Yukiko Shirahara wants more people to visit the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) in Volunteer Park and appreciate the museum's Japanese and Korean art collection as well as its better-known Chinese porcelains and jades.
"That's my mission," jokes the tiny Japanese woman who curates the exhibitions occupying SAAM's south wing, as well as Japanese and Korean art exhibits at the downtown museum.
Shirahara came to Seattle via London. While doing post-doctorate studies on Asian art in London, she discovered SAAM was looking for a curator. Shirahara had been a curator and university lecturer in Japan before studying in London, but never seriously considered working outside Japan.
"I didn't think they would hire somebody from Japan," Shirahara recalled. But after an exchange of e-mails with Mimi Gardner Gates, the museum's director, and a week of interviews Shirahara became the John A. McCone Associate Curator of Asian Art. She moved to Seattle two and a half years ago.
Shirahara's latest project is a show of Japanese prints from the 1950s to '70s, "Beyond the Paper Plane," that opened Sept. 4 at SAAM.
Those used to the Japanese traditional colored "ukiyo-e" (woodblock prints) of Japan, will find the pieces in this exhibition startlingly different. With modern abstract shapes and limited use of color, the prints bear little resemblance to traditional woodblock prints.
"Beyond the Paper Plane" contains examples of the "ichimoku-kai" (First Thursday Society) started in 1939 by Onchi Koshiro. The print artists meeting in this group challenged each other to break the boundaries of traditions, much as Western artists were doing in New York, London and Paris in the same period.
After the end of World War II, Japanese artists began adopting more Western techniques and studying Western prints and abstract expressionism. At the same time, a number of people in America, including novelist James Michener, began promoting the beauty of traditional Japanese woodblock prints. Serious Western collectors began seeking the prints and exhibitions exposed the newer works to Western audiences.
While SAAM founder, Dr. Richard E. Fuller, was never much of a woodblock collector, he recognized the artistic value of the medium.
"He collected mostly older works," said Shirahara. Those include the museum's permanent collection of Japanese scrolls, screens, paintings, and sculpture, but SAAM also acquired several hundred prints under Fuller and has continued adding to the collection.
A good part of the "Beyond the Paper Plane" exhibition comes from purchases that Fuller made from the Northwest International Print Exhibitions of 1966, 1967 and 1968. the museum also has received many gifts, such as Amano Kazumi's orange and silver "Mirror" (1969), to supplement its collection.
Because room is limited and light tends to fade prints, most of the print collection is stored away from public view. Now that Shirahara has created a "print gallery" in SAAM's south wing, where the light can be carefully controlled, she plans to have more print shows.
Loans from private collections round out the current show, including several striking pieces by Iwami Reika, a woman artist who used impressions of wood grain against paper to create the work entitled "Water (Mizu)."
"She is a very small woman, smaller than me," said Shirahara, "but she gets such deep impressions in the paper when making a print that people were amazed - they wanted to know how such a small woman could do that!"
Women artists in the exhibition include Reika, Matsurba Naoko and Kashiwagi Sumiko. Women print artists were few in Japan before World War II, but changing Japanese attitudes after the war led to an explosion of female art students and artists, said Shirahara.
Securing examples of Reika's work for this exhibition helped round out the show, and Shirahara appreciates the generosity of private collectors who lent pieces to the museum.
Since her first print show at SAAM last fall, a number of local collectors have invited Shirahara to view their collections. She will use these contacts to create new shows, including one on Japanese lithography next year.
"Beyond the Paper Plane" is on display at SAAM in Volunteer Park. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with longer hours Thursday. General admission is a suggested donation of $3. Children 12 and under are free when accompanied by an adult.