Whitehot Magazine

Interview with Michiko Sakano

Left : DROPLET, 2023. Blown glass/light fixture. 9 x 7 ½ x 7 ½ in. Center: DROPLET, 2023. Blown glass. 18 x 13 x 14 ¼ in. Right: DROPLET, 2023. Blown glass. 15 3/4 x 12 ¾ x 13 ¾ in.


By CLARE GEMIMA March 6, 2024

Michiko Sakano's solo exhibition Droplets, currently displayed at Heller Gallery, showcases a collection of mesmerizing sculptures executed through various methods of glass blowing. Throughout a conversation with Clare Gemima, Sakano delved into the work’s process, drew upon personal, ancestral ties to kimono makers, and recalled her recent and rewarding experiences at UrbanGlass’ workshop in Brooklyn. With a focus on movement, humor, and fun, Sakano's multi-colored, balloony shaped, and lit glass sculptures captivate an ethereal beauty through their subtle, yet highly technical precision. Droplets invites viewers to not only explore the boundaries of innovation and artistic expression within the realm of glass – it also challenges its history, and celebrates practitioners like Sakano, along with their rebellion against the ancient art form’s traditions. 

Clare Gemima: Michiko, congratulations on your first solo-show in New York. Can you describe how you work with your breath, in order to construct and form your glass droplets?

Michiko Sakano: Thank you Clare. Glass blowing is not so much about how much breathing is required – it is about the interaction of the breath, which fills the inside of the glass bubble and the heat from the furnace, which allows both the breath to expand the glass, and makes it possible or easier to form the outside. So, it is about the two forces interacting – a duality that is at the basis of shaping glass in the process of blowing. For some large pieces, lung capacity is required, but oftentimes I use gentle pressure. The heat from the furnace takes care of the rest of the shaping. 

Clare Gemima: Your droplets are tranquil in the gallery space, and instantly evoke sensations of meditative calmness. Are these aspects deliberate considerations before you start making the work, or do they occur naturally once the work is finished? 

Michiko Sakano: I am happy to hear that Droplets has that effect. I was hoping to create pieces with intentions of movement, humour, and fun. When the glass piece is wired and lit, something magical happens. It starts to release calmness.  

Clare Gemima: How do you believe your ancestral ties to notable kimono makers in Japan have informed your glass blowing concentration, as well as your broad appeal to working with materials other than textiles? 

Michiko Sakano: My family tradition is the foundation of my practice. It taught me discipline, values and commitment in craftsmanship, and in my own aesthetic choices. Having grown up in a kimono studio is my biggest asset. Every experience taught me how to approach my clients' work, as well as my own.

Clare Gemima: How much of your process is controlled? How much of it is uncontrollable? 

Michiko Sakano: I try not to use control for the glass making process. When working with hot glass, it is a matter of skill, experience and intentionality. The successful result comes after practice and patience. Sometimes, glass does its own thing. There are sometimes unexpected moments. My experience allows me to have a good sense of intuition. 

Left: DROPLET, 2023. Blown glass. 8 x 7 x 7 ½ in. Center: DROPLET, 2023. Blown glass/light fixture. 12 x 7 ½ x 7 ½ in. Right: DROPLET, 2023. Blown glass/light fixture. 8 ½ x 8 x 8 ¼ in.  

Clare Gemima: How do you determine your droplet’s color? 

Michiko Sakano: I was thinking about subtle differences found within the same hue. Yellows seem to have a variety of hues. I've wanted to try to use them in my works for a long time. Yellows fit my concept, and the spirit of the glass. I also tried to use colors I don’t usually use for my clients' work. Reactional colors are fun, but color can react to heat and change its look unexpectedly. 

Clare Gemima: There are other yellow and green works that involve two or three different glass blown structures somehow melded together. Can you help me understand this process further? I am curious if it involves two people?  

Michiko Sakano: This technique is called incalmo. It is Italian. In order to create the stripe, I prepare different colored bubbles. I slice them, stagger the color slices, then blow them as one piece. I usually work with at least one other assistant. You can make glass by yourself, but it is sometimes very difficult for me. I have been trained to work in Italian glass style, like many American trained glass makers.

Left: DROPLET, 2023. Blown glass/light fixture. 5 x 6 x 7 in. Center: DROPLET, 2023. Blown glass. 21 x 13 x 11 in. Right: DROPLET, 2023. Blown glass/light fixture. 11 ¾ x 12 x 12 in. 

Clare Gemima: Can you describe the differences between the luscious bubble gum colored pink droplet with, say, a more fleshy, translucent yellow one? How do you measure the color's opacity?

Michiko Sakano: Glass is never completely opaque – as opposed to, for example, clay. It is always going to have some light come through. In glass, there are colors that are termed transparent, semi-transparent, and opaque. Sometimes you hear the word opalescent, which refers to an opal-like finish, rather than to a level of transparency or opacity. Yellows are opaque colors, but pinks are semi-transparent, thus making the pink pieces appear more translucent. 

Clare Gemima: Considering several pieces in the show are artificially lit, how do you determine which droplets are better suited for utilitarian use?  

Michiko Sakano: My initial intention to create this body of work was to make something fun and something that had movement. I decided to light them because I was curious about what the light did to the environment. When I saw all the pieces in the gallery, I decided that not every piece should be lit. Mixing non-lit and lit pieces were natural to me when it came to the exhibition’s sculptural installation. 

Left: DROPLET, 2023. Blown glass, 13 x 16 x 16 in. Right: DROPLET, 2023. Blown glass/light fixture, 6 x 7 x 7 in. 

Clare Gemima: While in conversation with Katya Heller of the gallery, she discussed your process of gently padding, or pressing the glass of your droplet against a flat surface to allow them to stand autonomously. Some droplets stand with a more rounded base and others are more flush to the plinth they’re resting on. This specific glass blowing process sounded poetic, but also extremely technical. Could you elaborate on this final part of the process?

Michiko Sakano: In order to create “drop” effects, about 2000 degrees of torch is applied to release the piece gradually from the blow pipe. Eventually the piece is dropped on the preheated graphite plate to be broken off from the pipe. Then the broken off part is treated with a hot torch to soften the opening tip. I think that's what Katya was trying to describe. The process of the actual dropping is not haphazard – I don’t let it just fall off – but rather, I am shaping it by controlling how hot and fast it touches the plate.  I work with a seasoned glass maker, so we can react quickly to the process. It moves very fast at the end.  While there is always some level of chance involved when working with glass, there is also a lot of experienced handling, and almost caressing of the material in the process of its shaping. 

Clare Gemima: Can you talk about your involvement with UrbanGlass, and describe what parts of the facility have allowed you to explore aspects of glass blowing that you hadn’t before?

Michiko Sakano: I have been fortunate enough to be able to work at UrbanGlass since the opening of their new facility in 2013. Let me say that it is a wonderful resource to have right here in Brooklyn, and that I am so proud to be a Board member of UrbanGlass, which was started by artists and still serves artists 46 years later.  I had my own furnace in Williamsburg where Shake Shack is today! As much as my background is in blowing glass, because UrbanGlass has studios where one can work in many other glass techniques, I can try to learn and create different processes of glass making without having to leave the place. It is one of the strongest assets of UrbanGlass that artists can work across multi disciplines of glass techniques. Right now, I am also working on a casting glass project parallel to my blowing projects.  WM

Clare Gemima

Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.

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