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Mayuko Fujino: Capturing Nature with Stencil Art & Natural Pigments

Mayuko Fujino: Capturing Nature with Stencil Art & Natural Pigments

Posted by Hayley Hartwig on Jan 15th 2024

Meet Mayuko Fujino, a self-taught paper cutout and stencil artist originally from Japan, now residing in Hudson Valley, NY. Her art, inspired by local nature and birds, combines a Japanese folk art aesthetic with natural materials like our Earth & Mineral Pigments and Gum Arabic Powder. Thank you, Mayuko, for participating in this interview!

Where did you grow up and did that environment affect your early introduction to art?

I spent my childhood in Saitama, a suburb area right outside of Tokyo. By the time I arrived, globalization had buried much of the historical traces of the area, and there was not much culturally going on any longer in the town I grew up in. But I was able to take an hour train ride to Tokyo and explore used bookstores and record stores. So it was books, record covers, and concert flyers that introduced me to art, rather than fine art in galleries and museums.

Photo by Mayuko Fujino.

Can you share more about what first drew you to begin learning paper-cutout art and stencil painting?

When I was a teenager, there was an exhibition of Katazome 型染 (traditional Japanese stencil printing) works by Serizawa Keisuke 芹沢銈介, a member of the Mingei Japanese folk art movement from the early 20th century, at a local history museum in my grandmother’s neighborhood in Tokyo. There I saw video documentation of him cutting a stencil. The way he worked was nimble and a delight to watch. I thought “I can do this too.” And I started to practice cutting paper. I have since experimented with many different materials to combine with paper cutouts: magazine page collages, oil pastel, found objects, thrown-out plastic bags…Painting with cutout as a stencil came in much later, around 2020.

Photo by Mayuko Fujino.

Your work is influenced by traditional Japanese stencil textiles and the Mingei Japanese folk art movement. Can you elaborate on how these influences manifest in your bird paintings, and how you've integrated these elements into your unique artistic style?

Yanagi Soetsu 柳宗悦, the founder of the Mingei folk art movement wrote that beauty resides in simple vessels and other works created selflessly. This “selflessness” is a concept Japanese people call Mushin 無心, sometimes translated as mind-without-mind or no-mind. I think in the context of art-making, it means letting your agendas go: no seeking validation, desire to impress the audience with your technique, greed for fame and money. Even merely wanting to do “good work” is an obstacle when practicing 無心. I am nowhere near mastering it, but it is a life-long practice, and what I find interesting about the Mingei theory is that it discusses what specifically helped folk art craftsmen achieve 無心, including creating quickly and in large quantity. To become able to make something fast, you need to practice a lot to the point where you don’t even have to think about what your hands are doing. And the composition has to be simple, which requires eliminating overthinking. This process filters your ego out of your work and leaves it with natural unconstrained characteristics. That’s what Mingei theory defines as beauty.

I sometimes look back at my past works and find some of them unbearable because now I see I tried too hard and they lacked a relaxed spontaneity. Some pieces I might have thought were not good enough at the time of making, now I see are unassuming and therefore rather beautiful. I now consciously try to practice what I learned from this self-reflection, and I am generally happy with what I see as its results in my latest bird paintings.

Yanagi also stated that this process democratized art. The more elaborate a piece is, the more time-consuming it becomes, and therefore the more expensive and exclusive. Simplified processes and using locally sourced materials were crucial for a work to become affordable to more people. The time and place I live in are very different from those of Yanagi's, and many of his ideas cannot be simply applied to my situation. However I resonate with his definition and idea of the democratization of beauty, and I am trying to take some of those methods into my practice to make my work accessible.

Watch an example of Mayuko's stencil-making and painting process here!

What drew you to create art featuring nature and birds?

I spent most of my life in urban areas, and for many years I was often paralyzed from depression and dissociative disorder, so I didn’t take time to learn about the natural world for a very long time. But I think we all have an instinctive urge to connect with nature. As I was struggling with both mental and physical health issues, I came to think that my body was my connection to the natural world. It had its own ecosystem in a quite literal sense, and I had to learn how to work with it like farmers do with their land and crops. My artworks from that time reflected this thought and limbs and organs were recurring subject matter. 

Photo by Neil Emond. 

As I got older and healthier, I finally became able to really look outside myself, and I saw birds. I was in New York City, and what surprised me was how so many of them were there, and yet I had been unaware of most of them. If you are a NYC birder this is no news to you, but to me, the fact that you could see hundreds of different species right in the middle of the city was literally eye-opening. Similar to art you have to learn how to actively see in order to see it. Neither birds nor art show themselves if you are a passive consumer waiting to be entertained. Birds came into my life like a messenger from the natural world. Trying to know them has truly expanded my worldview. It has led me to also learn little by little about local plants, geology, and history because nothing exists in a vacuum, everything interacts with other organisms and their environment. I now live in the countryside, so it’s very easy to find mentors who have lived and worked in the natural world. My current artworks reflect the stage I am in right now.

    

Colors of Hudson Valley created by Mayuko Fujino.

Do you have a piece that has a specific meaning or story behind it?

Colors of Hudson Valley is a series of three stencil paintings made with natural pigments extracted from local non-native plants. I stopped calling these plants “invasive species” as I learned more about them while working on this project. To make pigments, I sought guidance from the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program, a local research and outreach program looking at ecology and cultural relationships to land. I volunteered at their garden and took some of the removed plants home to make pigments with. I learned from Claudia Knab-Vispo, an ethnobotanist at FEP, that non-native species are not necessarily “invasive.” A species becomes invasive when it takes up resources away from others and harms biodiversity. Being invasive is more about specific situations in specific locations, rather than the species itself.

I then spoke with Erik Kiviat, a wetland scientist and co-founder of Hudsonia Ltd, a local not-for-profit institute for research, education, and technical assistance in the environmental sciences. He told me about plants that are called “invasive” but in some places found a positive role in the local ecosystem, such as providing bird habitats.

This learning felt inspiring personally. Having been an immigrant - a non-native species - for over a decade, I’ve thought a lot about what integration means to me. Coming to a foreign country is one thing, staying is another matter. One has to find a way to adapt. At the same time, I cannot not be what I am. I will always be Japanese at the core of my being and there are cultural clashes that I find hard to come to terms with. How do I find the happy place where I can be who I am while being flexible and integrated into society has been a big question. And the answer differs for each individual immigrant. In my 13th year in the US, I am at a much happier place in this immigration journey thanks to all the birders, farmers, and scientists I met and learned from in the Hudson Valley, where I live. So these three paintings mark my personal growth as well as the development of my learning of natural pigments.

Photo by Mayuko Fujino.

How did you first hear about Natural Earth Paint and our products? What inspired you to make the switch to natural art materials?

Having to move twice due to rent hikes got me thinking about what housing security could look like to me. I don’t have family here in the US, and since my life had taken a rather unconventional path, conventional homeownership didn’t seem available to me. It made me wonder if there were any alternative options. As I learned about building a tiny house, and self-sufficient infrastructure such as a greywater system and composting, I came to realize how so many of the art supplies I had were not compatible with these options. That’s when I started looking into natural art materials. So it was not so much a lifestyle preference, but rather a part of strategizing for my own survival.

I first made natural pigments from rocks and plants in my local area but soon realized to responsibly forage anything, I needed to understand this particular, unique natural environment that was in front of me. It may be ok to collect a certain plant or rock in one environment, but not in another. So I started to learn from local people in the field of natural science, and am working on my next project with Geo Beck, a geologist, and Earth Science Communicator, and Columbia Land Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit organization based in the county I live in, to seek guidance for this very environment that I source materials from. This kind of learning takes time. So in the meantime, I wanted to use natural pigments that were made by professionals who knew how to source responsibly and manufacture products that were high quality and environmentally safe. That was how I found Natural Earth Paint’s pigments. 

Photo by Mayuko Fujino.

What have been some of the rewards (for you) once you incorporated natural materials like earth and mineral pigments and Gum Arabic into your art practice?

Working with earth pigments and Gum Arabic has a feeling of intimacy like home cooking and a sense of a little more direct connection to the world like seeing apples on a tree rather than in a supermarket. I appreciate professional cooking, and the quality of perfectly blended paint coming out of the tube, even more so after learning the process of making paints. But the quiet moment of mixing a pigment and binder on the glass plate, and the satisfaction of working with simple tools like mortar and pestle bring a small but 100% reliable happiness.

Tools and pigments used to create stencil paintings by Mayuko Fujino. 

Switching to using natural pigments and Gum Arabic was one of the changes I have made to make my art practice environmentally safer. When I was making art using recycled or thrown-out plastic bags I collected in New York City, my friend informed me that plastic bags had been invented in the 50s to be used for a very long time due to their durability. The idea was for it to replace paper bags to save trees. It was not meant to be single-use. But we all know how that turned out. I think it’s a very human thing to wish for longevity, even immortality. Our thinking tends to be a model with a straight line with no end in sight. But the model the natural world embodies is a cycle: to go away and come back. I started to think about how my artwork can live in such a way, too. Because after the tragic failure of plastic bags, the idea of immortality feels rather frightening. I want to make sure my artworks don’t live forever like a toothbrush I used when I was 12, floating somewhere in the ocean. So although there is still a lot I can improve, that sense of heading in the right direction is a reward for me.

Hooded Mergansers over Ashokan Reservoir.

Where can our audience find more of your work?

You can find my work at mayukofujino.com and on Instagram at @mayukof