she said, if people feel anything special when they engage with her art.
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But don’t mistake this joy for carelessness. While Wilds presents an open and eager attitude, she is nothing if not meticulous in her craft. “I am very ambitious; some people say too ambitious.” She laughs, a sound similar to the colorful sounds of the wind.
“Not always, but as much as possible, I want to do with my hands.”
From illustrating book art to letterpress, binding pages to producing her own paper, Wilds enjoys having a hand in every part of the bookmaking process.
After graduating from Joshibi University of Art and Design with a degree in Japanese painting, she followed her passion for books by graduating from the University of Iowa Graduate College with an MFA in Book Arts. This attention to intricate detail was able to fully manifest itself in the MFA’s final project, Kojiki: The Birth of Japan: An Illustrated Japanese Creation Myth based on the 1,300-year-old myth.
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Hand-made editions of the artist’s book are now on display at the Bainbridge Museum of Art in Washington and are in the special collections of eleven US universities. Since then, Wilds has published a dozen picture books in the US, Japan and Singapore.
Since July 6th, locals have had a chance to witness the process in person by stopping by Sulfur Studios where Wilds is the latest guest in their ON::View Artist Residency.
If you haven’t stopped by an open studio to see the magic happen, the final reception on Friday from 5-9pm, in conjunction with First Fridays at Starland, will celebrate the completion of the exclusive Spanish moss-inspired artist book hanging above. streets and parks of Savannah.
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Despite spending most of her time in Tokyo, Wilds has always been fascinated by the flowering plant. She remembers when she and her ex-husband would visit his mother in South Carolina and the trips they took to Savannah. She also visited her oldest son several times while he attended the Savannah College of Art and Design.
She smiles as she expresses her fascination with the plant, lips digging into well-worn lines on her cheeks that are full and as soft as wet clay. “In Japan, we have such air plants, but they are in flower shops, not in nature,” she says. “It’s always amazing how it grows so high in the tree.”
Kazumi Wilds works first with Spanish moss
Wilds believes her residence was the perfect opportunity to use Spanish moss as a motif in her project. While she researched tropical greenery before arriving, it wasn’t until she was working in the studio that she found a new thread of inspiration to weave into her concept.
Her original plan was to create an artist’s book using a combination of woodblock monoprint techniques, printed with a Japanese flourish, inspired by Spanish moss sketches from Savannah parks. After a conversation with a local artist working in the studio next door, she was encouraged to check out the folklore surrounding moss.
As a former children’s book illustrator, her interest was piqued by the potential to tell a deeper story.
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One legend describes the efforts of the Spanish pirate captain Gorez Goz to capture and marry the 15-year-old daughter of the head of the indigenous Cusabo tribe. When the chief refused to give up his daughter, Goz threatened to kill him. To save her father’s life, the daughter issued a challenge: if Goz could catch her, she would be his wife. And so the chase began.
While Goz was confident in his tracking skills, the girl was smart and climbed a tree, prompting him to follow her. He started to climb, thinking he had finally cornered him, but his long chin was quickly caught in the branches of the tree. As the legend goes, even after Goz died in that tree, his beard didn’t stop growing, graying and turning into the moss we have today.
Now, Wilds plans to include images of the young girl and the Spanish pirate layered on top of each other to create a more abstract image of the oak tree.
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It is this insatiable wonder that Wilds attributes to her experience teaching Book Art and other courses at Temple University, Japan Campus. “[My students] are foreigners in Japan, and they are as interested and curious about Japanese culture as I am curious and interested in the southern nature of Spanish moss,” she explains.
“And you know that’s the kind of curiosity and interest that goes into their creativity. It’s the same, it doesn’t matter how old I am, how young they are.”
And that’s what allows 400-year-old painting techniques and finger paintings to be on the same playing field: a commitment to curiosity and joy.