Noriko Sakanishi

  • Noriko Sakanishi in her studio, which takes up two rooms in her Portland home.

Noriko Sakanishi is not one to eschew difficulties.

In fact, she seems to court them, like teaching art to children with cerebral palsy for 24 years. Or coming to the United States in 1964 because Japan felt too confining to her. Sakanishi headed straight to Maine to attend Westbrook Junior College (now the University of New England) because the state’s seasonal changes reminded her of her native country. Sakanishi was one of very few Asians living in Portland at the time. “My goal wasn’t to stand out,” she says, “but I wanted to go where I could learn new things.” In 1970, while studying at the Portland School of Art (now the Maine College of Art), she co-founded The Opening, the first co-op gallery in Portland. The short-lived enterprise at the corner of Market and Fore Streets showcased mostly abstract art, which was largely ignored by other local galleries and museums.

Working abstractly wasn’t the only challenge for Sakanishi. She chose to carve in stone until it took too much of a physical toll on her. So in 1990, she switched to lightweight materials, including foam board, which she meticulously carves into hard-edged geometric forms and paints with subdued earth tones and metallic colors. The resulting wall-based constructions project weight and presence, not unlike Sakanishi’s original medium.

The constructions, sometimes arranged in pairs or larger groups, feature rectangles, stripes, circles, and spheres, either attached to or carved into the foam board. Dominating these compositions are oppositional relationships of positive and negative forms, of round and rectangular shapes, although Sakanishi is not really thinking in dualities. She conceives of the work as a storyline with simple forms responding to each other. “I’m not conscious of any Japanese aesthetic of simplicity and understated beauty when I’m making art, but I’m not surprised if it’s there,” says the artist.

Sakanishi’s feeling for beauty and harmony also pervades her geometric collages, made of reused tea bag paper, drawings, and scraps of her mother’s kimonos, which channel autobiography into rich colors, textures, and patterns. Her graphite-and-ink drawings are more obviously structured around grids, and their rhythms and values are intuitively chosen, much like a musical arrangement. Savoring the challenges life and art have presented her with, Sakanishi has stayed her course to become one of Maine’s finest artists.


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