by Rahul KumarJan 02, 2023
Natural beauty has inspired the creatives for time immemorial. From the pre-historic scratch-drawing on cave walls, to the complex media and process employed by contemporary artists, nature has inspired one and all. It is probably in awe and wonderment that the human race has been motivated from the flora and fauna of our planet. While there is significant focus on ecological balance and climate crises in recent times, nature has a way to course correct.
I speak to two artists who celebrate the ideas of beauty through natural forms and colours in their works. US-based Mariko Kusumoto intricately creates delicate sculptural objects using fabric, and UK-based Lisa Stevens in contrast uses clay to make striking marine inspired works. “I am fascinated by systematically formed shapes and moved by the wonder of nature,” says Kusumoto. And for Stevens the fascination is of the under-water world. She says, “…although I have been fascinated by many aquariums, I have never went diving or snorkelling. I have always been wary of deep water and only actually learned to swim at the age of 34.”
Edited excerpt from the interviews.
Rahul Kumar (RK): How did you get interested in arts in general and your preferred choice of media in particular?
Mariko Kusumoto (MK): Growing up in a 400-year-old Buddhist temple, I was surrounded by the beauty of nature and ancient things. I was fascinated by the elaborate ornaments throughout the temple. I was determined to become an artist at an early age. As a student of printmaking, I found myself more fascinated by the metal plates than by the images printed on the paper, so I began making three-dimensional metal sculptures using photo-etching techniques. After working as a metalsmith, eventually I felt the need to change direction and work with a different material. I began working with fabric, which is completely the opposite of metal. I like the fabric’s softness and gentle texture, as well as the atmospheric nature of its translucency.
Lisa Stevens (LS): I have always been a creative person, both of my parents made items out of various materials. My dad was a carpenter and builder, and my mum made our clothes and soft furnishings, both of them encouraging myself and my sister to do the same, and draw, paint, sculpt, sew, knit, build. I enjoyed any creative subjects at school and continued on to an Art Foundation course and then an HND in Theatre Design, where I could still use many different media and materials. I spent a lot of time making puppets, and costumes - not always out of traditional materials. I always liked to experiment. After college, I spent nine years working at Aardman Features as a sculptor, making plasticine characters, as part of a team, for films such as Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were rabbit.
I took ceramics as an evening class, as a creative subject that was looser and less restrictive than my day job. I bought a small home kiln and, after I left work to start a family, clay became my main creative outlet. My eldest is now 16!
RK: Why the focus on marine life?
LS: The coral-like shapes developed over time form a series of mark-making exercises. Partly that came about because of my frustration of not being able to make a piece perfectly smooth, so I started dappling and scoring the surface of my pieces. When my texture experiments started looking like coral, I then followed the clay, trying to find more coral-like textures and forms. Everything I do now has evolved through years of playing and experimenting, becoming more extreme and complicated. Although I have been fascinated by many aquariums, I have never went diving or snorkelling. I have always been wary of deep water and only actually learned to swim at the age of 34.
I do wonder if I may have been subconsciously influenced by watching Finding Nemo with my small son nearly daily for a long period. It may at least explain why my work is so vividly coloured, rather than the more subtle hues of natural coral reefs.
RK: Through your work, do you intend to convey message of ecological balance or are they intended only to be objects of beauty?
MK: I am fascinated by systematically formed shapes and moved by the wonder of nature. I especially love sea creatures, they are artwork by themselves, and I am always blown away by their beauty. I enjoy watching documentary films about the deep ocean. I am constantly amazed by creatures that I have never seen before. There are so many creatures that we haven’t discovered yet. The ocean is full of mysteries.
I once found a very beautiful brain coral at a flea market. Because I was so fascinated by it, I learned how it was structured and recreated it with fabric. Nature is the best teacher.
LS: I have never set out to make practical pieces, as that puts too many restrictions on the forms that naturally come to me. In that sense, they are objects of beauty, for a wall, shelf or table-top, to enhance a home. Pieces that arise from my compulsion to create and play with materials. On the other hand, nature, in its many forms, has always been another love of mine, since childhood. The plight of the planet and the impact of our actions on the environment around us is never far from my mind. On a personal level, there are many improvements I can make in my own habits and consumption of resources and I can influence those people directly around me, but by making this part of the narrative of my work, in some small way I can reach more people.
My pieces range from coloured, to pure white. A healthy, thriving reef to an ecosystem in trouble. Coral bleaching and dying due to rising sea temperatures, pollution, and disruption of the delicately balanced ecosystem due to mis-managed fishing practices and tourism. I have created some pieces that explore the relationship between mankind and corals more explicitly in pieces such as Change, a piece of street art for The Cheltenham Paint Festival. This is a series of coral textured, brightly coloured letters that spell out ‘change’ installed on the brick wall of a car park. They start off brightly coloured and fade to white, leaving the ‘e’ as a pure white piece with coral textures. There is change in our eco-system, we need to change, change is not irreversible, climate change is real. Many messages in one small word with a big meaning. Another piece that speaks of our relationship to corals is my Coral skull. A pure white, coral-textured skull mask, roughly life sized. Collectively, we are contributing to the destruction of the reefs, but, without the oxygen-producing reefs, humanity itself could be in dire trouble.
RK: In continuation, you have used the idea of the natural world in treatment on forms that are put out of context, e.g., juxtaposed elements that may not be natural. What do you want to express through this series?
MK: My work reflects various, observable phenomena that stimulate my mind and senses; they can be natural or man-made. I 'reorganise' them into a new presentation that can be described as surreal, amusing, graceful, or unexpected. A playful, happy atmosphere pervades my work. I always like to leave some space for the viewer's imagination; I hope the viewer experiences discovery, surprise, and wonder through my work.
LS: We are all connected. We are made of the same elements. We need the life around us to breathe clearly, to inspire us, to nourish us. During the pandemic and lockdown, I haven’t explored that as much as I intended, focussing on the more meditative abstract forms, but it is something I intend to develop further. I would love to exhibit some of my more meaningful pieces and I am continuing to work on larger pieces that I feel convey my anxieties over the slow destruction of the beautiful world around us.
RK: How do you expect to expand your practice beyond the small intimate objects?
MK: A smaller scale piece is easier to embrace, and is best for suggesting subtlety, fragility, or intimacy. If a piece is too large, it may lose those qualities. My challenge is to translate those delicate qualities to a larger scale.
LS: I am starting to make larger pieces, but even then, they are still small and intimate by most artist’s standards. A lot is to do with the practicalities of working from a small home studio, with a compact kiln. Most of my sales are by post, so that also limits size. I am planning several larger pieces, for which I hope to find an exhibition space. I have also just started collecting images donated by some of my Instagram followers of small pieces of nature in their vicinities. Although the pieces I intend to make will be small, only 10cm or so across, I want a whole series of them (I am aiming for one hundred) to be exhibited together.
I have been sent all sorts of images, from various plants, fungi and lichen to eroded rocks, ice formations and rockpools. Lush woodland mosses, tropical flowers, scrubby grassland, and the more mundane images of weeds growing through cracks in urban architecture. We all have the opportunity to engage with nature, if we choose to do so. The idea is to find connections. Connections between ourselves and the natural world around us, but also, especially as most people are unable to travel at the moment, connections between people worldwide. During this time, social media has been a way to engage with so many diverse people, and that is a wonderful thing.