When we think of 400-year-old art forms and 1,300-year-old mythologies, there is a quiet, a stillness, a reverent respect. We behave as if in a library or golf match, as if there’s no fun to be had or joy to indulge in.
But here’s the thing, we can have as much fun with ancient art forms as a toddler with finger painting, and Japanese book illustrator, writer, and artist’s book artist Kazumi Wilds proves this.
“I have not thought about that very much. I’m just enjoying myself,” she said on if people feel anything particular when engaging with her art.
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But don’t mistake that joy for carelessness. While Wilds presents an openhearted, eager attitude, she is nothing if not meticulous in her craft. “I’m very ambitious; some people say too ambitious.” She laughs, a sound akin to colorful wind chimes.
“Not always, but as much as possible, I want to do with my hands.”
From illustrating the book art to letter-pressing the text, binding the pages to even producing her own paper, Wilds likes to have 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 pursued her passion of bookmaking by graduating from the University of Iowa Graduate College with an M.F.A in Book Art. That attention to intricate detail was able to fully manifest in the M.F.A’s final project, “Kojiki: The Birth of Japan: The Japanese Creation Myth Illustrated” based on the 1,300-year-old myth.
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The artist book’s handmade editions are now showcased at The Bainbridge Museum of Art in Washington and housed in the special collections of eleven universities in the US. Since then, Wilds has published a dozen picture books in the US, Japan, and Singapore.
Since July 6, 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 any open studios to watch the magic happen, the final reception on Friday from 5-9 p.m. in conjunction with First Fridays in Starland will celebrate the completion of the exclusive artist book, inspired by the Spanish moss hanging over the 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 recalls 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 a few times while he attended the Savannah College of Art and Design.
She smiles as she expresses her fascination with the plant, lips digging well-worn lines into her full, soft cheeks like wet clay. “In Japan, we have the air plants like that, but they’re in flower shops, not in nature,” she says. “It’s always amazing how it grows like that high in the trees.”
Kazumi Wilds early work with Spanish moss
Wilds believes that her residency was the perfect opportunity to use the Spanish moss as a motif in her project. While she researched the tropical greenery before she arrived, it wasn’t until she was working in the studio that she found a new inspirational thread to weave into her concept.
Her initial plan was to create an artist book using a combination of woodblock monoprint techniques, printed with a Japanese baren, inspired by sketches of Spanish moss from Savannah parks. After a conversation with a local artist working in the studio next door, she was encouraged to check the folklore surrounding the moss.
As a former children’s’ book illustrator, her interest was piqued by the potential of telling a deeper story.
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One legend chronicled the efforts of Spanish pirate captain Gorez Goz to capture and wed the 15-year-old daughter of the chief 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 clever and climbed into a tree, goading him into following her. He began climbing, thinking he’d finally cornered her, but his long beard was soon caught by the tree’s branches. As legend has it, even after Goz died in that tree, his beard never stopped 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 over each other to create a more abstract image of the oak tree.
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It’s 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’re so interested and curious about Japanese culture just like I’m curious about 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, doesn’t matter how old I am, how young they are.”
And this is what allows 400-year-old painting techniques and toddler finger paintings to be on the same playing field: a dedication to curiosity and joy.