From a Quiet Place: The Paper Sculptures of Kyoko Okubo
Kyoko Okubo is a Japanese woman who will tell you she is a doll maker. And, at first encounter, her work resembles what one might anticipate in a Japanese doll. The small, gentle figures are meticulously crafted from washi, the traditional paper of Japan, with an attention to detail generally associated with traditional artisans. On close inspection, one sees that Okubo’s pieces transcend her finesse with materials and without question are more than simple dolls. Kyoko Okubo’s works are diminutive sculptures that resonate with intensity and challenge the imagination.
Okubo’s sculptures are usually female figures or animals, no more than 12 inches in height. Many of the works present a human figure and an animal together. These seemingly simple pieces can be quite provocative. Okubo has made several sculptures of girls holding baby seals, rabbits or other small animals. At times, the girl is clothed only in underwear, and often the garment is wrapped over the animal. The intense relationship between the animal and the human is curious. Okubo explains that having the animal beneath the underwear shows a greater intimacy between the two. She elaborates that she herself does not fully understand the meaning of her pieces; we, like the artist, are left wondering.
Her miniature animals seem almost life-like. This contradiction between the real and the fantastic and unnatural is typical of how Okubo twists and tweaks her work. Sometimes, she presents things that are familiar and known, only to surprise with an inexplicable element in the work. In one sculpture, a donkey is accurately depicted in every detail. Riding on the donkey’s back is a girl in a pink, ruffled dress, holding an exotic bird and wearing a bird’s nest as a hat.
In another work, a kangaroo stands quietly while being lassoed by a young female figure. In another, a black crow, a bird seen often in Tokyo, wears a headdress that looks like the head of a swan. Like the donkey and the kangaroo, this crow is elegantly articulated. Viewing these works, one feels like Alice in one of Lewis Carroll’s books, encountering a place that is both incredible and boundless.
As a child, Okubo had experience playing with washi, but she has never had formal training as a doll maker or an artist. Okubo started making these pieces ten years ago. Now in her mid-thirties and living in Tokyo, her motivation is deeply personal. She says she sculpts only female figures and animals because the figures are symbolic self-portraits that express her deep feeling for nature.
It is difficult to say whether Okubo is a folk artist, a craftsperson or even an outsider artist. Her art has much in common with works in all three fields, but her sculptures do not fit into any of these categories exclusively.
In Japan, folk artists and craftspeople usually inherit their traditions. The forms they produce are often completely defined with only the slightest room for individual expression. Okubo does not come from a family of doll makers, and her highly original figures do not conform to the strict confines of Japanese doll-making. Okubo does have the respect for materials intrinsic to most craftspeople, and, like a folk artist, she is committed to a traditional form, the doll.
Referring to Okubo as an Outsider Artist would not be appropriate either, as she lives in one of the most sophisticated cities in the world, visits museums and has seen many important works of art. Yet, in significant ways, Okubo is much like an Outsider Artist. She is self-taught and has an obsessive sense of execution. Her connection to her sculptures transcends the concerns that most professional artists have regarding their works. Her feelings for her figures are almost parental, even demonstrative, but also extremely private.
In a sense, Okubo is a hybrid. She creates a visual landscape that is entirely her own — a place of animals, gentle young girls and nuanced relationships. Her paper sculptures are like a dream diary, suggesting stories that are not quite of this world. Interpreting her emotions, Kyoko Okubo has shaped an unorthodox collection of intuitive sculptures that are profoundly personal and visually intriguing.
Thanks to the Folk Art Society for sharing this with us.
Scott Rothstein is an artist who writes primarily about self-taught art and artists informed by traditional culture. His own work can been seen in several American museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Rothstein has lived in Philadelphia, New York City, New Delhi, and Tokyo. He is currently based in Bangkok. He blogs at Art Found Out.