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Making the Ephemeral Timeless

Artist Rui Sasaki working at Bullseye Glass’s Research and Education Studio. Photo by Hanmi Meyer.

Japan Institute’s first Artist-in-Residence prepares for her exhibition at Portland Japanese Garden in March

In the balmy days of summer’s end, artist Rui Sasaki strode Portland Japanese Garden with gardeners and a garbage can in tow. Stuffed with plant trimmings, the can’s contents might have otherwise been left for a compost pile. Now, the needles from a mugo pine, limbs of a dancing peacock maple, leaves of a sword fern, and more, will live on to tell a new story through fired glass. If there is anyone who can use glass to transform the ephemeral into the timeless, it is Rui Sasaki, Japan Institute’s first Artist-in-Residence.

Earlier this year, the Japan Institute of Portland Japanese Garden announced that the internationally-acclaimed Sasaki had been selected as the organization’s very first Artist-in-Residence. Over two separate journeys east from her homebase of Kanazawa, Japan, Sasaki will be collecting Portland Japanese Garden’s plant life for a 2023 exhibition – Subtle Intimacy: Here and There on show from March 18 through June 12, 2023.

Artist Rui Sasaki working at Bullseye Glass’s Research and Education Studio. Photo by Quincy Woo.

How is the art created? Sasaki places the plant cuttings between panes of glass and then fires it in a kiln at an impossibly hot 1490°F. The leaves, roots, and stems burn, but an impression is left almost like a fossil in stone. “I call it portable intimacy,” says Sasaki. “It is so important to bring back any memories or intimacy from wherever I travel. I always bring physical objects back home, but I can’t bring back plants [to Japan]. I want to make something out of glass and bring it back home so I can always have something from Portland.”

Rui Sasaki’s journey to Portland began near New York’s Finger Lakes. In 2018, Sasaki was awarded the 33rd Rakow Commission ahead of her piece, Liquid Sunshine/I am a Pluviophile, being featured at the Corning Museum of Glass. This stunning work, which led to the New York Times calling Sasaki “expert at activating her installations,” captured the attention of Bullseye Glass Company’s Lani McGregor and Dan Schwoerer. The pair would connect Sasaki with Portland Japanese Garden’s leadership and a relationship quickly blossomed.  

Artist Rui Sasaki working at Bullseye Glass’s Research and Education Studio. She is using plant life she took from Portland Japanese Garden. Photo by Quincy Woo.

Sasaki had initially been scheduled to participate in a residency for Portland Japanese Garden in September of 2020. However, when the global pandemic took root in spring of that year, the residency and exhibition were shelved. In 2021, as the world began to re-emerge, a new opportunity presented itself for both the organization and Sasaki in the form of the Japan Institute. 

Japan Institute, established in 2022 as a sibling organization of Portland Japanese Garden, includes a Global Center for Culture and Art among its three programming centers. A key feature of this center is an artist-in-residency program. When the Garden’s Arlene Schnitzer Curator of Culture, Art, & Education, Aki Nakanishi, offered Sasaki the opportunity to be the Japan Institute’s first artist-in-residence, she was surprised. “It’s such an honor to be the first artist-in-residence,” Sasaki shared. “When I heard it from Aki I asked, ‘What? Are you sure it’s okay? Making me the first person?’”

Rui Sasaki taking notes on the plant life during her previous visit to Portland Japanese Garden in 2022.

Sasaki’s captivating work belies her humility. It also exemplifies her interest and curiosity in the natural world around her. Japan Institute’s vision of creating deliberate connections between nature and art was appealing to Sasaki. “[Aki] said the Japan Institute will have a training center for gardeners and facilities for artists so culture, nature, and art can mix together,” Sasaki recalled. “It’s a great idea—everything should be connected together. No other institute has that kind of system, it’s a fantastic idea…I like to collaborate with more than just artists. People in different professions give me so much inspiration, and a different perspective.”

Sasaki has taken full advantage of the opportunity to work alongside people outside the world of glass art, including Hugo Torii, Garden Curator of Portland Japanese Garden, and his gardening department. Her gathering of garden flora is more than a means to an end, it’s something Sasaki describes as “medication.” “I lived in the United States for five years,” Sasaki shared. “After I came back to Japan, I got reverse culture shock. My sense of place was different. I felt I lost my home. I started to collect plants to recover my five senses.” 

Back in Portland for the second part of her residency, Sasaki will enjoy her garden strolls and time in the United States, a nation she describes as a second home. She is looking forward to trips to Cannon Beach on Oregon’s coast, hikes in the wilder areas beyond Portland’s city limits, and donuts. “There are so many donut shops here!” she laughed. “Donuts are not big in Japanese culture. When I was living in New England, there were so many donut shops. I know donuts are big here. I want to explore donut shops!”