Sarah Brayer is an internationally acclaimed artist who works in print and paper mediums. She lives in Kyoto, Japan. From celestial explorations to snow covered Kyoto streets, Brayer imbues her work with a meditative spirit. Known for her aquatints and poured washi paperworks, she is the author of several publications and her work can be found in the permanent collections of institutions such as the British Museum, National Museum of Asian Art of the Smithsonian, and Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Brayer’s career has been distinguished with many impressive honors. In 1992, she was the first artist to exhibit at Byodo-in Temple, a world heritage site, as part of Kyoto’s 1200-year celebration. In 2007, she was the first foreign cover artist for Tokyo’s annual CWAJ Contemporary Print Show. In 2013, Japan’s Ministry of Culture recognized Brayer’s explorations with washi (Japanese paper) with the Commissioner’s Award (Bunkacho Chokan Hyosho), applauding her for the international dissemination of Japanese culture. Brayer has been a member of the Ronin Gallery family of artists for four decades. We took a moment to catch up with her about her recent solo exhibition Inner Light at Kyoto’s Komyo-in Temple, her Luminosity series, and her latest book project.
Sarah Brayer with Moonlight Mandala in her studio. Image courtesy of Sarah Brayer.
What first drew you to Japan? When did you know you were there to stay?
I initially came to Japan with a backpack, a one-way ticket, and a thousand dollars in traveler checks. It was an adventure and a chance for me to see more of the world after spending a year in London as an exchange student. From the London experience, I had a strong desire to explore and live abroad. In one sense, I still have this feeling. Once we built our home 20 years ago, and my studio adjacent to our house, that felt like a significant commitment to living in Japan.
Biwako Blue (1988) on exhibition at Komyo-in this April. Poured mulberry and mistumata paperwork, 4 panel folding screen. Image courtesy of Sarah Brayer.
At the end of April, a selection of 30 of your works was featured in the solo exhibition Inner Light at Komyo-in Temple (a sub-temple of Tofukuji, a large Zen temple in Kyoto). Can you tell us about the exhibition?
This exhibition featured a selection of my major paperworks made during the past 35 years in Japan and New York. In addition to showing my larger folding screens and scrolls, it was the first opportunity to have a large Luminosity gallery in a public space in Japan—I have had several shows in the US, both at the Johnson Museum at Cornell and the Castellani Museum. At Komyo-in, I filled the main meditation hall with my phosphorescent paperworks. There was a lighting cycle and soundtrack to create a calm and spacious feeling that harmonized with the art. I also had a selection of screens, scrolls and mounted paperworks throughout the temple. It was very exciting to show my work in Japan at this stunning site.
One work, two faces. Midnight Moon (2020) viewed in the light (L) and viewed in the dark (R). Aquatint on indigo-dyed handmade mulberry paper with washi chin collé and phosphorescent pigment. Images courtesy of Sarah Brayer.
In your Luminosity series, as you combine paper fiber with phosphorescent pigments, you create a single work with multiple appearances – one designed for the light, the other to come alive in the dark. What inspired these explorations with luminescence? How has the series evolved over the years?
The idea for the Luminosity series came to me while I was musing about how to show a series of significant moon paperworks. I imagined the gallery having darkened walls and spotlights that shifted the light as if clouds passed through the sky at night. At that time, I learned about the pigments, and I thought, what if I added the light directly into the artwork while making the paper? I wonder if it would illuminate the works and if the pigment would bond with the paper? I knew I had to try! The series now includes constellations and a series of moons. Some of the works have numerous layers of paper that move. Over the years, I have refined the use of the phosphorescent glow.
Sarah Brayer. Moonlight Mandala (2021). Indigo and ultramarine-dyed mulberry paper, aquatint, chin collé, phosphorescent pigment. Image courtesy of Sarah Brayer.
Moonlight Mandala glowing in the mediation room at Komyo-in. Image courtesy of Sarah Brayer.
If you could highlight one work from your recent exhibition, which would you choose? Could you tell us a bit about it?
Moonlight Mandala was just completed. It shows a moon passing through 12 stages or cycles and is arranged like a mandala—meaning "mind tool" in Sanskrit—moving around the night sky. The initial inspiration was one of my editioned paperworks called Midnight Moon. I wanted to extend this image to include different stages of the moon.
Making washi moons. Image courtesy of Sarah Brayer.
Midnight Moon in progress at Brayer’s studio. Image courtesy of Sarah Brayer.
In 1992, you were honored as the first artist to ever hold an invited exhibition at Kyoto’s Byodo-in Temple during the city’s 1200-year anniversary celebration. This month, you returned to a temple setting at Komyo-in Temple for Inner Light. Do you find that a temple setting particularly resonates with your work?
Japanese temples house some of the most beautiful combinations of architecture integrated with (consciously designed) nature. Washi is a natural plant fiber. The works I make from it have a kind of feathery, organic quality. To exhibit them in the temple on tatami mats with open doors, a garden, and natural light is a dream setting that reinforces a meditative quality in my work. The temple setting has an organic quality, and you can feel a sense of calm in a place where practice has occurred for many years.
Musing at Komyo-in. Image courtesy of Sarah Brayer.
In addition to your exhibition Inner Light, you are in the process of creating fusuma for the temple’s meditation hall. Can you tell us about making such large-scale works? Does the ultimate destination of these works inform their design?
The abbot of Komyo-in and I were musing about how we might enliven the doors in a stunning tatami room that faces the Shigemori Mirei garden. He mentioned that he wanted it to become a meditation space. I said I could make some washi fusuma paper doors that brought nature into the room. We listened to a small waterfall in the distance, and I showed him some works that have very fluid strokes and are created by flowing colored fibers into a pool of water. He seemed to think that this was the perfect match for the room, and we both imagined how it might look if I was to extend this waterfall theme to cover eight doors facing the garden! From this conversation, the project arose.
What does the production of the large-scale fusuma works look like? Is it a multi-person task to work at that scale? Do you collaborate with other artisans?
When I work on the large washi paperworks, I am assisted by professional papermakers in Echizen, who assist me in moving the large screens that are part of my process. We discuss the project on site, and I rely on their expertise in bringing my vision to fruition. The photo below shows me working with Nori-chan, a master papermaker with 50 years of experience.
Brayer working with Nori-chan, a master papermaker with 50 years of experience. Image courtesy of Sarah Brayer.
I hear that you released a book to accompany the recent exhibition. What can we look forward to in this new title?
Yes, a new book of my unique images on paper was released to celebrate the exhibition. Sharing a title with the exhibition, Inner Light contains 115 large color plates of important paperwork originals from 1987 to 2021. There are also two curatorial essays, one by Meher McArthur and Joann Moser.
The past year has changed how we all work and live. How has quarantine affected your practice? Has the past year changed your perspective?
This past year has given me much more time to work slowly and deliberately in a quiet setting with fewer interruptions. I could let go of concerns about marketing my work. However, this extensive exhibition at Komyo-in was in the making for more than a year, and I also got involved with making a book, so it turned out to be a pretty intensive work period. I have enjoyed the quiet time, and I have pursued other practices that support my art and life, such as tai chi, meditation, and spending time in our garden.
Sarah beside Luminous Motion at her exhibition Inner Light. Image courtesy of Sarah Brayer.
As we inch towards normalcy, what are you most looking forward to in a less socially-distant world?
Active and intimate conversations, travel, and in-person interactions in the studio and gallery. I am so excited about seeing you in person and showing my work at the new Ronin Gallery.
We can't wait to see you!