Sophia Kayafas visits Naomi Okubo, whose work explores patterns and fashion. In her art, the female subject turns away from the viewer, melting into the intricate background. Okubo prepares to move back to Japan, leaving her beloved Greenpoint neighborhood
- [Sophia] There are so many people living in New York
and in many ways we perceive each other visually,
you know, through what we look like
and how we dress, what we're wearing.
But now we have this uniform, right across our faces.
We can't even see each other smiling
and it's got me thinking, you know,
the way we look affects us and it makes a difference.
And I wonder for how long,
we won't be able to see each other truly.
- [Sophia] Hey Naomi.
- [Sophia] Hi. - Hi!
- How are you?
- Oh, nice to meet you.
- Nice to meet you too.
- You are Sophia?
- Yes I'm Sophia.
Thanks for letting me come in here.
- [Naomi] Yeah, of course.
- This is your studio?
- [Naomi] Yeah, it's tiny-
- It's so tiny.
- I usually like, describe this size like a jail.
- Like a jail.
I have to say Naomi,
like, when I was looking at your work online,
your work is graphic.
It's very graphic and it does well on a photograph
but when I see it in person,
there's so much more to appreciate.
- [Naomi] Oh, thank you.
- [Sophia] Have you ever heard,
to see a photograph of a painting is like,
listening to a description of a song.
You don't get the same amount of information.
- Yeah, yeah, definitely, yeah.
- This is really beautiful.
There's so much technical finesse and kind of,
layering and going back and forth between this and that
and you have to have a lot of planning,
before you start right?
- So I usually like collect images
from various media first
and combine together by Photoshop.
So, even before I start painting,
like I make it exactly the same image
as a painting by like digital collage
and then I use projector to project
and then trace and paint by my hand.
So it's like, a mix.
- [Sophia] How do you feel about using the projector
to draw it?
- I can you easily change the color on the laptop
and then like, yeah.
So I do tons of times, like changing the color,
the position and everything on the laptop, so yeah.
- So you have a lot of control in the beginning.
What about that feeling like, when you're,
when you get started and you're saying,
okay when I take a look back at this painting
without looking at my reference, is it working?
Do I have to change this thing or that thing?
When do you let yourself change just from your mind,
if you need to.
- Yeah, sometimes.
When I face to the blank canvas
and then, when I turn on the projector
and then see the image on the canvas,
I feel like, oh my God,
this painting is already done.
Because I can see- - Cause it's in color.
- Oh my goodness.
- It takes a lot of time
but still once I finish one painting,
I feel so good about it
because like, it's like piles of time.
- It's such a subtle kind of nuance that's happening
with my eye and then it's so soothing.
How long does it take you to do this?
This is a big one.
- [Naomi] Yeah, this is a big one.
So, usually it takes like two months.
- Two months? - Yeah.
- [Sophia] What does that look like for you,
two months of time?
You come in here every day, do you have days off,
do you spend the whole day, then you go crazy,
- It's like a long way, yeah it's a long way
but still it's like at the end I feel so good.
Like, I spent this much time for this,
so it's like some kind of attachment
that I have.
So, because I spent time.
- [Sophia] There's like a preciousness that comes with it.
- Yeah, yeah, yeah.
And also, like you said,
like, we can see many images everyday through like,
phones and like, everywhere
but like, I actually like to spend time
Yeah, even, like not only for the painting
but also I like cooking or baking,
so I kind of like to do something time consuming.
- [Sophia] Yeah.
- [Sophia] There's maybe like a kind of meditative...
- Oh, probably, yeah.
- [Sophia] I don't know.
When I'm looking at your work, especially this one,
this has so many patterns.
It makes the composition super visually interesting
and I'm wondering, where do you get these patterns from?
- [Naomi] I took the theme of Wardian Case,
which was developed in industrial era, in London.
I chose many patterns from UK,
kind of mixed in everything.
And also those clothes, I own.
Yeah, I have all those clothes
and then I always kind of make the background first
and then choose which one is good for the environment and...
- [Sophia] How do you decide which pattern,
gets in there and where?
because they're all different but they're all competing.
- Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
- So how do you make those kinds of choices?
- Actually, if I use so much patterns,
I kind of want to make the effects of, like camouflage.
- [Sophia] Okay.
- Because it's kind of a part of my concept.
This person is melting into the background,
which is very intentional
because what I think about the fashion, especially in Japan.
So I was told that I shouldn't be so outstanding.
It's like a, social thing
and if I just paint only this person,
it could be very outstanding
because she's wearing such a bright color dress.
But then if I paint other very bright patterns
on the background, she is kind of going to,
melt into the background.
This kind of conflict between outstanding
or melting into the background,
which is kind of indicating the position
of people in Japan.
- [Sophia] I'm also noticing that these women,
it's usually women.
- [Naomi] Yeah.
- [Sophia] They all are facing the other direction.
- [Naomi] Yeah, yeah.
- [Sophia] Are they you?
- [Naomi] Yeah.
(gentle music continues)
I want to keep the person in anonymous way
but also like, you know,
as like, historically speaking,
like female figures are seen by someone
or consumed by someone,
so I just want to cover the face.
- [Sophia] So you feel like denying the viewer from,
seeing the person's face,
- Yeah, yeah, yeah.
is what draws them in to really think about.
I wonder so many things about her, is she okay?
Is she sad or is she happy?
- Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Yeah, especially also my paintings are sometimes looking,
like a magazine page or like poster or advertisement.
And then usually the people in the advertisement
or magazine are smiling or pretending to be happy
but then like if I covered her face you cannot tell,
she's happy or not.
- [Sophia] I wonder if this person feels connected.
- [Naomi] That's true, yeah.
I don't know, this person is pretty much isolated.
Yeah, because I maybe painted, during the lockdown.
- [Sophia] She looks comfortable, but very alone.
- Yeah, yeah, very alone yeah.
- [Sophia] Almost like this glass house,
is like, a metaphor
for your internal world
that has all of these things happening inside.
- [Naomi] Yeah, or like our society too,
sometimes we can see only the part which is good
or like we can try to solve some problem
but there is another bigger problem outside.
- The anonymity that New York grants me,
I think it's so important.
- That's true.
Yeah, I was from Tokyo,
so I'm with this kind of feeling.
Sometimes I feel like no one knows me
but at the same time when I moved to New York.
So I didn't have so many friends or someone who I know,
which was challenging but also kind of,
I felt some freedom of like, no one knows me,
so it's like- - [Sophia] Yeah, totally.
- Yeah, I can be like a, new me here so...
- [Sophia] What do you like about this area of Greenpoint?
- I feel some kind of village feeling here
because there is a Polish community there
and, like it's part of a big city
but still like, people are feeling connection and-
- [Sophia] It's kind of insular.
- [Naomi] Yeah, yeah, yeah.
- [Sophia] So you're moving back to Japan soon, right?
- [Naomi] Yes.
- [Sophia] What's next for you?
- So, as I talked about, I was born in Tokyo
but I'm, I always loved to be in nature,
so I like to go to camp and fishing
or I also do scuba diving as well.
Yeah, so I'm very active actually, so-
- Oh, wow.
- Yeah, and then I was dreaming about,
to live in countryside, especially next to the ocean.
So, and then like during the lockdown,
I was like,
I was, I could have time to think about,
what I really want to do, especially for now.
And then that was my like,
kind of future dream
but then like, I was more like, why not?
Why not now?
Like, probably I can do it, I can live there.
And then because we cannot predict,
the future anymore,
so I mean like, if I have a plan
that I want to do and then like I just want to do now.
So that's the reason why,
I was pushed towards, different,
like that new step to the future so...
- But you're going to keep painting, right?
- Yes of course.
- That's good.
- Being artist is very interesting
and somehow special
because I can actually walk everywhere in the world.
- [Sophia] New York offers us anonymity.
It's a chance to redefine ourselves,
without the burden of our background
or the culture we came from.
I was sad to hear Naomi is leaving.
One pattern I see living here is that,
people come and people go, it's a revolving door.
And I know my time to leave New York will come one day too
but I'll always carry a part of this city with me,
along with everything it's taught me.
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