Transcript - Episode 80: Jerry Takigawa
Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 80. Today’s guest is Jerry Takigawa.
Hey everybody, welcome to the show. Today’s guest is photographer Jerry Takigawa. Jerry Takigawa is an independent photographer, designer, and writer based in Carmel Valley, California. He is a co-founder and creative force behind the Center for Photographic Art’s PIE Labs. Jerry’s work is in the permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Crocker Art Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, and the Monterey Museum of Art. He studied photography with Don Worth at San Francisco State University and received a degree in art with an emphasis in painting. And he’s a past president of People in Communication Arts and the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel and is a former trustee of the Monterey Museum of Art.
Recently, Jerry’s series Balancing Cultures, which is a personal project about the Japanese American Internment during World War II, has garnered a number of awards and accolades. In 2017 Jerry was selected for Photolucida’s Critical Mass Top 50—which, that was a particularly good year, past KTCO guests Matt Eich, Daniel Gonçalves, Jennifer McClure, and Susan Rosenberg Jones were also in the Top 50 that year. Also in 2017, Jerry won the New Orleans Photo Alliance’s Clarence John Laughlin Award for Balancing Cultures, and in 2018 he won first prize in the CENTER Curator’s Choice Awards. That last is how I was first introduced to Jerry’s work, via a feature on Lenscratch in conjunction with the CENTER Awards.
Now, growing up as a Japanese American person, I heard a lot of stories about the Internment and what it was like. It’s a traumatic part of both our national history as Americans and my family’s history, and I still have many living relatives who were interned, including my grandmother. So as you might imagine, I was immediately drawn to this work. But then very quickly I noticed that Jerry lives in the same town where I grew up, Carmel Valley, which made an even more personal connection for me, and I knew I wanted to talk to him for the show, and I’m pleased to have the opportunity to share this conversation with you.
In our conversation, Jerry and I talked about three of his bodies of work, Balancing Cultures, False Food, and his Kimono Series. All of those are available on his website and I’ve put links to the individual galleries in the show notes, so I encourage you to take a moment to have a look through those images, read the artist statements before we get started. And if you would like to have the chance to see Jerry’s images in person you can do that. Through February 18th, 2019, Balancing Cultures is on display at the Alvarado Gallery at the Monterey Convention Center in Monterey, California. Images from that series are also included in the “Full Circle” exhibition of work by the 2018 CENTER Award winners, which is at the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts in Boone, North Carolina, through April 27th, 2019. And then coming up in February, images from Balancing Cultures will be included in the “Portfolio 2019” exhibition at the Atlanta Photography Group in Atlanta, Georgia. That show opens on February 8th, 2019 with a reception from 6 to 9 PM, there will be a juror’s talk on the following day, February 9th, from 1 to 2 PM, and the show runs through March 16th, 2019. I’ve put links to all of those in the show notes, so if you’re able, do check them out.
OK, so, let’s get started then. As always, if you’d like to join in the conversation you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPhoto to live-tweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Jerry Takigawa.
Jerry Takigawa: Mm. Right.
MS: They had done a feature on all the different CENTER Awards winners.
MS: And it caught my eye really quickly just because being a Japanese American artist myself, work that's about Asian American issues and especially about the Intenrment, it's always something that really strikes a note with me. And then when I noticed that you live in the town where I grew up, [laughs] I thought, "Well, I got to talk to this guy." You know, maybe we could just start off talking about what the series is and then see where we get.
JT: Okay. Well, Balancing Cultures really started out as a way for me to look at my family history so that I might know something about myself more. Only after doing it for a year or two, it became obvious that it was sort of dovetailing with politics and current affairs. And so in the beginning it was more of a personal project. Something I was looking to discover more about me and why I'm the way I am. And so it turned out to be bigger than that for other audiences.
MS: Mm-hm. So in this series—I looked up your bio and you were born in 1945.
MS: So, just to be clear, you weren't actually interned yourself, right?
JT: No. I was born after the war.
MS: Yeah. I find that for myself... So I'm, by the longest path, fifth-generation Japanese American.
MS: That story, both of their stories was something that I have always found this sort of pull towards. I think that the family lore about camp and about the war is something that has really shaped a lot of the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves. And it's something that at the same time I always find myself really just sort of thirsty for more details about, you know?
JT: Mm. Yeah.
MS: And I was wondering if that might've had something to do with it for you as well.
JT: Well, I think just having been in this project now for a couple, two and a half years, maybe, I'm learning a lot about what happened. And so its impact on me is kind of unfolding as I stay in it and I keep researching and people keep telling me stories because the work sort of stimulates that from them. So it's a process and something going on right now that—and I think at this point, I mean I realized that it's important to keep stories like that alive. I mean, for me it started out personal, but it's also a lesson for the country that it's too easily forgotten, I think.
MS: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. You know what that reminds me of. I mean that's something that's on my mind a lot as the generation that went through that is—we're starting to lose them. My grandmother is 92 now, I think. And my grandfather died about 10 years ago, so for his stories about being in the war in Europe, he was always very sort of tight-lipped about it. And he would—you know, he won a lot of medals. But then when you'd ask him about them, he'd say, "Oh, they gave those to everybody." The only story, the only one detail that I ever remember him talking about was that he had a friend who always dug really square foxholes. But it was just that one little detail, everything else, he just wouldn't really talk about it. So that aspect of preservation is something that does seem like an important thing, especially as we're going through what we're going through now.
JT: Right, right. Yeah, it seems like as people come forth and tell stories because they see the photography, there's a lot of details that are just coming out. People remember different things like the square foxhole. I didn't, you know—it seems like we've opened up this huge well of hidden buried thoughts and memories that needs to be aired out. It's very fascinating to me. I mean it's... And I didn't really want to be involved in a political campaign of any kind, but it just becomes part of it naturally, just because I want to express my life and it's connected. Everything is.
MS: Yeah, I mean it is sort of one of those things. I know I've talked to a lot of different people, just either in my life or for the show who in one way or another want to make work that's very personal and it often ends up being the kind of thing that becomes bigger than it was originally intended to be. And I think as an artist, so much of it is about personal expression and we want to be able to tell our own stories.
MS: I find that a lot of people often express a certain reluctance or sort of hesitance to become a spokesperson because you're just trying to talk about yourself.
MS: But then there's sometimes a concern that that might be taken to try and stand for everybody. It seems like a tricky balance to find.
JT: Yeah. You know, I can only speak for myself, but it is, like I say, connected to bigger issues, current issues. I'm not sure how else to deal with it. I'm going forward with the project and have an arrangement with a foundation in Canada to publish a book and so next year is about finding new exhibitions to do book launches with. And it's a book that I'll be able to design because we do that anyway as Takigawa Design. But, like I say, it sort of takes a life of its own on in a way that you didn't really expect it to. But I do truly believe that when you can say something deeply personal, it connects to a bigger universal audience. Everybody is looking for some little piece of truth, something real. And so it resonates, I think.
MS: Yeah. One thing that I was thinking about when you were saying that you hadn't really intended to be having a political conversation with the... You know, in sort of diving into your history, your bio a little bit, one thing that I hadn't been aware of was—so you did an interview with the Center for Photographic Art back in '06.
MS: And you talked about how you started off as more of a reportage kind of... You were doing a newsletter for Berkeley.
JT: Mm-hm, right.
MS: And that you mentioned a bit about People's Park.
MS: Thinking about that, I mean obviously that's a pretty intensely political topic. [laughs]
JT: Yep. Yeah, it is. Yeah, if you go back... You know, what I did learn from doing Balancing Cultures has to do with what my parents communicated to me, even though they didn't literally talk a lot about the camps. The word "camps" was bantered about but the gravity of that situation was never communicated. But something that got passed on to me really was a sense of social justice. And I didn't really know where that came from for all those years. I mean, I just automatically did those things, whether it was People's Park or the environment, you know, it's just something I would sign up for.
JT: So that was interesting that that got passed on. It wasn't anger or bitterness or any of that, but some sense of making things right. But doing the research for this project really opened up my eyes to what they had to live through.
JT: And that really surprised and shocked me actually, to have been buried for that long and it was this kind of a horrible situation. Kind of surprised me that they were able to handle it in that way.
MS: Yeah. There's something—and this is a pretty major theme in the images themselves, you have those two images with the scrabble tiles layered on the top and one of them says shikata ga nai and the other one says gaman. I remember that was something my grandmother always used to really talk a lot about when I was a kid, was how perseverant the Nisei were, especially.
JT: Right, mm-hm.
MS: And how, there's this thing... I remember when I was a kid, she used to say with a certain amount of pride that the Nisei were often referred to as the "Quiet Americans."
MS: That, you would just sort of deal with it and move on and not make a big deal out of anything but...
MS: And it's something that, for me, that lesson about "Just accept adversity and don't make waves" seemed very Japanese, but in a lot of ways it feels sort of unsatisfying because, you know, also I'm an American and there are things that I care about that seem like they need to be talked about. And managing that tension between the Japanese "Don't be the tall nail" kind of impulse, or the American "You have to stand up and speak out" kind of impulse. I find that that informs a lot of how I approach just life in general.
JT: Yeah. Well, you know, you are even probably more American than I would be, because I'm third generation, so in my position... And that's why the title is Balancing Cultures, is partly because I had to juggle being told to be American by my parents, but still had a lot of Japanese values and customs and traditions that were going to be part of my life anyway. It was almost a mixed signal of two things and so it's how we take those two things. They both have very positive kinds of attributes. It's like how do you combine those so that your life is still at peace.
MS: Yeah. I find the trick is often trying to sort of pull in the best impulses of each one and sort of leave behind the worst impulses, but that can be a little tough sometimes. [laughs]
JT: Right. But what are those things? [laughs] I mean, what things do you keep and what things... Every Japanese American, whatever generation, had to deal with that or had... And that's an immigrant thing. All immigrants are balancing cultures. They're doing that.
MS: It's interesting how it continues to resound down the generations. Even somebody like me who, I'm pretty far removed from my immigrant ancestors, but it still rings true for me. Something I think about a lot with the Internment and how my kids are pretty young right now. My oldest is ten and my youngest is four and how they have very little contact with that generation, and I wonder how they're going to think about all of this stuff when they're my age now. It's interesting.
JT: Well, so, you're married?
JT: And is your wife Japanese?
MS: No, she's Caucasian.
JT: Okay. So, you know, eventually these different cultures start to become one thing at some point, where everyone is not one true thing. And if you... I don't know if you've read or heard about a book called White Fragility?
MS: Yeah. Who was that by...
JT: It's Robin DiAngelo.
MS: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I haven't read it, but I've heard of it.
JT: Yeah, it's good. It does kind of reveal how entrenched and embedded the idea of the white privilege in everything from institutions and laws and education and movies and entertainment, everything supports that platform of white privilege. And if you're white, you don't even know it's there because it's always been there.
MS: Yeah, I find even for myself... So I'm not a hundred percent Japanese, I'm only three-quarters.
MS: But I present—especially most Americans tend to see just a completely Asian guy. But even at that, thinking about how privilege is invisible and how much, for example, I don't have to deal with the same things that some of my black or Latino friends have to deal with is... That's not something that I ever thought about before maybe four or five years ago. But I do feel like people are having those conversations more and more nowadays, which is a good thing it seems like.
JT: Well, it's... You know, I guess growing up, at some point in grammar school I realized that I was different, that I was Japanese, and I probably wasn't any particular race to myself until that point. And it's interesting how it's because of parents and how they demonstrate their prejudices about people gets passed on. You realize that "Oh, that person is actually not like us or not like other people." So it's one of those things that I'm not sure why it happens yet. I mean it's just, you know, groups need to be better than other groups. I don't know if that's how that works. But it seems like it's insidiously maintained, the idea of racism and prejudice. I mean, race itself is not scientifically justified. I mean, we're all African if you want to come back to it. So it's something that we, like money, we make it up. And yet at the same time you can see how hard it is to live with that construct though we haven't really approached rebuilding that somehow.
MS: Yeah. Yeah. I mean in some ways it's bigger than any one of us can take on.
JT: Yeah. It's very big.
MS: But it's good to at least start with awareness, right?
JT: That's where you start.
MS: Yeah. It's something that I think—
JT: That's where we're starting. That's where you and I are starting. I mean, if you don't do that then you start seeing things like, "Oh, that person just assumes this is one way when, you know, it may not be for us" or something.
MS: Yeah. Yeah. Well and, you know, thinking about your work, that you have a number of series. Definitely the two more recent ones with Balancing Cultures and False Food?
MS: Is that the right title?
MS: Where the themes that you're talking about are sort of big, important, global themes that certainly, whether it's racism and xenophobia, that kind of thing with Balancing Cultures, or with False Food where you're photographing plastic objects that were taken out of the remains of an albatross.
MS: And I know you've talked in other interviews before about how if you're yelling at people or being sanctimonious about these things, that it tends to sort of push people off, and they don't get the message. I think that's a tricky thing to do to, especially as an artist and especially as a visual artist, to be able to try and convey the message but do it in a way that it's not so obscure that people miss it, but to find a way to allow the audience to be permeated by that idea.
JT: Yeah. Did some homework. [laughs] That really is true, False Food was taking something that was basically a weapon of mass destruction—the plastic pieces eaten as food—and presenting it in a beautiful context. There were some criticism about that. Maybe it wasn't, like you say, loud enough or strong enough. My answer to that was it was sort of a Japanese way of doing something. It's not in your face. It's a lot more subtle. And my reason for doing it partly was I thought those images would stay on walls longer because they were actually beautiful, but they happen to be using something that you normally don't think of plastic refuse as being beautiful. I don't know. I decided when I did Balancing Cultures to take it a little further, and for the last, I don't know, maybe 20 years the work I'd been doing has been developing this sort of visual vocabulary of layering things, putting things together in images. And I had never put text in images before. And so in Balancing Cultures I decided I would do that. And they're essentially like breadcrumbs for people to see a little bit more and stay with it a little, and ask questions of themselves. And also at the exhibition that's here in Monterey, I put anecdotes on the title labels, so a little bit of additional personal information in each title as a caption, so to speak. I think it was pretty effective because people came away with a lot more emotion than when I had not done that. And it's true. I mean sometimes the work could be a little bit abstract or obtuse or not totally like literally in your face, but it's somehow... I don't know what it is about wanting to make everything beautiful no matter what you're saying. And I only can right now think that it is a Japanese kind of attribute to want to do that, to make anything beautiful.
MS: I mean, you know, as an audience member, I definitely—there is work that is sort of intentionally ugly or loud—
JT: Yeah. Right.
MS: —that I do like, and that resonates with me quite a bit, but it's never been something that I felt like I wanted to do myself. Often my own images tend towards being a little quieter. I remember [laughs] somebody saying to me once that, just because we were in a meeting and they were saying that I have a tendency of talking softly but that that ended up just making people listen to harder. I don't know. I mean, I think there might be something to that artistically as well or at least I hope so.
JT: Yeah, that's a good way to phrase that, I think.
MS: It's interesting because I had noticed also that your previous bodies of work hadn't included text in the image.
MS: Oftentimes in these images, even though you're including text, in some of them the text is sort of chopped up letter-by-letter, so it's a little harder to read and it makes you focus on it more. It makes you have to spend time to figure it out. I always find, because I'm a writer as well as a photographer, I'm very interested in ways to combine text and image, but I find that what text is great for is providing specificity, but I think especially as a visual artist, that can be very difficult because you can very quickly put yourself in a position of explaining it too much.
MS: Whereas with your images, I find that there's still, even... There's a lot more specificity with Balancing Culture, but there's still a lot of room for the viewer to need to spend time with it. And I always find that work that reveals more of itself the longer you spend time with it is the work that I end up wanting to come back to over and over again.
JT: Yeah, I think people do tend to stay with it a lot longer because they're... You know, in the field that I do, design work, if we're working on a poster or an advertisement that's meant to communicate something, it is a combination of pictures and words. I didn't want it to go that far because then I'm just doing a poster or an ad. And so I wanted to have that kind of creative participation from the audience to play with it. And it's a puzzle to be solved and hopefully people want to stay with it long enough to get something from it.
MS: Yeah, I mean I do think the work really invites you to spend that time with it. One of the things I found really interesting is that, especially in comparing it to your previous bodies of work, at least the ones that you have on your website, I think there's a really consistent visual aesthetic that's carried through all of these different bodies of work.
JT: Right. Yeah, there is.
MS: And it's one that is very appealing. It's very strong compositions and there are things to immediately grab your attention and catch the eye, but then the longer you spend time with it, you find yourself with more questions that you want to then start thinking about more. I think it's a tough balance to find.
JT: Yeah. I think it's also, when you're in a project like this, it's trying to keep that process alive so that it doesn't become kind of just redundant, that you're automatically just building another picture. So I want to continue to reinvent it in some way, kind of innovate a little bit as I go and eventually this project will end up being a platform for another project because of where it's going to go and how I say it, whatever that vocabulary is.
MS: Yeah. Yeah. So in 2014, you were talking with Works & Conversations magazine [in an] interview.
MS: And you were talking about your approach to photography and how important openness is. And, so I wrote this down... You were saying that "It's a very open thing. You need to be able to trust and follow a nudge, a little nudge or instinct to just take a picture of something, whatever it happens to be." I really like that idea and I find that photography is something—that the fact that even if I don't have my camera with me when I'm in the world, I will notice more things because I am just looking at it like a photographer would look at it. One of the things that's always very interesting for me is that the way that I shoot is very sort of drawn from life. I'm usually shooting things that are found, found vistas or found tableaux, and I just have a really hard time constructing something on purpose, building an image. Whereas in a lot of the images that you are creating, especially for these more recent series, they are studio creations.
JT: Mm-hm. Right.
MS: They're something that you build up. How does that idea of openness and visual intuition come into it when you are also creating the thing rather than just noticing it, you know?
JT: You know, in False Food there was more of the using found imagery or imagery that is not in studio and then combining it in the studio, right? In Balancing Cultures, everything's sort of appropriated because it exists in terms of a background image. And so I'm much more limited. So that idea of openness or nudge manifests when you have... When you're doing still life, you're in charge. You get to put down things the way you want it to be and you look at it and if it's... You know, I could take a picture of it, but if it's not right, I have to keep doing it over until it suddenly feels right. And when it feels right, that would be the nudge that you're talking about, the openness. It's not so much a mental thing as you're just feeling it in your heart. It's kind of nice when it's not perfect, or it's awkward or whatever. And you want to redo that, take it apart, try again. There's no plan. I mean, that's the openness, I guess. There's no real plan other than I might have something I want to use like a specific letter or a specific quote or statement. But how do I put that together as a finished piece of art?
MS: Yeah. One of the things for me, the difficulty that I often have with construction—and this is something because you were trained as a painter, right?
MS: That it's a similar thing with painting and drawing. And I've heard other painters and visual artists talk about this when they're talking about the mark-making process, that when you're first starting, you're faced with a blank canvas, that you have to start somewhere, right? That you have to actually make the first mark in order to get started. And the weight of expectation that you might have of "What is this going to be? How do I even start not necessarily knowing where it's going to go?" can be paralyzing at times. I think for me that's my biggest problem with studio photography, is knowing even just how to start.
JT: Yeah. Well, you know, it's sort of like the blank page on your typewriter for a writer, that kind of thing. Even if you're out in the world though and you're just roaming around with your camera, you know, you have to trust that inside feeling to pursue something. Because I think that from the heart to the eye is going to actually make a much more personal kind of image. And then when that image is done that image is actually going to, if you look at it, speak to you in a sense, saying the reason you took this thing is because of something else and then that's going to lead to something else. And so it's being aware and paying attention and following your heart through that process. Otherwise, you know, it's going to come out kind of fixed and stilted, I think.
MS: Mm. Yeah. Well why don't we take a quick little break and then we'll come back and do the second segment.
Jerry Takigawa: I was going to say when you were talking, I think the oldest work on my website is the Kimono Series, and it was the first time I was recognizing in a sense as an artist that I was Japanese. And so I had those kimonos in the air, essentially, against a landscape and cityscapes. And it was interesting that that was the first time and it actually felt more personal to me than all the work I had done before. Maybe because I started to own something of who I was. There was a special on Netflix about comedians and one comedian at some point said, "My early years I spent a lot of time trying to be a comedian. Later in my career I kind of realized that I needed to just be myself. And when I did that then it started to connect and resonate with people." And I think that's somewhat true for me too. I think up until that point, everything I did was putting in 10,000 hours to refine a vocabulary and a style and just technical things. And they look good, but they didn't have me in them so much. And then they started to.
Mike Sakasegawa: I mean, so that idea of finding your voice.
MS: I mean that's something that I think a lot of artists, especially emerging, first-starting-out artists, everybody has that question of how do I find my voice and what is my voice, what is my style? I really liked some of the things that you've talked about before, like the PIE Program at CPA that you—you're the one that started that program, right?
MS: And this idea of art being a form of self-discovery really resonated with me. That seems very true to me. That it's not until you sort of know yourself and what you're interested in, how you think and feel, that until you can have a little bit of visibility on that, it's hard to make work that feels authentic to anybody else, let alone yourself.
JT: Yeah. There's a quote, and I can't remember who said it, but it's "An artist vacillates between wanting to be seen and wanting to hide." That resonated to me, you know, and in order to be seen in the truest sense of the word, you have to show some vulnerability. So you have to come from a place of openness to the world because when you look at the things that stand in the way of taking a chance or a risk or something, like you don't want to look foolish or wrong or make a mistake. That's our culture. Being willing to be vulnerable is such a key part of allowing some authenticity to come through. And of course that takes courage to do that. So those are all part of that energy together. You have to be willing to—I mean, it's hard to be an artist because you put your work out there and it kind of feels like you're baring your soul, and you don't even have any guarantee that someone's going to like it or not. But you have to be willing to do that. And on top of it, if you want to be vulnerable and then say things or put things out in the world that show more of who you are, that takes even more courage. So you can sort of see where that leads. But at the same time, being personal is also being universal. So I think that's a kind of, not unknown, but it's—people don't want to go there so much because it's scary.
MS: It can be very scary. Especially, as you say—I mean the work is not exactly the same as yourself, but when your work comes from yourself that sometimes it can feel like if somebody doesn't like the work that they don't— [laughs]
JT: Well, yeah. It's an attack. Yeah. You feel it.
MS: Yeah, it 's tough. That thing that you were saying about artists wanting to hide and wanting to be seen, that's so true. [laughs] I think a lot of times—it's this conversation I've had with a number of people about art and the art-making process and reconciling these ideas of making art beinga fundamentally selfish thing to do, and also that making art is a very—or at least can be a true act of service as well. I feel like on one level you do have to have a certain, not necessarily arrogance, but you have to have a certain confidence that the thing that you're doing has value in order to do it at all. But I also find that if you don't have any humility or thing like that about the work itself, about the possibility that it might not be as great as you want it to be, that... I don't know, I feel like if you're not at least open to that possibility that the work ends up not feeling right.
JT: Well, it's been 10,000 years where art has been important to humans. And it is one of those things that doesn't appear to have a utilitarian value, but it seems prevalent and consistent throughout time. And so there is something we're all getting from it that you can't get from anything else, apparently. It's some kind of spiritual or emotional nourishing that doesn't come from a lot of other things. So it definitely has importance and probably far more importance than we know because it—in communication, you can't move somebody to do something or decide something without some emotional content, something that moves them. You can't lead them with data to see something different or open their eyes to something that you want them to see. So it is really—it's a powerful medium and, done well, serves to hopefully move people in a good direction. In one that ends up being much more harmonious in our world because we're not doing so well right now.
MS: Yeah, I—this is something I say all the time on the show, so hopefully the listeners aren't too tired of it [laughs] but I always—to me the power of art is really that is a communicative medium, and that for me the work that has often stood out the most and that I return to the most and that has made the biggest impact on me is work that allows me to feel a connection with another person. That we're always sort of trapped between our ears, we don't really know how other people feel, but that through the art process and as a viewer or as a creator that you have the opportunity to actually have a point of connection with another person. And I feel like on some level that's what we're all looking for, right, is that feeling of connection.
JT: Yeah. Yeah, definitely connection. It's connecting because it's real and true. It's the age of not true. So it's refreshing and that's why people seek that kind of thing out. I don't know. It's something that has to be part of a modern culture and you can sort of see how regimes that are threatened will destroy art, because it has so much power. People destroy art when they're threatened by what it can do, what it can symbolize to people. And so it has a certain kind of gravitas.
MS: Yeah. Yeah. Something too that I think is maybe... I'm not sure if it's generally not discussed as much, but certainly I haven't discussed it quite as much is that as a viewer, as an audience member, I feel like I can learn a lot from viewing the art, I can learn about a broader conception of the human condition, I guess, of the human experience. But I think maybe one thing that I don't talk about as much is that the conversation in art can really be two directions, that the artist also gets something and can learn something through that art-making process. And I find that lately I find myself thinking a lot about that. I find it find it a fascinating idea.
JT: Well, I think if you're not getting something from it both personally and also from other people telling you about it or about their experience... I think that's just a huge part of the reward for doing the work. The fact that I'm learning directly how I got to be who I am because of work that I'm doing outside of myself and then it reflects it back to me. I mean, if you look at it, it'll tell you. You thought you were doing it for this reason. Well, really it was for this other reason. So it's just important for artists to look at their own work that way if they want to get that feedback loop. You know, to grow from it. Because that's the other thing from the PIE Labs was [we] came to this equation that your personal growth really is the same thing as your artistic growth. So it's almost saying you can't be a better artist than you are a person or something.
MS: That's an interesting idea. You can't be a better artist than you are a person.
JT: That's been used in the design industry too, where you say you can't be a better designer than you are a person because you bring so much. The more you bring of yourself to something and reveal that, the more truth gets infused into the work.
MS: I think maybe that's a struggle a lot of people have, talking about truth being infused into the work, that people—we're all so good at deceiving ourselves about ourselves. So finding out ways to be honest with yourself even can be... I think that's the real trick of it.
JT: Well, we're all wearing different masks and personas to function in the world and have a smooth sail, I guess, and not be disturbed, but it starts to become who you are if you're not careful. And so, you know, it's important to look under that mask. And sometimes it's just humbling, you know, to realize what it is that you're hiding in a sense. It's just, it's so real. And that's the thing that people really want to see. This is who you really are. I mean, not too many people reveal that to each other and that's what really makes close friends.
MS: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I really think that there is a real relationship that can happen between the artist, the art and the audience. Maybe in the best of cases somebody can see a piece of art and see the truth in it and be inspired to maybe approach themselves or other people or the world in a different way. I don't know if a lot of art achieves quite that, but it does seem like something to aspire to as an artist.
JT: Yeah. Well I don't know about when you view art, but for me it's often that I love to see things that I wish I had done
MS: Oh yeah.
JT: That sort of tells me that I really am connected to that work. Maybe that person has the same attributes I have inside that they're able to express it somehow. And so it makes me want to have done that idea or say that statement or whatever that is. It's sort of easy for me to go into the museum and look at work because I kind of am drawn to things and I know right away that that's something that I want to mark down, pay attention to because it's the same thing as finding things in the world when you're shooting or waiting for the right lay out when you're doing a still life. It's responding to something. Another message.
MS: Yeah. I mean I do feel that having a steady diet of other people's art is really sort of essential to nourishing yourself as an artist in a lot of different ways. I'm not sure if I'm ever... I can never quite decide if I find it more impressive when I see someone else's work and I think "Well, I could just never have done that. I would never have thought of that." Or if it's like "That's exactly what I would've done in that situation too." Like, I don't know which one feels more exciting or which one feels more inspiring, but there's something I think to both of those kinds of experiences.
JT: Yeah. Well, I can like work that I will never do or want to do, but I could still like it. You know, there's still some of that value. But the things that really get me are the ones that I wish I had done. But you know, there is a lot of work that is beautiful and speaks to me. I guess I could stay with that and see what that tells me because it might be something I want to do or is a part of me that hasn't come out yet.
MS: One of the things that, you know, looking at your work and how it's progressed through the years that I find really interesting is I do feel like there's this sort of process of refinement that has happened. Because your work spans a long career, you've been a photographer for like 40 years or something like that?
JT: Fifty. [laughs]
MS: [laughs] But I feel like looking at—the Kimono Series you started in the eighties, right?
MS: Yeah. And so looking at those images that there's this real sense of one project... You said before, the word that you used was "a platform" for growing into the next one.
JT: Yeah, there was actually a lot of experimentation. Some of it was out in the world shooting, some of it was in studio, but very experimental and just looking for how the medium works because I was coming from paint and drawing backgrounds. But once I got to the Kimono Series then it sort of clicked or something, it connected, that that was something that I figured I could kind of stay with this for a while, this idea. But I wasn't consciously knowing that it was trying to be vulnerable and personal. It wasn't that vulnerable, but it was at the time. Just to say I was Japanese and an artist, that really was as harmless as it sounds right now. Because to tell the Internment story is so much more personal than that other one. Just saying I'm Japanese.
MS: Yeah. Well, I guess one of the things that strikes me is looking across these several bodies of work is that, as I said, there's a sort of consistent visual aesthetic. And something that you had talked about in previous interviews was how at the time you—that you later had a realization that all of your work was about integrating this idea of Japanese-ness and American-ness. But that at the time you didn't realize that and it felt just more like you were drawn to a particular aesthetic, that it was more about being drawn to layering, being drawn to texture and that kind of thing. And for me, one of the things that I often find is this sort of tension between... Like I'm consistently drawn to things that look a certain way and that I'm drawn to taking pictures that are beautiful in a certain kind of way that really reflects the sort of beauty aesthetic that I like. But oftentimes my feeling about those pictures is that, you know, these aren't the ones—like I shouldn't be taking pictures like this. I should be taking pictures that are more meaningful or more, you know, not just beautiful. And it's only recently that I've sort of come to this idea of trusting that visual sense, trusting that there's something that is speaking to me about this thing, and I might not understand what it is exactly yet, but that if I just keep following this, maybe it'll go somewhere eventually. I don't know. I feel like there's something about trusting that instinct, you know?
JT: Sure. You're going to follow that because it feels right to you. There's no other reason. You know, it's a funny thing because when I was younger it was a challenge to myself. I kept thinking, "What is it that I want to say with this work?" Because that's the question that, when somebody says, "So, what are you trying to say with your photography?" and you hadn't thought about it, you're kind of taken for a loop. But I don't know. I don't really know how old you are, but there's a certain time when you're not gonna have lived long enough to assimilate all these things and put it together and make a strong, personal, meaningful statement. But you're learning your craft and there's no substitute for learning that craft. Or even trying to say something. Because of all the work that I did up until the Kimono Series, I was trying to say something in all of them, but they weren't personal things. They were things that I thought were interesting to the world, about quantum physics or something, or something that wasn't who I was. I was interested in it, so that was maybe more where I came in. But when I started doing work that included me as a person, then it started to be meaningful. Because I had a story that I could express that—no one else would have that story. And so it definitely has some value in being fresh and... I mean, people don't think that their own story is enough. I think that's just sort of an emotional thing that we have in our culture from school, we're not enough. We're not smart enough, or we don't draw well enough or whatever it is. So it's important to get past that, understand that. Because your story is enough. There's stuff in there that, you know, it's going to be really poignant to other people. And it doesn't sound that interesting because it's you thinking about yourself. But when somebody else comes into contact and if you're communicating it well, it would be quite amazing to them. It's just one of those paradoxes. It's all there, all the time in you. And so my searching for what I wanted to say was already there, but I just didn't know to do that. So that's something that people could learn earlier in their lives that we don't teach that in our educational system.
MS: Yeah. Well, so there's one question that I always like to end with.
MS: And that is if there is a piece of art or literature or creativity of some sort that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.
JT: Well, I'm sure there's a lot of things, but one thing that—I don't know if you're familiar with Brené Brown, she's a social psychologist.
MS: Oh sure. Yeah.
JT: You know, her theories, her ideas are really fundamental to making personal art. I mean, her work would liberate artists in a sense to be who they are, be unafraid of who they are and be able to tell their story in a way that they would be proud of it and be seen for it. She's really touching a nerve, I think, in the culture and I think it's a good one. There are other people doing it, too, there are other business leaders that I know that are kind of in the same realm, but we're so afraid of emotion, because it's unpredictable and dangerous, I guess, to governments. But that's where you live. It's where you feel, and that's what makes you alive are those emotions. Everybody's holding them in check, but there's a lot there. She really does bring that out. So that's just one example of something that I read. And she has a new book, I think it's called Dare to Lead. I just started that one.
MS: Alright. Well thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time and talking with me. I had a good time.
JT: Oh yeah. Thank you.
OK, so as I mentioned at the top of the show, Jerry’s work will be at the Alvarado Gallery in Monterey, California, through February 18th, at the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts in Boone, North Carolina, through April 27th, and then at the Atlanta Photography Group from February 8th through March 16th. There are links to all of those exhibitions in the show notes so do check them out.
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