Bethesda’s Waverly Street Gallery will turn its attention in January to a pair of local artists influenced by Asian art. The gallery’s “Wind from the East” exhibit will bring together innovative paintings and ceramics developed by Michiyo Mizuuchi and Yang-ja Lee.
Both artists are natives of Japan and grew up there. They came to the United States separately to pursue careers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as research scientists.
Lee is a staff scientist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Mizuuchi is a staff scientist working in the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. The pair participated in a joint show at Bethesda’s Orchard Gallery in 2009.
“We’re old friends,” Lee said. “[Mizuuchi] encouraged me to do a show with my pottery, and our 2009 show was really successful. I never had thought I was an artist, but we had really good feedback from that show and decided to do it again.”
Mizuuchi’s abstract work, done in acrylic paints, embraces the concept of wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic that accepts transience and imperfection. The concept, which is drawn from Buddhist teaching, is often expressed in art or architecture with asymmetry, roughness, economy and modesty.
Richard Powell, author of the 2004 book Wabi Sabi Simple, wrote that the concept “nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” She has been painting since the late 1990s and is a member of Outloud Artists.
Lee began taking pottery classes just more than a decade ago. She originally planned to take up the hobby after retiring from the NIH, but Mizuuchi urged her not to wait.
Lee’s focus is on traditional Japanese pottery, especially vessels related to the nation’s famous tea culture. But rather than focusing on one aspect of the extensive tea culture, Lee’s work reflects the pottery used every day for drinking the beverage, as well as the highly-stylized vessels used in tea ceremonies.
After spending all day in a lab, going into the pottery studio uses a different portion of her brain, Lee said. She also has learned to embrace the variances that come from glazing and firing pots with wood or soda.
“In the beginning, I was frustrated a lot. In science if you do the same thing in a lab multiple times, you should get the same result,” she said. “It’s not always the same in art.”
She fires her pieces with wood or soda and gas, which can add subtle beauty. Waverly describes her work as embodying shibui, a concept focused on simple, subtle beauty. Shibui objects appear to be simple overall but often are filled with subtle textures or details that add complexity to an otherwise simple work.
Lee said the work both artists do is shaped by their childhoods in Japan. “Lots of Japanese art is very simple, and that simplicity is the beauty, to me,” she said. “The tea ceremony uses a beautiful but very simple arrangement. You’ll see one flower arranged in a small vase. I feel like that’s the beauty.”
Waverly Street Gallery is one of many exciting and thought-provoking cultural institutions of Bethesda, and a reason why owners at Fox Hill love to call the area home.