The Joyful Charm of Mom’s Art, as Curated by Kyoichi Tsuzuki and Others
The” Museum of Mom’s Art” exhibition (January 22 to April 10, 2022) at the Tokyo Shibuya Koen-dori Gallery shows just what happens when beads, yarn, zip ties, work gloves, paper bags, and other mundane items fall into “mom’s” hands. Labeled “Mom’s Art,” handmade works by average moms have slowly been gaining attention as an art form since the early 2000s. This exhibition, co-curated by author, editor, and photographer Kyoichi Tsuzuki and the Association “crazy about SHITAMACHI-RETRO”, brings together more than 1,000 pieces by over 20 mom artists under one roof. We toured the exhibition while interviewing Tsuzuki.
Kyoichi Tsuzuki began paying attention to Mom’s Art between the late 1990s and early 2000s, when he was researching curious spots all over Japan.
Tsuzuki “I always used to stop at Michi no Eki roadside stations. These stations always have a section in the back for handmade crafts made by local people. One day, it occurred to me that similar items were being sold everywhere in Japan.”
Around the same time, the Association “crazy about SHITAMACHI-RETRO”, which supports old inner-city neighborhoods in Kobe, also became aware of local Mom’s Art and began holding exhibitions and workshops under the name “Mom’s Art University.” Tsuzuki’s encounters with this Association “crazy about SHITAMACHI-RETRO” culminated in the largest Mom’s Art exhibition in the genre’s history.
Nobody knows who first dubbed the genre “Mom’s Art.” According to Tsuzuki’s research, the term was being used as early as 2003, when a thread was created on 2channel, a popular anonymous textboard in Japan. Nowadays, Mom’s Art encompasses works by people of any gender and from any region, as long as it embodies the same spirit. Let’s take a look at the exhibition to see what exactly Mom’s Art is all about.
The first exhibition appears to be some sort of presentation room. Small works are arranged in rows, forming towers of Mom’s Art, and the walls display portrait photos of mom artists.
The photographs of the works displayed on the walls were taken by Kyoichi Tsuzuki, who says that they were inspired by a previous experience in which he had a chance to properly photograph a Mom’s Art piece for the album cover of Aa, an album by Japanese pop singer-songwriter Naotaro Moriyama.
Tsuzuki “Until now, Mom’s Art could only be seen at places like rummage sales. I wanted to make the pieces stand out and look really cool. To photograph something properly is to see it properly, so I photographed beaded dogs using the same approach I would use to photograph precious jewels.”
The next exhibition room is designed to feel as though you are walking through the pages of a magazine. Tons of small works are displayed alongside catchphrases, such as:
Use what you have. “It’ll come in handy one day!” trumps decluttering.
A sense of the material is more important than the design.
They’re small, so they are cute. They’re small, so they can be made in large numbers.
Tsuzuki “First of all, creators of Mom’s Art don’t spend much money. They simply use what they have around them, such as packaging twine or paper bags they had stuffed into the gap beside the fridge. If they make a doll using a pair of work gloves, they’ll use the cut-off glove fingers to make another animal or something.” (Laughs.) “In the past, there was a popular item called a ‘soap basket,’ in which a bar of soap was wrapped and used as an air freshener. There’s no boundary between practical use and decoration, and some of the materials they use remind us of the times.”
Tsuzuki “Since most moms don’t have their own rooms, many of the pieces are small enough to be made in places such as the kitchen at night after the table has been cleared. Shitomi Kousaka, who is known as the ‘master of Kobe,’ makes her pieces at the corner of a table. She doesn’t hesitate to use fast-bonding adhesives and glue guns, which keeps her work fun and hassle-free. She says it’s also fun to get together with a bunch of people and chat while making lots of the same things. Being able to share materials, such as milk cartons brought by her friends, is another aspect of being part of a community of moms.”
Tsuzuki “With Mingei (Japanese folk art), characteristics vary by region. Mom’s Art is different; there’s no regional flavor. Many of the pieces are sold as kits at craft stores across Japan, so similar items appear everywhere at the same time. Even so, it’s interesting to see how the individual’s unique taste shines through in the finished piece.”
In the last room, a special exhibit titled “Lone Stars of the Mom Universe,” curator Tsuzuki introduces artists whose works are remarkably close to the sensibilities of Mom’s Art, but who have developed unique forms of expression that stand apart from the others. The three artists are Yukiko Ogino, who creates dioramas out of food containers and other disposable materials, Eiko Shima, who creates bags from newspapers and giant collages using motifs torn out of flyers, and Tomohiro Nomura, who folds leaflets into boxes.
Tsuzuki “These individuals are on their own level, in a zone of their own. Ms. Ogino, who worked as a janitor at Waseda Shochiku revival movie theater, was a person of modest means. She saved a lot of the disposable food containers she ate out of at home, sketched her plans in a notebook, and then enjoyed displaying her creations in the Waseda Shochiku restrooms and other places. Both Ms. Shima’s bags and Mr. Nomura’s boxes are made in very calculated manner, so as to produce the patterns of their choice. If you were to try it yourself, you’d find that it’s incredibly difficult to do what they do.”
Most of the “moms” are ordinary grandmothers. Rather than art, they think of their creations as the products of things they do to keep their hands occupied. In the past, elderly people often kept busy with household chores and farm work, but with the modern shift to the nuclear family and the introduction of household appliances, they now have more time on their hands. Societal factors such as these, Tsuzuki says, may have contributed to the emergence of Mom’s Art.
Tsuzuki “You may think, why put a cover on a doorknob?” (Laughs.) “But they have a mentality of wanting to add color and personal touches to their lives. When there’s a hole in a paper sliding door, it can be patched in the shape of a butterfly, and so on. Perhaps there’s always been this sort of mentality of adding a little something extra, not just for practical use, to create a sense of warmth. There’s a bronze statue of a child near my house, and I have no idea who does it, but about once a month someone changes it up with a new accessory, such as a woolen hat in the winter. When you go to the countryside, they dress up the Jizo statues as well. If, for example, a handknitted cushion was placed on a fashionable chair, the industrial designer of the chair would be pretty sad about it.” (Laughs.) “But for the person sitting on it, having a warm bum is better. Mom’s Art shows us the limits of design, or perhaps, it teaches us what is most important when people use an item.”
What, then, are the feelings of the mom artists when they make their art?
Tsuzuki “Moms don’t care whether what they’re making will be liked or not. Moms are unstoppable beings.” (Laughs.) “Yet, I often hear stories about how, as they make items featuring their grandchildren’s favorite characters, they come to think of those characters as being cute, too. Or how, when they display them in the storefront, local elementary school kids stop by on the way home from school to admire them. So it seems that the thought of making children happy encourages them. And it’s not as though moms in Tokyo are any better at what they do than moms in the countryside. Rather, country moms seem to be doing more advanced things with new materials. Moms in the countryside also have more places to get together every day, like community centers and senior citizens’ centers, where they can engage in friendly competition as they hone their craft and creativity.”
Artists are treated as having a special status in the art world. Tsuzuki, however, believes that even the things created by ordinary people are special enough.
Tsuzuki “There is a hierarchy in the art world: fine art dominates the scene, followed by art brut and outsider art, both of which are small in number. On the other hand, I wonder why the majority of people who engage in crafts are ignored. There are many moms in other countries who are making the same kind of items, and there are people who are making the same kind of items as artists. Some people may even consider the same items to be art if you put a foreigner’s name on it.” (Laughs.) “The art world wants to make things special that aren’t really much different from everyday crafts. That’s also how they give it value. We live in a world where value is attached to certain things, and I have always wanted to examine those preconceived notions from various angles and tear them down.”
Many visitors to this exhibition commented, “I’ve seen that before,” or, “We have that at home, too.” Young people living in the city may be jolted back to reality when they return to their parents’ homes for the year-end and New Year’s holidays and see handmade dolls lined up at the front entrance.
Tsuzuki “For many people, their parents’ homes, which they consider to be both familiar and annoying, are the furthest things they can imagine from the environments in which they’re used to viewing art. I want to combine these two environments—the living environment of those who consider themselves to be typical, ordinary people, and the artistic environment where creative activities take place. I want to say that living artistically is not all that special. Art has long been considered to be something that is studied, but I cannot stand the idea that art is something that can only be understood if you study it. I want to forcibly combine art with something as familiar as the handmade dolls in my parents’ entryway.” (Laughs.)
According to Tsuzuki, there are about 80,000 convenience stores and 120,000 snack bars (drinking establishments) in Japan.
Tsuzuki “Even if there’s no convenience store, there’s a snack bar.” (Laughs.) “And there’s always a community of moms in such places. I get the feeling that these communities of elderly moms form the base layer of modern Japanese society. One mom told me that her big debut was in a hospital waiting room. ‘Doctor, put this up,’ she said. The doctor couldn’t refuse, so they displayed her work. Someone else in the waiting room saw it and said, ‘How cute!’ And that’s how word spread of her work, and how she got to teach others to make it, too.”
Tsuzuki “The situation is a little different for dads. If they form their community around their workplace, they have no local group to hang out with once they retire. And even if they do make art, they’re not very open about sharing it with others because they attempt to master the craft.” (Laughs.) “Art by young people and dads lack the forgiving, relaxed vibe of Mom’s Art. Always trying to win or come out on top only increases their stress, and it’s not a good way to live. This difference in approach may be a part of why there’s a gap of at least ten years between the average life expectancy of men and women. Moms may be healthier, or rather, less stressed.”
Although hearing this may make you worry about the state of dad’s well-being, you should not underestimate Mom’s Art and the community that creates it, which is filled with wisdom for surviving life in the modern world. In addition, this exhibition is collecting “Mom’s Art” posts on Twitter and Instagram, and it will expand as more posts are hashtagged. Why not invite your mom or dad to participate as well?
Reporting and text: Yuri Shirasaka
Photography: Katsumi Minamoto
Translation: Jena Hayama
Author, editor, and photographer. Born in Tokyo in 1956. Published “Outsider Art” and “Outsider Art II” in the Art Random art anthology project between 1989 and 1991 and pioneered the introduction of Western Art Brut / Outsider Art trends to Japan. To this day, straddling diverse fields from the urban outside to folk, fashion, and contemporary art, he continues his fieldwork and communication efforts, taking advantage of his unique perspectives and experience.