“As Sarah Brayer welcomed us into a dark room with glowing images dancing before us,” recalls Santa Fe artist Gail Rieke of a recent visit to Kyoto, “I saw elusive dream images of light emanating from the darkness. I experienced entering a cosmological vastness beyond space and time. It was truly a moment of awe.”
Thirty years ago, fresh out of art school, Sarah Brayer set off from her native Rochester, N.Y., on a travel adventure with “wanderlust, a backpack, and a one-way plane ticket in hand.” But it was her fascination with "the design and color gradations of Japanese prints,” and the stark elegance of Raku-style ceramics that steered her to Japan. What started as an intention to spend one year in Kyoto developed into a rich, life-long journey through the realm of washi, Japanese handmade mulberry and daphne fiber paper.
It was the soft texture and edges of washi that first drew Sarah’s interest to the medium. Then, while visiting paper studio Dieu Donne in New York’s Soho district, she had an enlightening thought: “Why make plain sheets [of washi paper] when I could 'paint' with pulp and create images?'" The answer to her question would eventually define her career course for the next three decades.
After getting some paper-making experience at Dieu Donne, Sarah returned to Japan and searched for a place to experiment with poured paper images. Her search led her to Imadate, an 800-year old traditional paper-making center in Fukui, west of Kyoto. “I've been working at Dieu Donne and Taki Paper [a small washi fusuma production studio] in Imadate ever since."
Prior to washi, Brayer worked primarily in printmaking, including a successful series of bath-related prints. Washi allowed her to greatly expand the size of her works. "One-by- two-meter sheets are standard [for fusuma doors], so I did some life-size flying nudes, which expressed the joy I felt in trying a new medium. From there I moved into landscape."
Sarah has many techniques she developed in response to what she wanted to express in the medium. She took good advantage of the fact that washi lends itself well to layering. This allowed her to create images that added depth and subtlety to washi’s already beautiful surface texture. The result was works made entirely of daphne and mulberry fibers with the feel of paintings.
After mastering the multi-layering of numerous separately created layers, the always self-challenging artist pushed this process to create “more-abstract imagery,…using the medium for 'action painting.'" Prepared with four or five large vats of different colored pigmented pulp, she began each work by creating a base sheet upon which successive layers would be laid. "I would then take the energy of whatever arose creatively [inside of me] at that moment — maybe an upward stroke — and pour in perhaps the red pulp, then tip the screen, pour over it, and jostle it around until an image emerged from the combination of movement and intent."
In her work, Sarah honors the natural properties of washi that make this medium so special: the texture, feathery edges and the freedom it allows to combine even strong contrasting colors on separate layers that are combined together into one coherent piece. Dealing with the actual weight of the pulp presents challenges when trying to control the outcome, so she often has two or three helpers who assist her in manipulating the screens. The pouring she does herself. Another difficultly Sarah faces comes from the fact that the color of the pulp changes after it dries, so it takes much experience to predict the finished shade, so that the dry finished work turns out the way she had intended.
A major point in her career came when she set up a studio in what had been an obi weaving workshop (1988). Then, later that year, she produced her first solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in Shiga Prefecture.
Sarah’s early work was more representational than her current, abstract works. The cityscape of Kyoto has long been one of her familiar themes as has bathhouse nudes and small children with umbrellas. Throughout her career, Sarah has always been very much moved by light and how it affects the subtly of what we see. Her evolution into the abstract may have resulted from her ardent meditation practice. So, beyond being inspired by the visual work, she now describes her process as working “more from a kind of inner vocabulary that I’ve developed over many years of looking at my surroundings. The pace of the work and rhythm [with washi] allow me to work in a stream of consciousness. The images are literally ‘pouring out,’ and I am not always conscious of where they are coming from."
Sarah’s most recent passion is her Luminosity series, where she infuses the washi pulp with photo-luminescent pigments before pouring the layers that combine to form a work. When these images are exposed to light, the pigments react with a sustained glow, lasting for several hours. The work, then, appears very different in a well lit room than in a darkened room. Sarah has been showing this new series at evening events, and the reaction to this unique concept has been very enthusiastic. Her largest luminescent piece, Oceanic Moon has been collected by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University, and will be exhibited for the first time in 2013.
When asked what is next in Sarah’s creative plans, the artist pauses, smiles and quietly answers, “I look forward to further adventures in the unknown. I envision putting together a luminescent tea house someday, or creating a phosphorescent installation in a sacred space, somewhere in Asia. Maybe at a Bhutanese Zhong (temple)?”