Artist Laurie Sumiye Borrows Hiroshige’s Concept and Creates Her Own Homage to Mauna Kea
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
There are certain works of art that reverberate in time and inspire other artists to create their own works of art that, although they may not be direct imitations, at least resonate with an echo of similar themes, emotions and imagery. The older work becomes a template and a starting point for a new work that goes on into different directions.
Artist Laurie Sumiye borrowed the concept of using an iconic natural landmark to join together a set of images by the renowned Japanese woodblock artist Utagawa Hiroshige and his “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.” That became the starting point in creating her own “Thirty-Six Views of Mauna Kea.”
There is much that Sumiye borrows from Hiroshige, and much that is quite different. Instead of the iconic Mount Fuji, which pops up in 36 woodblock prints that make up Hiroshige’s set (and a similar set of prints by Hokusai), Sumiye uses different views of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai‘i as her main compositional point, creating art that looks at the mountain from different points of view, locations and media.
Although both are art prints, the technology involved in their production is very different. Japanese woodblock artists worked with mulberry paper and black ink. They would sketch out their ideas and compositions and then send them to a publisher, who would have artisans cut the drawings into relief woodblocks from which the printed editions would be printed on paper.
Sumiye, on the other hand, usually starts with a photograph and scans it into a computer software program called Adobe Flash, which is normally used to create animations for the Internet and computer games. Flash converts the photograph to more graphic, flatter shapes of colors. She then moves the image into the Adobe Illustrator program, which she uses to alter the colors and shapes to make the images more unique. Sumiye’s current exhibit at BoxJelly in Kaka‘ako, where she is this year’s artist-in-residence, also includes several multimedia pieces made of wood, paper and cast forms to depict the different cinder cones that dot the slopes of Mauna Kea.
The prints aren’t very big — they are meant to be hung in modest-sized homes and apartments. Sumiye said she wanted her prints to be small enough and priced reasonably enough to be accessible, visually and economically, for the average viewer.
The images are printed on paper used for shoji paper screens, which means they are a blend of pure paper and plastic fibers. The papers are meant to be durable and resistant to damage from sunlight, which add to the longevity of the artworks. She sends her files to a special fine art printer in Hale‘iwa, on the North Shore of O‘ahu, who uses high-quality inks that are known for their lightfast qualities.
The resulting images are soft organic shapes of abstracted, pure colors, flat or in gradients, but of a recognizable landscape. “Anyone who’s lived on the Big Island will know exactly where the image is from,” she says.
Sumiye’s style was inspired by Hiroshige’s prints in intent, if not in content. “I like Hiroshige because his prints are in cooperation with nature and landscapes,” she explains. “He’s more subtle (than Hokusai).”
While the technology may be different, in much the same way, both mountains are a mythical, spiritual center for its people. So, both Hiroshige’s and Sumiye’s prints share a sense that they are about a mountain that is more than a mountain, more than a compositional and thematic “pure” art shape. The two mystic mountains are given homage as iconic, powerful spiritual points in an abstracted landscape.
In addition, she notes that both Mount Fuji and Mauna Kea are “. . . considered sacred mountains and very important to the cultures. So I see a lot of parallels.”
Sumiye, originally from Mililani on O‘ahu, lived on Hawai‘i island for a year while working on a documentary for PBS Hawai‘i about the native palila bird, the endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper, which is on the verge of extinction. The palila depends entirely on the mämane tree, endemic to Hawai‘i, for shelter and sustenance — it is one of the few animals that can eat the tree’s poisonous seedpods. However, feral goats and sheep are destroying the fauna in native forests. Local hunters hunt the goats and sheep, but do not want them eradicated because it is so much a part of their lifestyle, Sumiye said. Unless some type of conservation measure is instituted, the mämane and the palila are headed for extinction.
Sumiye is documenting both the hunters’ and preservationists’ sides of the arguments. She continues to work on the project, but her time spent working on the island of Hawai‘i inspired her to do artwork based on the omnipresent beauty of Mauna Kea in the island’s landscape.
The documentary video and current show are, in a way, the result of a homecoming of sorts for Sumiye, whose studies and work have taken her all across the United States. She attended college in Illinois and worked in web design in Silicon Valley and in the Bay Area of Northern California. Sumiye later worked for an advertising agency in Los Angeles before deciding to pursue an MFA in integrated media arts at the Pratt Institute and Hunter College in New York City. She returned to Hawai‘i from Portland, Ore., in large part to work on the documentary project. After a year on the Big Island, she returned to O‘ahu because it was easier to work on the documentary project from here rather than from the continental U.S.
Sumiye is the 2017 artist-in-residence at BoxJelly, the communal art gallery/design center/workspace located just off Ward Avenue in Kaka‘ako. She also sells her designs as stationery and calendars.
There is a calming sense of quietness to Sumiye’s prints. I think it is partly because of the subject matter: pastoral landscapes joined thematically through the use of a mountain sacred to native Hawaiians and revered by everyone who lives on the island. It is also partly because of the use of pastels and carefully matched color schemes that are never too loud or jangling. It may also be Sumiye’s nod to the need to make art that can be appreciated by a clientele that wants something to fit into their home environment. That’s not necessarily being a sell-out, as even artists like Rembrandt, all the way to modern artists, had to make works of art on commission for their customers, unless they had a wealthy patron, partner or significant sponsor to support them. If Sumiye can make a statement about the environment, the culture, and the beauty and fragility of the place in which we live, and also make it appeal to the average gallery-goer, all the more power to her.
Her images feel like they are at a still point, just before dawn, just before sunset, just before a wind blows through the trees. This may be because of the flatness of the images, which are squished in perspective like many of the Japanese woodblock prints used to be. It is like the moment before something is born, or grows out of the ground as a seedling, when there is a momentary respite in the constantly changing world of nature. It’s a nice feeling to have when viewing the images, because it’s contemplative as well as peaceful and reminds us again of the special relationship we have with the land in Hawai‘i.
“Thirty-Six Views of Mauna Kea” by Laurie Sumiye is on exhibit at BoxJelly (307a Kamani St.) through Sept. 30. Exhibit hours are Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call (808) 769-6921.
Wayne Muromoto is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer. He also spent 10 years teaching art and digital art at a private high school. For the past 15 years, he has been teaching digital art and digital photography at Leeward Community College. Wayne also continues to pursue peace through a bowl of tea as a practitioner of Urasenke tea ceremony.