If a picture is worth a thousand words, Lauren Iida’s art is easily worth double. Point to any of the 100 multilayered papercuts in the show and she’ll offer detailed information about the person depicted. She’s intimately connected to each piece because they aren’t nameless figures; among them are her mother, “Uncle” Nan and her grandmother, a survivor of a Tule Lake Japanese concentration camp in California.
Iida’s “100 Aspects of the Moon” at Virago Gallery in West Seattle is modeled after artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s series of work with the same title. Yoshitoshi died in 1892 and is regarded as the last great master of the ukiyo-e genre of woodblock printing and painting. Iida’s work ranges from direct correlation with Yoshitoshi to choosing a similar aesthetic. Her appreciation and adoration for his work began a decade ago when a friend gave her an art book about the series.
“His original pieces all really depicted full characters from folktales. Sometimes really wild mythology, stories taking place on the moon or like really old epics,” said Iida. “But a lot of times they also depicted people around him, people in his daily life. So everything from samurai to geishas to prostitutes to farmers.”
In “On a Moonlit Night,” 25-year-old Vuthy is seated in a relaxing pose looking into the distance. A golden moon stands out against a pale red background. It’s based on Yoshitoshi’s “The Village of the Shi Clan on a Moonlit Night.” It depicts a samurai who caught a group of outlaws but, rather than turn them in, he listened to their life story. The samurai discovered they were leading a life of crime because of societal misfortunes. Iida’s friend Vuthy, who lives in Cambodia, experienced similar circumstances as the bandits.
“He was coerced by his parents when he was a child to work illegally in Thailand. So he was an illegal immigrant, he was working as a child laborer,” said Iida. “He was arrested eventually and sent back over the border.”
Iida’s “Nighttime Cherry Blossoms” correlates with Yoshitoshi’s “The Moon of the Pleasure Quarters.” His work shows a geisha pondering a young girl across a yard while blooms from a Cherry Blossom tree float through the air. In Iida’s version, the artist is sitting on a couch next to a teenage massage girl whom she’s befriended in Cambodia. The two developed a friendship after Iida started seeing her for foot massages.
“When I hang out with her, I ponder my role in life as a woman. And the difference in our experience just by where we’re born or what kind of family we’re born into, what kind of culture we are born into,” said Iida. “It inevitably makes me think about what could my life be like if things were different or what could her life be like if things were different.”
Iida grew up in Seattle but today she lives in Cambodia full time. She comes back to Seattle a couple times a year to exhibit her artwork. Iida has traveled extensively visiting South America, Europe and lived in Australia. She remembers every detail from a trip to Spain at 9 years old but her heart is with Cambodia. She uses the word serendipitous to describe discovering the Southeast Asian nation. In 2008 she planned to visit Thailand to reconnect with an exchange student who stayed with her family when she was a teenager. However, protests in Bangkok shut down the airport so her flight was rerouted to Cambodia.
“From the very first moment that I stepped out of the airport, I was totally in love,” said Iida. “The smells, the sights, the energy, the people, the landscape, everything; I just — I remember very clearly the first time I set foot in Cambodia.”
She went on to say that every day she’s learning something new about her adopted home. Iida’s fondness for Cambodia and the people she’s developed close relationships with is palpable in her work. Each delicate portrait is crafted with precision. Her portrayals engineer connection between the work and the audience.
The Cornish graduate transitioned from oil paintings to papercuts for practical reasons. She wanted to transform the photographs she’d taken and recreate them in a medium that was inexpensive and simple. Iida’s art is also influenced by her Japanese American heritage. Part of the show is based on family photos from her grandmother Clara’s extensive collection, which began more than 100 years ago when the first relative arrived in the United States. The photographs also document Clara’s time at Tule Lake.
“A lot of her photos are happy couples holding hands, but there’s barracks in the background and armed guards and barbed wire,” said Iida. “I thought it was really interesting how they tried really hard to make the best of a terrible situation and just continue to be. She met her husband in there.”
Bringing people to life on paper isn’t the only activity keeping Iida busy. In 2014 she started the nonprofit Antipodes Collective. The organization creates high quality bilingual learning materials for Cambodian children. The books are given to underprivileged schools for free.
Last year she officially began giving art tours to the country. It’s part of her focus on the beauty of the country and its burgeoning art scene, rather than Pol Pot’s oppressive Khmer Rouge regime during the late 1970s. Iida said under his rule millions died, and 90 percent of artists and musicians were executed. Today the art scene is thriving again with sculptors, painters and performance artists.
“There are so many exciting emerging artists coming out of there that are amazing,” said Iida. “For me the tour is a really great way to combine all my interest to host people from America who might otherwise totally look over Cambodia particularly for its arts, to help raise up the art scene in Cambodia for contemporary art.”
Iida has returned to Cambodia but will be back in Seattle in July for an exhibition at The Vestibule in Ballard. She plans on doing another memory net, a large-scale papercut piece, to which the community can contribute.
Iida describes her work as freezing moments in time of life just happening. The whir of activity from people going about their daily routine captures her attention. There’s no shortage of inspiration in Cambodia.
“When I get on the back of a motorbike and drive through the streets, it’s like watching a movie for me,” said Iida. “I’m like, wow, that person is so beautiful or the way that their hair is in the wind or the intensity of their stare or whatever is happening.”
WHAT: "100 Aspects of the Moon" by Lauren Iida
WHEN: Runs until May 25
WHERE: Virago Gallery, 4537 California Ave SW.
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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