BY BOB KEEFER
Appeared in print: Thursday, Feb 4, 2010
Naomi Kasumi has long been a friend of obsession.
She arranges the dinner plates in her dishwasher by color. Knives, forks and spoons each go in their own separate baskets. Even though the recycling could all be placed in one bin at her home in Seattle, she sorts paper, plastic, cans and bottles separately.
Her music CDs are arranged alphabetically. Her office files are color coordinated. She loves the television detective show “Monk.”
“Oh, Mr. Monk, I understand him so much!” she says. “It’s funny to see somebody like him in action, but it’s almost a mirror image of me when I reflect on what I am doing. Well, I’d call myself ‘Ms. Monk.’ ”
Kasumi is not only obsessed; she is utterly driven. Before becoming an artist, she was a professional downhill ski racer in Japan and once had dreams of the winter Olympics. She is a certified scuba dive master. She spent years studying music and is accomplished on the electronic keyboard, accordion and drums.
It provoked strong parental disapproval for her to abandon music as a career in favor of skiing, and even more disapproval when she decided to move into art.
“That’s indulgence, not a real job,” her parents told her.
Obsession runs deeper in Kasumi’s life than just arranging dinner plates and CDs. For 12 years now, she has been obsessed with an abortion she had. The resulting grief, amplified by her persevering nature, has grown into a series of art installations and, finally, a successful art career.
One of those installations is on view through Feb. 12 at Maude Kerns Art Center.
The whole thing began with an unexpected pregnancy in 1998.
Kasumi, who had grown up in Japan, was in New York when she discovered she was pregnant. After a period of struggle, she chose to have an abortion as the most responsible course of action.
She didn’t count on the intense grief that followed, grief that was compounded by a breakup with her unfaithful boyfriend.
“I was very suicidal,” says Kasumi, who at age 39 is now an associate professor of art at Seattle University. She got her bachelor’s of fine arts and master’s of fine arts degrees at the University of Oregon. “I was very depressed. I was emotionally stuck. I couldn’t focus. I am so sad every day. I don’t have an appetite. Somehow, I wasn’t there.”
In Japan, she says, abortion is legally acceptable but socially taboo. She didn’t tell her parents of her abortion. (They would learn of it years later by reading a newspaper review of one of her exhibitions.) She could never find the right moment to bring it up.
“I am going to school every day,” she says of that dark period in her life. “I never skipped school. But somehow, I wasn’t there. My body could do something, but my mind wasn’t really there. I’m not sure where I was.”
Her obsessive behavior increased. Repetition became a refuge.
“I would just keep doing thousands and thousands of the same thing, again and again and again,” she says. “And I didn’t feel anything.”
One day, she began typing a poem on a sheet of paper. Just a few lines. She yanked out the paper, crumpled it up and typed the same poem again on a new sheet.
“I did thousands of them. I would take them out from the typewriter and crumple them, make a ball out of the paper and throw it into the room. I would keep doing that every day, every night, the same thing. The same poem. Exactly the same lines.”
He stopped writing me a letter
He stopped calling me
He started lying to me all the time
He started meeting her at night
He started sleeping with her
She sent me flowers with a note
She said “this is for your unborn child.”
“I realized one day, there are so many paper balls in my apartment. I realized, ‘What am I going to do with all these balls?’ ”
She began to gather them up and then uncrumple them, thousands of individual sheets of paper, piling one sheet onto another.
“And then I made an exhibition out of it,” she says. “That’s when I began to become myself.”
She turned those thousands of typed poems into an art installation at Maude Kerns, carpeting a gallery floor with poems so people could take off their shoes and walk on them. It was one of the first in an ongoing series of memorials to her absent child.
“That was the beginning, really, of installations for me,” she says. “And then I started working those tremendous amounts of numbers, always. I kept doing the same thing again and again and again.”
Another installation, which she worked on in 2004, required her to blow the contents out of 5,000 eggs. She worked at a UO cafeteria, opening eggs by the dozen and blowing the contents into a bowl to be used for baking or for scrambled eggs. Then she would take home the empty shells.
“They started calling me ‘egg lady,’ ” she says. “Every week I did 200 eggs. Dripping out the content is exactly the same thing as doctors do, the abortion clinic doctors do.”
Over the years, Kasumi has made nine memorial exhibitions to her lost baby, each of them an installation grounded in obsessive repetition. She is working on a 10th. She has named the aborted child — she is sure to this day it was a boy — Shion (“SHE-on”), after a Japanese wildflower.
The seventh memorial in the series, titled “MEM: memory.memorial no. 7 scriptorium,” is on exhibit at Maude Kerns through Feb. 12. Today, Kasumi will be in Eugene and give a free talk at the center about the role of ritual in her art. It will be from 7 p.m. until 8:30 p.m.
Like many of her works, going back to those thousands of typed poems, memorial no. 7 is grounded in book arts as well as installation. Consisting of nine vertical hanging banners, it memorializes the progress of her absent child’s growth. “I am imagining my baby is growing with me,” she says. “The scale of my art pieces keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
Kasumi made No. 7 from thousands and thousands of used teabags. “The number is less than the egg project but the process took longer,” she says, “because the collection of teabags takes longer than eggs. You cannot collect 200 teabags in a week. I needed to drink tea, every night. That was my ritual. Every time I drink tea, I always think about the process of making art.”
She took the used teabags, with their infinite variation in color and tone, and dried them, discarding the damp tea, the staples and labels and strings. Then she laminated three teabags together using beeswax to make small pages. Some panels contain music. Kasumi would like to imagine Shion as a musician.
Her work has been exhibited mostly in the Northwest, but she also has shown in Osaka, Japan, and at Brenau University, a small women’s college in Georgia. Not surprisingly, it’s often evoked strong feelings from viewers and even from nonviewers.
When she did her BFA show here in Eugene, she included some official medical documents about the abortion. University officials called her in after the opening and suggested she might black out the names of medical professionals because of the possibility of violence against them.
“I decided to take all the books I had made and start blocking out the names with black tape,” she says. “I block everything, not just the name of the nurse and the doctor. Those books became very powerful.”
In Georgia, a radio reporter who would not see the show attacked her on the air.
“She didn’t even come to the exhibition,” Kasumi says. “I was a little bit upset. If she saw my artwork and saw my artist’s statement maybe she didn’t speak that way.”
Other reviewers have been sympathetic. At one of her exhibitions at the UO, a man saw her sitting in the corner.
“He didn’t say anything,” she says, “except ‘Thank you so much.’ But he come to me with tears. My art suggests it is OK to remember. It is OK to cry. It is OK to share.”
The abortion and her subsequent grief have, in fact, made Kasumi a successful artist.
“(It) really transformed me as an installation artist,” she says. “My art changed dramatically from two-D, flat, to three-D, space, and four-D, time-based art. … I am challenging (myself) now to go beyond five dimensions: psychologically, philosophically and anthropologically.”
It led to her being hired at Seattle University, a Catholic institution, giving her a steady income from making art that would have little or no chance of being sold commercially. It gave her U.S. immigration status as “an alien of extraordinarily ability as an artist,” a ponderous title that makes her laugh.
She is reconciled with her parents, who at last approve of her career.
And she fondly remembers her baby.
“Shion gave up his life for his mother, and he is living inside his mother still to tell his story publicly,” she says. “Maybe I am just a medium. If so, I am content.”