Yasue Sakaoka
  • Numerous OAC grants and fellowships, including 7 Traditional Arts Apprenticeships
  • Ohio Heritage Fellow, 2007
  • Ohioana Citation for Art, 2006

Growing up in Japan, Yasue Sakaoka was taught a number of traditional arts as part of her cultural education. Her mother, who was junior-college educated, did not work outside the home after marriage, and devoted her time to teaching young Yasue the arts she had learned, both as part of her formal education and from her own cultural upbringing. Arts and crafts were a requirement within the education system, and amongst the singing, dancing and general art skills taught to Yasue was origami, the traditional art of Japanese paper folding. Origami is taught to help young people develop their manual dexterity, and is also considered a social activity in traditional Japanese culture. Sakaoka does not speak about a time during these childhood years when she had an epiphany about her love of origami and became determined to master it. Instead, she talks of attending a Christian school during her childhood in Japan (her grandfather was a Christian minister) and learning the values of Japanese culture, including the clear message about the significance of arts and a cultural education. Sakaoka graduated from Aoyama Gakuin University (1953)in Tokyo and then came to the United States, attending Reed College and graduating with a major in Art and minor in Social Sciences (1959).

Though a resident of the Columbus, Ohio area, Sakaoka is known throughout the state of Ohio, especially in the Dayton area, where she was a visiting artist atStivers School of the Arts (1986-2006) and also has exhibited her work in several venues. Those exhibits in Dayton and elsewhere throughout Ohio have been either solo or as a member of a group of artists, sometimes in concert with the artists she has taught through the Ohio Arts Council’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship. In addition to her recognition and involvement in the arts throughout Ohio, Sakaoka has exhibited and taught in and around the United States.

It was on a return trip to Japan in the late 1970s that Sakaoka saw a display in a department store in downtown Tokyo that drew her back to the traditional art of origami. She has since worked with this traditional Japanese art form, using her knowledge and experience as a fine artist to bring the not-so-simple art of paper folding to new audiences and new media. Not long after this visit to Japan, Sakaoka did a large-scale origami installation at the Ohio University Library in Athens. From this time on, Sakaoka has been working with origami or origami-derived shapes and expressions in her work. Her training and study as a fine artist has influenced her interpretations of the work; however, at the heart of her work lies an acknowledgement of the form and culture that she has embraced and maintained.

Sakaoka thinks of herself as an American and uses the shapes and ideas of origami as a base for the creative work she does. A few of her installations echo the Japanese legend of the Thousand Cranes, which she says ensures safe travel. Other versions of the legend suggest the cranes provide good luck, happiness, prosperity, or even grant a wish. The folded cranes are often arranged in hanging streamers each composed of forty cranes. Hanging pieces reminiscent of this dramatic, colorful traditional origami figure arrangement can be seen throughout Sakaoka’s career. However, one way in which her work differs from traditional origami is in its use of color. Like the thousand cranes, traditional origami uses colored paper whereas Sakaoka’s work often is in white. She sometimes chooses white because there is “less confusion visually”; often her larger works are in white and the small in color. (White paper is more accessible in big rolls for large projects.) Another traditional layer of the use of color in her work is seen in her consideration of the cultural significance of colors: white on red is for good occasions, white on black is for bad. These selections may be conscious and considered, yet at times, she believes her cultural background comes out in unconscious ways. Sakaoka’s study of architecture has also brought a different dimension to her vision of origami. The opportunity to work with huge, open spaces fascinates her. Designing an installation to fill a space, even building large works of permanent durable materials, intrigues her.

As important to Sakaoka as her work as an artist is, she believes communicating with people, sharing her art with both old and young, is equally so. In addition to her work with Stivers School of the Arts in Dayton, Sakaoka has been actively involved with arts and education through the OAC’s Artists in Schools program. Sakaoka also frequently participates in community arts programming, not related to school programming. Workshops and activities range “Paper Kimonos for Kids” (at the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio in Lancaster) to making holiday decorations with origami, and even family kite-making workshops. These accessible workshops are just some of the ways she shares the traditional art of paper-folding with a multicultural, multi-generational audience. Her connection with the community serves as proof that she believes art and culture are important to life. In this sense, it is not simply Sakaoka’s artwork that speaks to her ideas of culture and tradition, it is the value, learned in her native Japan, she places on cultural education as a intrinsic element of society and community. Various awards and activities Sakaoka has received illustrate the breadth of her commitment to the arts and broader cultural issues. For example, she received the “Asian Affairs Service Award” from the Ohio State University Office of Minority Affairs (1994), was a member of the OAC Minority Affairs Advisory Committee, and assists with Japanese-oriented community programs. Sakaoka has also curated or consulted on a number of Japanese and Asian exhibits and cultural events, including planning for the Asian festival in Columbus.

Yasue Sakaoka believes in the value of sharing Japanese culture and art within the Japanese-American community and believes equally strongly that the art and culture of Japan and the art of origami are to be shared with people of all cultural backgrounds. Though she is devoted to her own Asian culture study (she is now studying Chinese culture) and teaching, Sakaoka identifies herself as an American and believes that whoever has the desire to learn how to create origami and learn about the culture surrounding it should have that opportunity. Through OAC’s Traditional Arts Apprenticeship program, Sakaoka has been a master teacher of origami to seven apprentices and continues to work and exhibit regularly with several of those students who are excited about working with Sakaoka to advance awareness of origami and to create innovative artwork with it. Former apprentices Kaye Boiarski and Paula Ramey continue to work with Sakaoka and exhibit with her, sometimes with a third former apprentice, Neysa Felker. Each woman has a distinctive style or focus in her work. Ramey’s work shows her fascination with the German bell shape, and Boiarski’s relies on natural forms. As Sakaoka does in her own work, each of these artists uses origami as a jumping-off point, drawing in her own interests and artistic influences to innovate on the traditional form.

In all the work Yasue Sakaoka does, through her art or through community-service, her commitment to her community, whether Asian-American culture-based or the underprivileged youth in her neighborhood, is apparent. She believes it is “important to connect with community.” As a member of a community, she is excited by other artists and their creativity. Through her artistic energy and creativity, she shares the traditional art and values of her culture.

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