Fire, soot and Sanskrit: Interview with Japanese artist Etsuko Ichikawa
by Lisa Pollman
US-based visual artist Etsuko Ichikawa combines soot and Sanskrit in a new series, “Aquagraph”.
We sat down with the emerging Japanese artist Etsuko Ichikawa to find out more about her latest series. What led her to experiment with a new medium? Why has she used Sanskrit in her work? You can find answers to these questions and more in our interview below.
Do you feel a connection to Japan and the Japanese art scene?
Absolutely. I love the country and that’s my home. Also, because I am here in the United States and next year  is going to be my twentieth year [abroad], I recognise my identity as Japanese more than ever because I am outside. I don’t live in Japan and look at my identity from far away. [This] really emphasises who I am and where I am from. In regards to the art scene in Japan, we have limited information here. It’s my country and I would love to learn more about what’s going on. I have friends from art school who still live there, trying to survive as artists. Most of them quit or went to teaching careers, architecture and design. I’d love to learn more about the Japanese art movement, but I don’t really feel any movement or nothing grabs my eye. I get easily distracted by other art movements here and [in] Europe. I am currently interested in China.
Please explain how your experience living in two cultures are ‘defining influences’ in regards to your artwork.
Part of me is becoming non-Japanese and Americanised, or more universal. It’s like a magnet: one side is pulling me out away from Japan and the other is attracting me back to Japan. [I am] basically seeing both ends and then they are melting together in my daily life, as well as what I create. I am defining those influences from the two opposite ends. I know that what I am seeing and what I am feeling are naturally coming into my work.
Why did you choose to settle in Seattle?
I was studying glass blowing in Japan. One of my friends had a Pilchuck Glass School catalogue. I looked at the catalogue and that was it. I thought, ‘What kind of place is this?’ [It was] so different from the glass schools I had seen in Japan, [a] totally different way of working. I could feel the energy [coming] from the catalogue. So beautiful; I wanted to go there. That was the interesting connection that brought me to the United States.
The ‘Aquagraph’ series seems like a departure from your ‘Glass Pyrograph’ series. Could you briefly explain what lead you to work with soot and water instead of the glass pyrographs?
I don’t see ‘Aquagraphs’ as a departure but more like a parallel. The series are like brother and sister, shadow and light, water and fire. The glass pyrographs have become a body of my work and I feel very grateful. I see [the] aquagraphs becoming a new series that I will be working on long into the future.
Psychologically, I see ‘Aquagraphs’ as a way to keep balance in my art practice. When I work with the glass pyrographs, I never get bored and it’s never the same. However, it does require that I utilise a glass studio and because of this, it is an intense environment where I strive to be productive. With the aquagraphs, I can be spontaneous in my home studio and freely produce work by hand through a craftsmanship-like process.
Please explain the process of creation for ‘Aquagraphs’.
First, I draw the Sanskrit letters in water with a glass dropper on paper. Basically, at that point, it is an invisible drawing. You see the light reflecting on the water [beads], but nothing [is] there. Usually, I flip the paper over and use a small candle similar to a birthday candle. I aim the flame at the paper and the soot basically makes a drawing on the paper. I use smoke as a drawing tool, similar to how I use hot glass in my glass pyrographs.
What is your interest in Sanskrit and how does it inspire your aquagraphs?
Something really clicked when I [first] looked at Sanskrit. I am just so in love visually with the look of Sanskrit. It’s the old, ancient feeling that I am attracted to.
You have described your work as ‘a continuing investigation of what lies between the ephemeral and the eternal’. Do you consider your aquagraphs ephemeral?
‘Aquagraph’ is between [those two aspects]. Two unexpected materials come together: fire and paper, water and paper. Using water to draw [with] is unexpected, as it is invisible. Fire is ever changing, will never be the same. These two things come together and then materialise. When they meet, they are eternalised and it will stay.
Do you have any large scale or mixed media installations planned for your ‘Aquagraph’ series?
Yes, I am working towards making a large scroll. I use 300 weight paper, Lanaquarelle French-milled paper. Lanaquarelle means ‘water colour’ in French.
You have used a diverse range of media and techniques in your artwork. Is there any specific media or technique you would like to try in the future?
I am working on a project with sound and I am really interested in doing more. [It] could be a project, could be just sound itself. Another project I am researching will be in a decommissioned nuclear plant tower in eastern Washington, doing something with sound inside that structure. In addition, I am doing a residency at [Mighty] Tieton, in an old apple storage warehouse, doing a project with sound reverberation and objects.