Encountering one of Seattle-based, Japanese American artist Lauren Iida’s paper cut pieces is like emerging from a darkroom into a day blinding bright and stark with outline and shadow. The paper cuts tell stories in singular scenes from a life both familiar and strange: a woman selling a chaotic jumble of shoes spread out on a blanket, monk boys carrying umbrellas walking barefoot to school, a barber absently snipping away, a young mother bathing her child. If Iida uses color, the effect is striking and minimalistic, Sumi ink wash blooms, Rorschach clouds of aquarelle. Whether set against a black background or compressed between panes of glass, there is always an arresting quality of the comic book, a poem, a rich saturation, a chaos, and an intricate delicacy to each of the pieces—they are cut paper, after all, cut with such care. And for her, the more detail all the richer.
Although Iida first began as an oil painter, she found the materials to be too expensive and space too limited. So she turned to paper cutting, especially as a way to understand her experiences living and volunteering abroad in Cambodia. As she describes: “I started developing my paper cutaway technique when I came back to Seattle after living in Cambodia for two years. I started a fair wage tailoring shop where I lived and worked with six marginalized and abused women from rural areas creating a line of women’s apparel. I had also been working with scavenging families at the Phnom Penh municipal garbage dump bringing them emergency food and basic medical aid. My brain was overflowing with ideas, images, and inspiration for works of art but I was so broke when I came back from doing this work for years as a volunteer.”
And yet, Iida, an alumnus of the Cornish College of the Arts and art teacher, works prolifically in a variety of mediums, within the constraints of her life and travels, constantly exploring. “Since I could hold a crayon I have been compulsively creating art. I am constantly inspired by new stories and ideas I am exposed to and discover, so I constantly create art,” she says.
When the International Examiner last interviewed Iida in 2014, she had recently unveiled her paper cut and Sumi ink wash series, Castle Rock Is for Lovers, a reflection and re-imagination of her family’s stories and histories in a Japanese internment camp, all inspired by a collection of family photographs from the early 1900s.
Since then, Iida has released Postcards from the Edge of My Brain, a collection of 4×6 inch ink and watercolor compositions made while she was traveling between Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, a small rural village in eastern Cambodia called Pum Prey, Seattle, and a secluded yurt in rural Eastern Washington in the summer of 2015. Because of all this traveling, she had to keep this project portable on a smaller scale, and consequently, postcards became her medium. In total, she created 70 different postcards in about two months.
Indeed, Postcards from the Edge of My Brain are awash in color and a feeling of summer in Cambodia, a magical Cambodia out of a folktale. Each of the postcards hint at a wondrous mystery and a sense of longing, always striking in its images: the pug dog with frog feet singing “You Are My Sunshine,” a tangle of fish and long horned ox and wings, the bowl of Paradise Soup. How the dream speech slips into English, Khmer, and French. The fact that these are postcards suggests a sense of space and loss and the fleeting, how so little can fit, how much distance between.
Iida’s newest collection, Life with Dogface, continues to engage with her recent experiences and strange histories from traveling between Cambodia and the United States. Drawing from over 120 pages of memoir, short stories, and poetry she wrote over the last year, “the content of this body of work touches on symbols, cultural nuances, proverbs, and musings about the French hypnotist called ‘Dog Face,’ the one-legged rice farmer who saved his brother’s life, the brothel owner with the American rock cover band, the genocide survivor who flew to Paris on a magic white board, the husband who cut off his own finger to save his marriage, the man who filters and dispatches secret love letters, the woman who lost her voice teaching 100 students under the trees, the sailor’s wife full of dread and ‘saudade,’ the ten year old trilingual boy who saw running water for the first time.”
Life with Dogface will feature as a solo show at ArtXchange Gallery in Pioneer Square which opens Thursday, April 7. Iida will also be teaching a paper cutting workshop at the ArtXchange Gallery later this spring.
She will also be a part of Strange Coupling this year, a collaborative multidisciplinary art event at the University of Washington.
Alongside her travels, Iida finds much inspiration from her ongoing teaching work with Gage Academy and with homeless youth at Sanctuary Arts.
When asked about her vision as an artist and her ideal audience, Iida replies, “I would make art regardless of if anyone ever saw it again because it has become my obsession and a compulsion. However, I also feel driven to create and encourage others to create as agents of art, upholding a special role in society only artists can fill.”
And as one of her postcards from Postcards from the Edge of My Brain says, “Run faster than the beauty,” it appears Iida will do just that and let the beauty follow in her wake.
Lauren Iida’s solo exhibition is set to open at the ArtXchange Gallery on April 7 and will run from April through May. She will also be a part of University of Washington’s Strange Coupling. For more information on her events, classes, exhibitions, and upcoming projects, visit laureniida.com and https://www.facebook.com/laureniidaartist/. Visit theantipodescollective.org for more information on her nonprofit, The Antipodes Collective.