NATSUKO HATTORI I ARTIST
"I used to be a painter before I came to New York. My paintings were mostly portraits but they weren’t very normal. I mean I was into painting faces of people crying or suffering, even those with their skin falling off like flakes. In a word, they were “weird.” While I believed that it was important for artists to express the dark side of human emotions, I used to wonder, “Is this really what I want express in my art? What is it that I really want to do as an artist?”
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Fukuoka, Japan.
Describe that place and its people…
My hometown is in the southern part of Japan. It is near the ocean. The food is very fresh and good, and everyone is so kind there.
What were you like as a child? What did you want to do when you grew up?
I was a very active child. I did KENDO (Japanese martial art meaning "Way of the Sword") for over 13 years. I was really into it. I also started playing the piano at the age of 3. My mother – she is a pianist – was my teacher. I loved expressing my feelings through piano. That’s how I learned to enjoy music. When I was 7, I got into art and began going to a painter’s studio near my house. I ended up going there everyday, and did my very first oil painting there.
When did you first leave home? Where did you go?
I left my hometown after high school and went to Tokyo to attend Art and Design Department at Tsukuba University. I was living alone.
When did you come to the US? Was there a particular reason you wanted to come here?
I came to New York in 2010 after graduating from Tsukuba University. I’ve always wanted to create art that touches the hearts of those who see it. I chose New York because this is where artists from around the world gather. I wanted to meet as many artists as I could and see all kinds of art, be inspired and grow as an artist. Studying and learning modern art in the place where it all started sounded pretty exciting.
When did you know you wanted to pursue art? Was there a particular moment?
As a child, it was my dream to become an artist when I grew up. Having said that, I knew it was as unrealistic as a little girl wanting to become a fairy tale princess, so I didn’t go around telling people – including my parents and teachers at school – about it.
When I was in junior high school, I saw the artworks by Sam Francis at a museum in my hometown. There were 3 huge paintings covering the entire wall. The colors were so overwhelming and beautiful that they literally took my breath away! I couldn’t believe how happy they made me feel. That’s when becoming an artist turned from a mere dream to a realistic goal.
Do you have any formal art or design training?
Yes I do. I started my formal art training at the age of 14 to learn drawing and painting at an artist’s atelier. In university, I studied art history, sculpture, printmaking, and anatomy. After moving to New York, I enrolled into Art Students League where I studied Mixed Media.
How did you first come to make what you make now? Can you describe MocoMoco?
MocoMoco (normally spelled moko-moko) is a Japanese word that refers to things that are soft and/or puffy. It’s also used to describe comforting feelings that one might get from holding a stuffed toy animals or being wrapped up in a puffy materials such as down coats or warm blankets.
I used to be a painter before I came to New York. My paintings were mostly portraits but they weren’t very normal. I mean I was into painting faces of people crying or suffering, even those with their skin falling off like flakes. In a word, they were “weird.” While I believed that it was important for artists to express the dark side of human emotions, I used to wonder, “Is this really what I want express in my art? What is it that I really want to do as an artist?”
Then in 2011, the earthquake that devastated the northeast Japan happened. I lost contact with my family and friends for more than a week. I panicked and spent sleepless nights crying. I felt so powerless. Through desperation, I began to wonder if there’s anything else I could do or I should do as an artist. In the end, I came to the conclusion that I want my art to make people smile, make them feel warm and tender at the moment they feel sad and down. So I decided to recreate through art what I feel when I think of the word “love.” To me, to love is to embrace, or to envelop someone or something with warmth, tenderness and affection. So I walked away from painting weird stuff and came up with the idea of wrapping a cotton ball with a piece of cloth and putting them together to create a soft sculpture. This is how MocoMoco was conceived.
How would you describe your sculptures and installations?
The materials are cotton and fabric. I make a bunch of “otedamas” – or beanbags except mine are filled with cotton – and sew them together to create a 3-dimensional sculpture.
Can you tell us a little bit about the “act of wrapping” and why it is central to your sculptures?
My objective is to create sculptures that embody “love.” The act of wrapping cotton with fabric is, to me, similar to the act of transforming pain, sadness and despair into positive energy like love or a prayer that brings comfort to the human soul.
Does it have a message? Anything you’d like your viewers to take away?
I despise war and discrimination of any kind. I’d want to see the world filled with love, not hate. I make MocoMoco hoping that it wraps its viewers with the sense of peace, happiness, relief and comfort.
What inspires your work?
My past experiences. Also the feelings I get when I see nature or listen to music.
Do you feel your work and designs are influenced by where you are from?
Yes. The basic technique used to make each MocoMoco piece is same as making an “otedama,” a traditional Japanese beanbag. I tried many different techniques to make a perfect MocoMoco piece before arriving to the conclusion that the otedama-making technique is the one best suited for my purpose. I never deliberately tried to make anything that looks or feels Japanese yet many people tell me they see the influence. I guess that has lots to do with the fact I am Japanese, and was born and raised in Japan.
What are your favorite materials to work with? and why?
Fabrics. I want people to feel intimate and close to art, and since we use fabrics in many forms everyday in our daily life, it’s the best material for me.
How do you choose your fabrics?
It varies. For instance, “Forever,” the most recent work and the one I made in the memory of my recently deceased grandmother, was made exclusively using fabric pieces taken from her dress and kimono. I consider it very important that I use not just any fabric, but the ones that best represent the theme of each artwork. I also choose fabrics based on their texture and feel.
Can you talk a bit about your collaboration with dancers?
When you go to museums, you can’t help but feel the distance between the artwork and yourself. I did the collaboration work with dancers because I wanted to create something by mixing fine art and performing art. It was my way of bringing art and its audience closer. For my exhibition, I always tell people to go ahead and touch my artworks.
What does a typical day look like for you? What is your work process?
I’m in my studio everyday and making art all day. I guess that’s all there is to my work process.
Do you have any morning or daily rituals to help you prepare for the day?
Not really. Just wake up, wash my face and brush my teeth. My day begins rather uneventfully.
What’s your favorite part about being an artist?
Being able to do what I love and believe in 24/7. I feel happiest when I’m in a creative mode. Of course there are times I feel frustrated because ideas don’t come easily or don’t turn out as I expected. Still, creating art for me is like an instinct. I feel so restless when I’m not creating.
What are your biggest challenges?
It used to be living and trying to become an artist in New York. However, I now realize that the true challenge is to create artworks that make people happy.
What lessons have you learned?
I am always in the process of learning, always trying to figure out what to do next. Because I am constantly looking ahead and moving forward and because my life is an accumulation of my past experiences, it’s difficult to accurately say what particular lessons I’ve learned.
One thing I can say is that you should never underestimate the power of art – not just fine arts like paintings and sculptures but also all kinds of performing arts such as music and dance. When I first came to New York, I spoke very little English. My artworks were the only means I had to express my feelings so I kept making them. To my delight, I was able to communicate with people through my art! That’s when I realized that art is border-less. It crosses over politics, religion, colors of skin, languages, ideologies, etc. that too often separate people. This may not be exactly what you meant by “lesson” but to me, it changed the way I look at art.
What are the things that you want to fill your days with? What are the things that are most important to you?
Doing creative things. That’s pretty much it. The most important thing to me is my family. They are always supportive and cheering for me. I am very appreciative of them. Living in the place I love, doing what I love the most, and having a family that I love. There’s nothing more that I want.
I consider myself very lucky, and I feel I must make most out of it. Feeling of appreciation is the main force behind my creativity. Creating artworks - and being successful at it – is my way of saying thank you to those who love me and support me.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to do what you do?
Be persistent and perseverant. I enjoy making MocoMoco immensely, yet keeping up with doing so day in and day out isn’t always easy. You must have determination.
Do you have a mentor?
My mentor is my grandmother. During the WW II, she went to Manchuria as a nurse but wasn’t able to return to Japan right away when the war ended. She was put through more than her share of painful, horrific experiences before she finally set her foot back on Japanese soil. Yet she never held grudges. She never discriminated anyone. She was a genuinely nice person who loved to see people smile. I think of her life as fierce, heroic and courageous. Because of the hell she went through in Manchuria during and after the war, she was able to feel and sympathize with others’ pain and sorrow.
To me, a truly strong person is someone who understands what others are going through, not someone who’s strong physically. Every time I’m having difficulties in my life, I just tell myself that I have my grandmother’s DNA in me so I can withstand anything that life throws at me.
What does the word authentic mean to you? How does your work allow you to live authentically?
When you are making an earnest effort in expressing yourself through art, you are making a connection with your spirituality. On the other hand, when you’re creating your work just for the sake of creating, you end up producing something so half-baked that it’s hardly an artwork.
To me, it’s extremely important to create artworks in which I put in all my soul. Am I being sincere with my inner self? Am I creating an artwork that speaks my heart? These are the questions you must ask yourself constantly. Whether or not your artwork sells or not should never be a priority. I believe that when you put 120% of yourself into what you are creating, the end result will be something that reaches and remains in people’s heart forever, something that has the power to change people’s life in a positive sense.
Want to see more of Natsuko's work? Click here.
And be sure to attend her upcoming event: Dancer in MocoMoco on September 19th!