aper is Echiko Ohira’s medium of choice. Not only does she draw and paint on it, as many artists do, she dyes it, cuts it, tears it into pieces, crumples it and assembles it into sculptural configurations that can look like a giant rose or, when compacted, an oval stone. She learned how to do all this pretty much by herself, through experimentation with inexpensive or found material. Some of her early works were made from paper shopping bags. “We had so many of them,” she says, during a studio visit, “and I thought they shouldn’t go to waste.”
This month, Echiko, who lives in Pasadena with her artist husband, Minoru, will have her first museum exhibition at Craft Contemporary in midtown Los Angeles. Finding the Center: Works by Echiko Ohira opens Sept. 29 and runs through Jan. 5, 2020, showcasing some 40 artworks of hers from the last three decades. “I love the density and layering she creates in her pieces,” says Holly Jerger, the museum’s exhibition curator. “I personally love works using paper. It’s a material most people think of as a flat surface, but she can layer it so dramatically.”
Jerger had seen her work at several group shows, including one at the now-shuttered Offramp Gallery in Pasadena and in Paperworks, a 2015 group show at Craft Contemporary, when it was known as the Craft & Folk Art Museum. In recent years the museum has been moving away from folk art and traditional craft in favor of contemporary art at the exciting intersection between craft and design — thus the name change.
Echiko grew up in Tokyo, where her architect father would bring home scrap blueprints for the kids to draw on. (She is the youngest of six.) She later studied graphic design at the prestigious Musashino Art University. Shortly after graduating, she attended an art opening where she met Minoru Ohira, a successful young sculptor who was
already getting gallery shows and winning commissions. They married, and in 1979 they moved to Mexico. “I wanted to see the world. Japan is a small island,” says Echiko, who still speaks English haltingly. “I was very curious. And we were both interested in pre-Columbian art.” The low cost of living also helped them stretch out Minoru’s earnings.
In 1982 they decided to return to Japan, so they packed up their things, put them in a van and drove across the U.S. border to Southern California. “We wanted to look around,” says Minoru, who joined us for part of the interview. “We saw we could do something here, [different] kinds of possibilities,” Echiko adds. “It was more free.”
They had planned to stay just a few months, then ship their things back to Japan. But they ended up settling in L.A. At first Minoru made a living doing carpentry, then began to show some of his sculptural pieces in commercial galleries and museums. They lived downtown when downtown was more affordable, but when they decided to buy a house, they turned to Pasadena, where they found a bungalow in 1987. Echiko started making art in the mid-’80s and says she may have been influenced by all the arts and crafts they saw in Mexico. “The materials they used were so simple.”
Today the couple shares a studio in San Gabriel, with Minoru’s workshop and machinery in the front, and Echiko working in rooms on the side and in the back. They’ve been there for more than two decades, and work is stored everywhere, propped against tables and walls, and of course in flat metal files. A petite woman with an elegant demeanor, Echiko gives me a tour through her area, filled with drawings and collage on flat paper, as well as sculptural works on the wall, a table or the floor.
Three of her larger works are on the floor, and she gingerly removes the protective plastic sheets so I can see better. Part of her Red Whirl series, the paper sheets were painted deep crimson before being assembled. They look like giant roses, their “petals” gathered densely around a center. The artist likes to work with a limited palette, mostly white, red, brown and sometimes black. White is the paper’s natural color, and she uses a watered-down acrylic for the red and black; sometimes she stains the paper with tea, which yields a soft beige and brown.
From a flat file, Echiko pulls out two albums from the late 1990s. She opens them and randomly begins to pull out one sheet at a time. “I made one every day,” she says. On the middle of each sheet is a drawing or collage or combination thereof. “It was a kind of diary,” she notes. Some individual pages may be in the Craft Contemporary show, but it hadn’t been finalized as of our interview.
Working with paper came naturally to Echiko, she says. There was always plenty of it around, and some early work was made with recycled material. She has also used newspaper, cardboard and craft paper. It’s no coincidence that several early sculptures seem to refer to the torso or the spine — she was having chronic back problems then. Untitled (Torso) (1995), measuring nearly six feet tall, is made from hundreds of pieces of tea-stained cardboard stacked horizontally, wider at the top and narrower at the bottom, like a person’s back. Nearby on a rear wall is a more columnar piece, Black Torso, made seven years later and painted in gray-black acrylic.
More recent work in the show will include the “globes,” stone-like shapes the size of ostrich eggs sitting on a table. She made them by wetting paper and forcing it into round plastic containers — she shows me a storage container she used. Then she lets them dry and paints them, at some point coating them with beeswax. While her techniques may not be complicated, they are very time-consuming.
Fortunately, her back is much better now, Echiko tells me. How did she do it? Through exercise — yoga and “every morning walking in the neighborhood.”
Finding the Center: Works by Echiko Ohira runs from Sept. 29 through Jan. 5, 2020, at Craft Contemporary, 5814 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. the first Thursday of every month. Admission costs $9, $7 for students, teachers and seniors 65 and up; free for members and children under 10.