BIO - Jewel Kawataki
I'm an origami artist, paper jewelry designer, and photographer based in NYC. I founded the Japanese paper jewelry company, *Paper*Crane*Heart*, in 2010. Having been raised bi-culturally, in both Japan and the US, I find myself combining my passion for a very traditional Japanese art form with the crazy, bright color palettes I grew up loving in the 80's and 90's in the US.
I was born in Japan, but after spending a number of years in the United States when I was very young, my mother and I returned to her hometown of Matsuyama when I was still in elementary school. Matsuyama, located in southern Japan, is on the island of Shikoku, which is the smallest of the four main islands. Although Matsuyama is the capital of Ehime Prefecture, the bullet train does not run to the island of Shikoku, and there is a sense of disconnectedness from it and the rest of Japan. There was no substantial international community in Matsuyama when I was growing up, such as there was in Tokyo or other large cities. I was called a “kikokushijo” - a Japanese expatriate who had been educated overseas. I struggled to fit into the culture, re-learn the language, and assimilate with my peers. I was very obviously an outsider, and bullying became such a problem - from both students and teachers - that I nearly dropped out of school. Eventually, I transferred to an international high school in Kobe, Japan, before returning to the US for university.
As a young adult, I resolved to leave Japan and never return, because of my negative experiences there as a child. I became a reluctant nomad, living in several cities in the US, Mexico, and Australia. I obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature from UCLA and a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics from Teachers College at Columbia University - imagining that I would always be a teacher, as my parents were. But even after slogging through two college degrees, and years of teaching ESL and Japanese, I realized that something wasn’t clicking and I wasn’t living the life I was meant to live.
I had never done particularly well in art classes, but I had developed an interest in crafts at a young age. Perhaps it was genetic - although my immediate family did not have any crafters, many of extended family members were heavily into arts and crafts. My maternal grandmother, Makie, was a “shodouka” - a Japanese calligrapher so dedicated to her craft, she insisted that after death, she be placed in her casket with her hands gripping her favorite brush (her wish was granted.) At some point, my grandmother had made brushes from each and every one of her grandchildren’s hair. She claimed that the brush made from my hair was the softest. It was a bit creepy, I suppose - but it made me feel special. Makie’s husband, my grandfather Mitsuru, was so adept at “pen shuuji” - pen calligraphy - that he successfully avoided military service during WWII because he was instead summoned to write down the names of the deceased with his beautiful handwriting. My maternal grandmother, Kyoko, was born in North Korea during Japan’s occupation of Korea. She was so skilled at sewing, she became a dressmaking teacher at the age of nineteen. After the war, when she and my grandfather returned to Japan with nothing, she eventually began saving some pocket money when she bought herself a little sewing machine and started fixing clothes for others.
I had assumed that I would go into academia, but a weeklong trip to visit a friend living in Oaxaca, Mexico, changed all of that. I was in college at the time, and terribly frustrated with the endless essay-writing and test-taking drudgery. My time in Oaxaca was like a smack in the face - a huge eye-opener. I was struck by the vibrant colors and endless handicrafts of Oaxaca, and I vowed to go back some day and live there. Years later, I was able to achieve this dream. Although it was the poorest state in Mexico, I was astounded by the Oaxacan artisans’ ways of creating beautiful art and jewelry from items found in nature such as coconut shells, corn husks, radishes — whatever they could get their hands on. I volunteered for several months teaching ESL at a men’s prison in a town outside of Oaxaca City, where many of the prisoners made their living from inside the walls of the prison by creating crafts. The prisoners painted pictures, wove hammocks, and carved elaborate wooden headboards for beds. Buyers from retail shops within the region would come into the prison to purchase items from the prisoners. When my time volunteering was over, the prisoners gifted me with the most stunning handmade presents - a tiny handcrafted ship in a lightbulb with the name of the prison written on it, a bracelet made by string that was knotted in rainbow colors to form my name in Spanish. These handmade treasures became some of my most cherished possessions. Being that Oaxaca was filled with as much poverty that it was, it wasn’t right to romanticize the plights of its citizens. Crafting wasn’t a hobby so much as it was a necessity - it was their livelihoods, their way of putting food on the table. But still…it was inspiring for me, because until then, I hadn’t realized that it was possible to truly make a living from crafts. I realized that I, too, wanted to make a living some day as an artisan.
I tried my hand at several types of arts and crafts - sewing, beading, pastels, crocheting - before I discovered paper art. One day, as I waited to meet up with a friend at the Osaka train station, I stumbled upon a bookstore that sold washi - Japanese paper. I had always loved Japanese patterns and textiles, and I was tickled by the idea of transforming these traditional patterns into something completely different. I started off by decoupaging washi onto wooden bracelets. I began my company, *Paper*Crane*Heart*, in 2010 in Melbourne, Australia, selling my Japanese paper bracelets and paper crane strands at Rose Street Market. In the beginning, when I was waitressing and teaching and struggling to raise money for materials, I took a page out of the Oaxacan artisans’ handbook and tried to make jewelry from whatever I could get my hands on for free. When I couldn’t afford washi, I made jewelry by gluing together scraps of old magazine. When I couldn’t afford wood, I glued paper onto toilet paper rolls. At one point, I was living in an all-girls longterm hostel in Australia (the lovely Hillside Court, in Richmond, Melbourne), where the wonderful owner, Glenn, would deliver giant bags of empty toilet paper rolls to me on a weekly basis. Everyone around me thought I was nuts, but they all pitched in. A friend of mine phoned me once, right before she threw out her trash, to say “I’m looking at the rubbish and thinking of you - do you think there’s anything you need for your art?” I was drowning in bags of toilet paper rolls and endless scraps of paper and magazine - I was literally living in trash - but I’d never felt so fulfilled.
Eventually, I settled in New York City and found funding for my business. My line expanded to Japanese paper-resin earrings and necklaces. I love NYC because it’s a city where it’s okay to be an outsider - it is in fact, it’s encouraged - and artists have so many opportunities for exposure and growth. I now sell online, and at street fairs and markets in NYC and throughout the US. I return to Japan occasionally to visit and purchase washi, and also to marvel at how much the country’s changed in recent years. There are more foreigners living and working there than I’ve ever seen, and it’s amazing to see how it’s slowly but visibly become more diverse and accepting towards outsiders. My hope is that this will continue to be an upward trend.
It’s funny - after so many years of rejecting my Japanese-ness due to my negative experiences as a youngster, I’ve found my calling in something that is so traditionally Japanese. Some years ago, I also developed an interest in origami and kimono - two other very traditionally Japanese forms of art - which I enjoy photographing. I feel that dedicating my life to these Japanese art forms - and putting my own Western-inspired/Mexican-inspired, modern twists on them - has provided me with a daily therapy to come to peace with my past, and my relationship with a very multi-layered, complicated culture and country.
Currently, my two greatest passions are origami and hot yoga. One of my goals as an origami artist is to help dispel the myth that origami is only about paper cranes, or that it's an activity reserved solely for children. I believe that origami is versatile, timeless, and universal, and that it can be incredibly therapeutic for children and adults alike. As a hot yoga enthusiast, I am particularly passionate about spreading the word of yoga to those in who struggle with very physically taxing jobs such as myself. Artists, musicians, massage therapists, bartenders, salespeople, servers, baristas, flight attendants - I believe that yoga is especially beneficial for those who place repetitive strains on their bodies due to their professions. I strongly believe that yoga works wonders for the mind, as well - from those suffering from anxiety and depression.
My jewelry is available for sale online here.