Reina Okawa has an eye about her. There is an attention to detail, and an alertness to fluidity in her work. She credits her methods to inspiration from her Japanese roots, and her childhood in Venezuela. Using a variety of material, she creates bright, playful compositions, abstractions from nature in a mixed media context. Her work pulls a person in, each layer possessing lovely detail, intricacies feeling like tiny little secrets between the viewer and the piece. Reina’s work is thoughtful, a direct reflection of her personality, a warmth emanating from an unassuming soul. It was a pleasure to hear her thoughts, and even more so to share them. Never change, friend. You are a treasure. ~Amy
What is the path that has led you to where you are today?
I am Japanese. My parents are both Japanese, but I grew up in Venezuela, in a city. The capital of Venezuela is called Caracas, it’s maybe like Rapid City and Sioux Falls combined, as far as population wise. The city itself is kind of surrounded by mountains, and it’s kind of hilly throughout the whole city. It’s really beautiful. My mom had me in Japan and then flew back to Caracas when I was five months old. My dad didn’t meet me until I was five months. I grew up for about 19 years until I went to college, undergrad, in Sarasota, Florida. I went to an art school called Ringling College of Art and Design.
My parents didn’t practice art as far as like painting or sculpture, but they were really artistic. My dad was kind of an engineer; he liked to build things. Very handy. My mom, she passed away three years ago. She was an amazing lady. I cry every time I talk about her, think about her. She just…did everything from her heart. She was artistic in everything; in her cooking, in her baking, in little drawings that she would do for photo albums. Just kind of like a free bird. She wasn’t perfect…she didn’t speak Spanish perfectly, but she wasn’t afraid of trying things and just, you know, being out there. So, I really admire that aspect of her.
You speak fluent Spanish then?
Yep. I went to an international school for high school in Caracas and that’s how I took art class, and I was good at it. I was good at other classes, too. But that was the subject that I was comfortable with. So, when it was time to apply for colleges, I was kind of a nerve-wreck, because I just wasn’t mentally ready for it. People were like, “Oh, I’m going to this place, this college, this university,” and I’m like, I don’t know what to do with my life. I don’t really know myself. I was immature. But, I got accepted into Ringling School, and it was close to Caracas, in Venezuela; it was by the ocean. So I said, well, I like the catalog, how it looks. Thinking I can have flip-flops and shorts, sure I’ll do that. I went there for four years, and that was a life-changing experience…like the first really traumatic, and life-changing experience.
I guess I never thought about becoming an artist, and I still don’t call myself an artist. I just like to make things and art. I really enjoy it. I feel like artists should. Artists are people who, you know, live and breathe art and make art constantly. I have artistic skills that I like to use. I like to give some sort of joy through my artwork. That’s why I make art.
I guess the first time I felt like I could do this, you know like, I have some potential to make artwork, was probably towards the end of being a junior at the college. At the end of the junior year, our professors gather the fine arts class and talk about how to be ready for our senior year, because it’s going to be hard and we’re going to have to make all this artwork. The education was very conceptual. Everything had to have a reason. Maybe it was like how the program was set up…it was just kind of advanced for me. Most of the students that were there had some sort of art background, more advanced. I just, you know, took an art class in Caracas. We didn’t have any figure drawing class. We could do whatever we wanted to. I didn’t have that kind of exposure. So, when I went to Ringling…I…you know, when I saw the first nude figure, I was like, “uhhh…I’m not good at drawing and… uncomfortable.”
So, I spent three years kind of struggling, trying to figure out what I wanted to do and if I was at the right place. I met a lot of great people there. I enjoyed that aspect, and seeing great talent.
But back to the end of the junior semester. Being a junior, we had that meeting with the professor and trying to get us ready. But they also gave us a packet with art readings and a sheet of brown construction paper to kind of make a mind map, or do whatever, to work on the summer before our senior year.
That summer I went to Japan. Being back with parents, that was a good feeling. I was working on this paper, I was folding it. So, I was looking at it all open and I see these lines, and I was like, “this is too intimidating, this big brown paper.” I had never worked large-scale at that point. So, I said, “Just cut it, just cut it along the lines!” I started doing little drawings with mixed media and just whatever I could find. I really connected with that. I thought, forget about concept. I don’t want to think about it too hard. I’m just going to start from the beginning, and I started with drawing lines. That really worked for me, as far as to start somewhere. Instead of starting at a midpoint or towards the end point, I just started from the beginning. I didn’t mind how childish it looked; I just tried it.
My senior year, I did prints with this floral pattern on frosted Mylar. I started using that when I was screenprinting. Used that for registration purpose. So that was the first surface I used for my artwork, and I would cut out within the patterns and make little sculptures and doing installations with them. Kind of like lampshade covers, very colorful. People really seemed to dig it. I was like, oh, well, I can do this. I can do more of this.
When I was at Ringling I bumped into a professor who teaches printmaking at USD. He was recruiting students for his graduate program. I said, I don’t think I can afford it. He said, “Well, we have a graduate assistantship that we can offer you.” So, I was like, well okay. South Dakota, I don’t know where that is. That’s how I ended up here.
Do you want to talk more about your creative process, like how you’ve gone from doing the printing and mixed media to working with plexi and doing your multi-layered collage work?
I don’t sketch. I’ve never been a diligent sketcher. Although I think the practice of sketching is a great way to become a better drawer, it’s not in my nature. I am leaving that for when I am retired and have more time. When I was studying at Ringling, kids around me carried sketchpads and they would sketch all the time. I carried one sometimes just to see if I would get the urge. Not me. I have always started a piece by going straight at it.
First I would pick a surface, then I would make a mark to get me going, then another, then another. Sometimes, an image would pop in my head when I’m in bed with my eyes closed. I can see things and think better that way. Or an image would pop in my head as I’m driving. It just happens unexpectedly. For me, if I think too much about an image or what I want to make, in the end it doesn’t turn out the way I want. I don’t like forcing things, I want my artwork to come out naturally as it goes. Once I am in the mid-final stages, I stand back from the piece and evaluate the overall composition to see what it lacks: balance, a pattern, a bright color, or unbalance. I have been doing a lot of my recent artwork on Plexiglass with Sharpie markers, dry point etching, coloring, layering, and collage. I enjoy and feel very connected with these materials because it provides me with lots of possibilities.
I guess at some point I got tired of working on paper, because I used to do that a lot in printmaking. I wanted to do more…I wanted to do something different. When I was at USD, my focus was just kind of get away from the frame. How can I make work that would transgress from the frame to incorporating the wall space. More free. I wanted my work to have more freedom, instead of being boxed in. I didn’t figure out until I graduated from USD that Plexiglass is my medium to work on, surface to work on. I really enjoy the layer. When I was working on the frosted Mylar, I would have different images kind of sitting on the table on top of each other. I was like, wow, I like that. You know how they kind of push and pull? I thought there was something magical and fun about that. With Mylar, it’s pretty flimsy and I wanted something more sturdier. So, I came up with Plexiglass.
Are you making your own tools to do the etching on them, or how are you sourcing those kind of things?
I use an etching needle that you use for printmaking.
There is still that connection with printmaking.
Yeah, it’s a dry point. Without inking it and transferring it on the paper. I would like to go back to printmaking, like litho. I really enjoy working on the stone. I miss screenprinting. But, it’s hard to have that setup. You buy inks, exposure unit, the photo emulsion.
Growing up in Venezuela, I would imagine that’s a bright, beautiful, vibrant place. Do you draw inspiration from your past? Where are you pulling from?
Definitely growing up…being Japanese and growing up in Venezuela made a difference in my life, and I think it shows in my work. When I lived in Venezuela, I didn’t search for artists. I would go to galleries with my mom, but the works were more modern. So, I wasn’t exposed to contemporary art. But, I am fortunate to have that kind of background, because I’m not totally, fully Japanese. Just like the outer layer. (Laughing) My parents were very protective of me, because we lived in the city and there was a lot of crime going on. We lived in a tall building, apartment. And I just couldn’t go outside. I was kind of, in a way, caged in, protected. So I was immature in a lot of ways when I went to college.
When I was studying arts, I would search artists for inspiration. Kiki Smith, Julie Mehretu, Andy Goldsworthy, Henry Darger, Yoshimoto Nara, Andy Warhol, Kara Walker, Yayoi Kusama to mention a few. Now I draw inspiration from life everyday, and the people around me. It feels real to me. I couldn’t tell you who is hot now in the art world. There are just too many artists doing weird things and too much of the same stuff. The world is at a constant change, I feel like people have forgotten the meaning of life, what really matters.
Do you have an average time that it takes you to finish a piece, or does that really vary?
It varies. I have to wake up at four in the morning and go to work at six. I wake up at four to get ready and stuff. So, if I have a show or a piece to make, then I wake up at two to have that couple of extra hours when it’s quiet. That’s when I do work.
You wake up at 2 a.m. to make art?
Not now, but, you know, when I have to, I do it. I have to put the kids to bed because the kids won’t go to sleep with dad. They’re always like, “Mom, mom, I want you.” So, when I lay down, I just pass out and I can’t wake up. (Laughter) So that’s how it goes right now. But when I was in school, I would be in the studios all night long. I was in there with the lights on, music on. I would see a lot of riffraff, like sketchy people around Ringling because it was in kind of a sketchy neighborhood. But I didn’t care. It was fun. I had the whole printmaking studio for myself. Even at USD. I was a…what do they call that? Night owl?
That’s dedication, though.
Yeah, and the earlier I put the kids down, the earlier I can wake up to do my work! (laughing)
How are you continuing to challenge yourself? How else are you exploring?
You know, I don’t have a plan. Just riding on a wave. If I find a seashell in my path, then I’ll work with it, and if it works, it works, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
So you’re really open.
Right now, I want to create a body of work with plexi and birds and colors. I want to do a work that’s darker. I think trying to incorporate dark in my color palette, so I’m not too scared of, you know, the dark side. Trying to make it happy with black.
Do you want to talk more about your origami cranes? You have done two installations with those, in Pierre and at the Pavilion. Are you still working with your cranes?
What started that?
I was in Pierre. I can’t remember how I got a show at a gallery, but there aren’t that many galleries in Pierre.
I believe that.
I think I just wanted to do a show at this store. You know, kind of like Zandbroz. They had fun stuff. They were nice enough, they said, “Sure, you can have a show.” And I put some of my work that I did at Vermillion at USD in there. I said, well, I kinda want to do something from my culture, and that was the 1,000 cranes.
Before we moved to Pierre, there was Fukushima. I wanted to do a tribute to that, from little town in Pierre, in USA. I also, did raise some money, now that I remember. At Rug and Relic I sold a bunch of crane mobiles.
Then I did a kind of workshop presentation at Memorial Middle School [with Zach DeBoer], because he wanted to create something over in their space where there’s glass showing.
Like a display case?
Mhm. I did that and that was fun. Collaborate. You know, teaching kids a little bit of the history about paper cranes and how it progressed to become part of the Japanese culture.
Then were you approached by the Pavilion for that large installation that you had in their entryway?
Well, the previous gallery director at the VAC, think his name is David Merhib. He had talked to Liz Bashore, about who is an artist that can make something for this space? I think she informed him about my name and that’s how we got connected. It was a big project.
How else are you getting yourself into shows? How are you displaying your artwork?
Well…I do zero promoting. (Laughing) I’m so bad about it. When I was almost graduating from either undergrad and grad school, I’d try to get a packet of my stuff together and send to a few galleries, but it just wasn’t me. It was too much work.
Yeah. I’m like ahhhh. I guess I didn’t know that side of, you know…of an artist. It was just too much. I would rather have somebody else do the promoting for me. Here I’ve been super fortunate. People really appreciate my work and they always want to include me, be part of their exhibitions. So, that’s how I’ve been getting around and making work. It’s the people here that really makes it happen for me.
It’s a great community. What is your favorite art show you’ve been to this year so far?
Peter Reichardt. That was pretty cool.
At the Pavilion?
Yep. I’ve seen a few of his works at Ipso, but then it didn’t really stand out as much. When I saw his collective work, then it really had this good feeling. When I see art and my heart is pounding, that’s a good feeling. I’m inspired by his process, and his different ideas, and different surfaces. I really dig that.
Who are some other artists in Sioux Falls that you think people should keep their eye out for?
Well, I know he’s not here in this town anymore, but Eli Show has always been an inspiration, since I got to South Dakota. I’m sure he’s making lots of great stuff right now. David Lethcoe, he does amazing things with stuff. I’m like, how’d you make this? I admire artists like Shaine Schroeder. I like that he’s really productive, and always making, and always showing, and I think that’s great.
Mel Spinar has become an inspiration to me. An active painter of all sorts, he taught painting and figure drawing for many years at SDSU in Brookings, and is a role model of life. He is 75, and a cancer survivor. What I love about him is that he is fearless and paints from the heart.
What are your thoughts on the Sioux Falls arts community? Things you like or things you think that could maybe be improved?
Well, I think there’s a lot of good things happening. You know, younger people are rising and trying to make a difference. I really respect that. You’re [JAM] an inspiration. You’re trying to make a difference in people’s lives and trying to provide supplies for those who can’t afford. Zach [DeBoer] also provides space and he, I’m sure he’s struggling, but he’s downtown. He does what he believes, that it’s the right thing to do for the community, for the artists, and that’s good.
One last thing. Growing up I was super outgoing. I was always getting in trouble in class because I would talk to the girl next to me. But for middle school, I went to Japanese school, and they were really strict. So, I was kind of scared of talking and kind of shut my mouth, getting my opinions out. Getting to know art, and studying art and talking about art really helped me break my shell, because I got to know myself. Meeting Eddie [her husband] was great. He really accepted me for who I am or who I was before. He never dumbed himself so he can communicate with me.
Some people are like, hooooow arrrrre yoooooou doing? What’s yoooour name? (laughing) He’s just jabbering around and I was like, oh my god, what is this guy talking about? He was fun, and getting to argue with him kind of built up my confidence. He says this a lot, he got this quote from John Day, who used to be the gallery director at USD: “You get to be more like yourself as you get older.” Like, I’m back to myself, like when I was a little girl. Outgoing. Built up enough confidence to be more in who I am. Meeting people is great. I used to be afraid of talking and stuff like that. So…yeah. Some good change. Good life. I’ve been fortunate.
Two beautiful kids and your hubby.
Couldn’t ask for more.
Special thanks to Wes Eisenhauer Photography for contributing images for this interview. See his work here.