Occupying Multiple Scales at Once: An Interview with Hiro Sakaguchi

I am fascinated by varying scales of reference, especially when one has to negotiate multiple scales over the course of a single day. Hiro Sakaguchi works as an art handler, a professor, and an artist. As an art handler in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he negotiates the canon of art history within a massive, authoritative building. He spends most of his time in the basement. He also teaches where, respective to his students, he necessarily affords greater authority. He is at the front of the class, creating assignments and offering knowledge. He is also an active member of the Philadelphia art community, where (I would argue) he is among peers. If this were a movie, the camera angle would begin over his head during a working day. The camera (the eye of the museum) looks down on him. Perhaps, to make it feel less creepy, you could imagine a smiling, benevolent lens. The camera follows Hiro from the museum (passing by the Rocky statue) to his class. Over the course of that journey, the camera angle shifts and by the time he begins to teach, the camera is seated, below his eye level. At the end of the class, the camera follows him to dinner, or an opening. There it is at everyone’s eye level. Yes. Imagine everyone in the room is exactly the same height. Everyone is laughing, chatting, and it’s difficult to parse any one conversation from the din. Overall there is an impression of camaraderie. Lastly, we follow Hiro to his studio. Maybe it is just beginning to snow.

I have seen his studio: located in the heart of Philadelphia’s Chinatown, I hiked several flights of stairs before arriving on a dusty, dark landing. Temporary walls divided the space into smaller, padlocked studios belonging to others. There was a lasting after-smell of incense. Many things were wrapped in plastic, and I remember feeling as if I had entered a labyrinth. No one else was there, except Hiro, of course. Behind Hiro’s door, there lies a ping pong table, a cot, and several canvases. There are other materials as well, but I don’t remember those precisely, only that they were there. Some paintings are in progress, others are complete. I’m still not sure where the camera is, but I notice variant scales in his paintings also. Bears eat airplanes like trout while people watch on the side like plastic figurines. Hiro is playful in his work. The ranging scales seem pleasant rather than confounding. Why would they be confounding? you might ask. Because one’s sense of one’s own size would constantly shift relative to that variant context. I asked Hiro what he considered home. He answered, “I do not consider myself a Japanese artist.  I am an artist based in Philadelphia but I think I may be somewhat more global at the same time.” Hearing him say this, I recognized his frame of reference was even greater than I’d given him credit. His variant scale is not simply about his life in this old American city, but also about his relationship to a cultural past. In everything, he is his own center.

Hiro Sakaguchi, "Chrysanthemum Delivery," 2009. Graphite, ink, and gesso on panel, 18" x 24".

Caroline Picard: Would you say there was a turning point in your career, a moment when you felt especially validated as an artist?

Hiro Sakaguchi: Turning point….It is hard to say when or what changed my artist’s career, but one memorable one was when I was chosen for 2004 Fleisher Challenge exhibition at Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia after I applied 9 times.

I wanted to be a painter since I was 11 years old when I saw Japanese painter Yuzo Saeki’s retrospective at the Tokyo National Modern Museum. I called myself an artist after graduating art school, even though I did not have any exhibition records. No one bought my work yet. I guess by calling myself an artist, I was encouraging myself to be one.

Hiro Sakaguchi, "Crossing Ocean," 2010. Oil on panel, 18" x 24".

CP: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your work…like, how do you think about scale? How do you think about structure in the composition of your work? Maybe, too, about the interplay between graphite and color?

HS: I never think too much about scale. I usually start my idea from a small thumbnail sketch.  Then I make the big drawing after research (some work requires more solid reference than my imagination). Sometimes a work stays as a drawing and sometimes I make paintings after drawings. Some stories are better told quietly and intimately. Some need to be told loudly. Some stories or ideas need to be bigger in order to overwhelm a viewer’s sense. Also my financial ability and physical space limit [impact] size as well.

My compositions change a lot when I draw. I erase many times before finalizing the  composition in my drawing. I try best to compose according to what I intend to say.  It is some kind of sense of balance.  Composition changes by the expression as well. I hope I gain some kind of my own sensitivity of balance in composition over the years.

As you notice, both my painting and drawing heavily depend on line drawing. I pay most attention to the line character.  The line is the bone structure of my work.  Color usually comes second.  Color is usually decided by the effect I want from [an] idea or story in my work. The line makes the structure and color emphasize what I want to say.

Hiro Sakaguchi, "House in Memory," 2008. Watercolor and graphite on ivory, 3" x 2" x .75".

CP: In the past, we talked about how you left Japan, partly because the scholastic expectations for an artist-in-training were so specific/inflexible. I guess I was wondering if you could talk a little about what your experience was when you came to America–how you noticed the school environment was different, and then too, what it was like to acclimate to that environment.

HS: I have to correct my former opinion about Japanese art education a little.

I think if you asked the same question of Japanese artists, each one would describe their experience differently. I can only speak for myself.

After high school education, I wanted go to art school to be an painter. I wanted to go to the Tokyo National University of Arts, “Geidai,” where my childhood hero, Yuzo Saeki, attended (also, that is Takashi Murakami’s school). I tried 4 times. I made the 1st round but never the final round. Tokyo National is extremely competitive.  Only 50 people get accepted out of 2000 applicants ([for an] oil painting major). That is the real reason I ended up coming to this country.  I went to studio preparatory school to prepare [for the] entrance examination where I learned cast drawing, figure drawing and painting, and still life drawing and painting. Japanese art schools don’t usually have foundation departments.  Student were expected to have basic training before they entered the school. So many young talents had to give up their dream before entering school because of the admission system.  If you did not do well at actual examination, you wouldn’t get into the school, even if you were a great artist the rest of year.  It is extreme pressure for applicants. Also the examination filters applicants a certain way.  If you did not have a good sense of perspective or proportion, you wouldn’t survive the entrance examination, even though you had an extreme sense of color.

After getting a BFA and MFA in the U.S, I have a certain impression of students. In the U.S, some art students cannot draw in traditional [ways], but there are more different kinds of talents in the U.S. schools.

Hiro Sakaguchi, "My Ant’s House is Your House," 2009. Acrylic and vinyl on canvas, 56”x 71”.

CP: You are also an instructor at PAFA–will you speak a little bit about your teaching strategy? What do you incorporate from your experience being taught?

HS: I teach at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Fleisher Art Memorial, and have taught at University of the Arts.

I treat my students like fellow artists. I believe that students should be encouraged. I think that is a teacher’s work.  I make sure to point out if the students are doing well so they know what they are doing is significant.  Actually, I approach my work the same way.  Even I struggle to finish my work, I always try to pay attention something positive and then expand the positiveness in the whole surface of my work.

CP: You also work as an art handler at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—what is it like working within an institution like that? How do you contextualize yourself and your work when you are constantly with canonized work?

HS: I have seen many important artworks very closely. Being an art handler for almost ten years gave me another relationship to art history. It almost feels like a free education for my eyes. Behind the scene of the museum is pretty busy.  So many people are involved to make a show happen. We execute the installation part. I have seen many important artists and sometimes get the chance to talk them.  It is pretty exciting. I guess that I constantly get inspired from the collection and contemporary artists through my experience as an art handler.

The basement of the museum is full of art storage areas and various shops, like the packing shop,  the seamstress shop, the conservation wood shop, and the construction shop. I spend time a lot of time in the art storage area and packing shop area and registrar’s hold (the place where you keep incoming and outgoing loans).

For example, painting storage has a movable rack where many paintings are hung and stored.  Every painting location is recorded in a computer system by rack number and storage location.  When I pull a rack to look for a particular painting, I see many different works which are not displayed. More artworks are in the storage area than are displayed. We could see [how] the museum functions as a time capsule to preserve artworks if you are in the storage area.

Hiro Sakaguchi, "Pulling Tank," 2007. Graphite and watercolor on paper, 9” x 12”.

CP: Could you talk a little bit about your work as a curator? I feel like you are often inviting artists to participate in shows; you create parameters, or it even seems like “frameworks” which artists are then invited to interact with. I think it’s interesting because the power-dynamics of artist/curator/collaborator seem to start to fuzz together…

HS: I try to see as many shows as possible in Philadelphia. I get exhibition ideas from looking at other artists’ works and talking among artist friends.  I am actually more of an organizer than curator.  I like creating a situation that I cannot create by myself. Some of my ideas are bigger than myself and I need help from other artists. Power dynamics should not be there because we are after something bigger than any one person. I cannot do anything by myself.

CP: What is your experience of the art community in Philadelphia?

HS: It is driven by many non-profit-type places.  We have many good artists in the town. I hope someday we will be like Los Angeles or New yYork.  I think it is possible because it is still affordable to live and work here and have a studio place….Some artists live in Philly  and show in NY. Philadelphia may become part of NY’s satellite scene, like the Brooklyn art scene. Internet and cheap bus fares are definitely making some changes.

CP: What are your expectations? What makes a good painting? What makes a good artist?

HS: I try not to have expectations. I focus on one work at a time.

Good painting?  A vision supported by the artist’s obsession.

Good artists?   A person who is available to be inspired.

CP: Lastly, what is it like passing by the Rocky sculpture every day?

HS: I like the 1st Rocky movie.  I sing the theme music in my head every time I pass by and encourage myself.


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