Shoichi and Colleen Sakurai have a keen eye for beauty lurking in the outmoded and old, things they can rework and incorporate into their unique illuminated sculptures. Together they reimagine found objects and manipulate them to create witty, imaginative works of art.
Much of the Sakurais’ work incorporates parts of old Japanese farm buildings and tools, many of them no longer used and destined for the trash heap, having been replaced by more convenient and efficient power tools and other modern devices.
“These are more than just artifacts,- Shoichi said of the found objects that form the bulk of their work. “They have a beauty all their own that comes from their design having evolved over the years, and from the objects aging being handled thousands of times.-
Sometimes it takes a second or third look – and a gestalt shift in the viewer’s brain – to make the jump between an object’s former incarnation as, say, a mallet head, and its new incarnation as a lamp.
When this happens, the artists have succeeded in bestowing on the object a new function, as a component of an elegant work of art.
Another distinctive feature of their work is Colleen’s unique techniques of manipulating traditional washi (Japanese paper). Many of the sculptures incorporate pleated washi, which Colleen creates by alternately soaking and squeezing the paper into shape, a process that can take hours for a single work. All the effort is worth it, though, as it imparts a liquid, crumpled look that seems almost molten when lit from within, as most of their pieces are.
She also dyes the washi with coffee, tea and saffron, and uses a resin varnish of her own devising (her “secret sauce-) to draw translucent whorls and simple pictures on it, designs that recall traditional Japanese and Western folk art. This, and a subtle source of internal or backlighting, can transform, for example, a masu rice-measuring box into a work of delicate beauty.
One piece, “Furui- (Sifter), consists of a round sifter box (used on farms for sifting rice and other grains), decorated with a lock faceplate and key from a kura, or traditional warehouse. These mundane objects, artfully arranged on the sifter, with a backing of Colleen’s washi and backlit with a warm light, have an otherworldly quality. When this particular piece is lit up, it takes on an ethereal air, like it’s glowing hot and you’re gazing into an inferno. A key consideration for the artists is the aesthetic concept of wabisabi, in which the beauty of an object derives from or is enhanced by some flaw in it. The aesthetic is sometimes described as appreciating beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete, and promotes acceptance of the transience of all things.
“These old farm implements are all naturally ヤflawed’, in a sense, simply from being old and having been manipulated by many hands over the years,- Shoichi said. “They’re beautiful, but they were all about to be tossed out, and all this functional beauty would have been lost. By incorporating them into a work of art, I can give them new life, as well as show off their ヤfound’ beauty.-
Function, especially an object’s history of long, hard, honest use, is integral to the couple’s artistic vision. “People are so obsessed with the new,- Shoichi said. “Nothing is expected to last. Something gets a little worn out or falls out of fashion, and we just toss it out.-
“Things don’t get a chance to get used like this,- he mused as he ran his hand along a tabletop made from a kura door whose slats were almost worn through by generations of busy hands opening and closing it.
An especially striking piece, “Kobiki,- is a wall-hanging consisting of a huge old Japanese-style wood saw pierced by a ragged hole whose sides fold open to reveal glowing, illuminated washi, looking for all the world as if it’s too hot to touch. The washi glows like molten metal, and it seems like the saw is recalling its birth in the forge.
One series they did is especially intriguing – incorporating strange tendrils, thin, black, twisted and tortured. On first look, they’re baffling, looking like… squid-ink pasta? Burnt bifun noodles? Painted and manipulated coat hangers? Most people are astonished to learn that they’re the steel cords from blown-out truck tires that the forge.

They made a series of sculptures incorporating them, in which Colleen’s washi and Shoichi’s calligraphy of proverbs and “good luck words- provide both a nice balance and an additional level of meaning by the gnarled tire cords, which have been transformed from eyesores by the side of a road into poignant and idiosyncratic works of art.
Living in the Hayama area (close to the emperor’s summer house) is a definite advantage for a found-object artist. The ancient city is chock full of historical buildings, and on the rare occasion when one is knocked down (a lot of them are protected heritage buildings), Shoichi, who has an extensive network of connections in the area, hears about it and goes off in search of found treasures.
Before becoming an artist, Shoichi worked as a musician, playing standup bass in a rockabilly band and street dancing in a group that predated the famous “takenoko kids- that used to perform on Meiji Dori near Yoyogi Park. He later started a number of ventures that used both his design and business sensibilities in clothing, interior design and nightclub management.
Colleen, who hails from southern California, is a musician too, a jazz singer who traveled the world and came to Tokyo to perform and pursue her love of Japanese art, especially washi. The two met by chance in a bar that Shoichi was managing at the time in Ebisu and the rest, as they say, is history. They traveled extensively in Asia, then settled in the small beach town of Akiya, on the outskirts of Zushi, not far from Kamakura.
The 100-year-old temple building where the Sakurais live with their 11-year-old son fits their aesthetic perfectly. When they found the place, it was a broken-down wreck, the floors caved in, and held together in many places – literally – with duct tape.
They renovated the building into a residence, gallery, workshop and studio, and, despite pressure from the temple trustees, who want to expand their cemetery, they’ve lived there ever since.
The art world has been taking notice of the Sakurais’ work. In the last few years they have had exhibitions in Tokyo, Los Angeles and London, and have sold their work to art collectors all over the world.
Recently Shoichi was commissioned by the Japanese unit of Italian firm Delonghi, a maker of home electronics, oil heaters, coffee makers and such, to create two large sculptures illustrating the company’s commitment to recycling, and using shredded and squashed Delonghi metal appliance parts. The sculpture is scheduled for unveiling in mid-July.

Story by Robert Cameron
From J SELECT Magazine, June 2007