October 23, 2013
by Anna Huntington, community arts coordinator for The Sculpture Project
In early October, sculptor Masayuki Nagase and I recorded an interview with StoryCorps. The national oral history project had a mobile unit at Main Street Square for a month this fall. The StoryCorps experience was surprisingly intimate and conducive to reflection and conversation. Yuki and I spoke for 40 minutes and only got through three of my nine questions. Some of our conversation is transcribed below.
Anna Huntington: Could you describe your first impressions of this region?
Masayuki Nagase: It was almost 30 years ago, I was driving through Nebraska with my then girlfriend to get to Colorado. A chemical factory fire closed the road we were on so we decided to take a detour through South Dakota. It was such a strong contrast from the flatlands of Nebraska to the Badlands. I was just amazed by how the landscape changed and by how striking the space is.
AH: How did you initially hear about the Main Street Square sculpture project?
MN: I’ve been working for public art projects for more than ten years, so I get mailings and emails from different agencies announcing jobs. When I first saw this opportunity advertised in the winter of 2011, I thought, ‘Well, that’s an interesting place.’ I had such a great experience in the Badlands and my fresh memory was still in my mind. I read the information and the scope of work and thought, ‘Oh, maybe I can be a semi-finalist and travel back there once.’
AH: You’ve said before that you were surprised to be chosen as the artist for this project. Why?
MN: As part of the selection process, we were invited to come and observe the surrounding environment and talk to people about a wide range of topics. So, when I saw what kind of work was around, I really felt maybe my work doesn’t fit here. Many things are very representative and also the theme of the work here is very different from what I do. I’m kind of a naturalist, so always I choose essence of nature as the theme of my works, so that’s one reason I thought people wouldn’t be interested in my work here.
AH: What happened when you got the phone call saying you’d been selected?
MN: I was watching the Presidential election returns with my family and when the phone rang and I saw that the call was from Rapid City, I thought, ‘Oh, I forgot something at the hotel, or there was a delivery problem with my model.’ So I just turned off the phone. I didn’t think of connecting the call to the selection at all! When [project manager, Pat Wyss] called the next day and said the committee had recommended me, my first reaction was, ‘Are you sure?’ I was shocked actually. It was a total surprise.
AH: Can you talk about how you developed your design concept for Passage of Wind and Water with the selection committee’s requirement that it include the natural and cultural history of the Black Hills and Badlands?
MN: I had to present some basic design concept as the first step in the selection process. It was very difficult to figure out what I can do and what works for this place without really knowing it.
I always start by studying the nature of the region and I was able to do that initially online. The region’s cultural history wasn’t really clear to me and so I started to read about that and learned about the very complicated history of this place. I wondered how can I bring those elements into this design. That’s what I haven’t done before, brought those human elements, the story telling, into my work. It was kind of a challenge to me…
So I set up the natural elements of wind and water, which bring all sorts of change in the natural environment, as the visual themes. But since I’d read about the waves of geological and historical change in the region, I decided to choose this whole transformation and change as the main theme, as the conceptual foundation. I wanted to include quite a big span of time because geologically the Black Hills emerged such a long time ago. And I wanted to include that time before humans appeared in this area and all the change of life of this region. I wanted to include human history as part of that, not as the focus. I am still dealing with life of nature in general in this region.
AH: How did your observations of the project’s location at Main Street Square inform your design?
MN: When I first came to Rapid City, I observed this square and how people used this space. I stayed two days after the official visit because I felt I needed to observe things and get material. I also checked out the stone compositions and from my observations, I guessed the landscape architect’s concept. It was very clear that he wanted to have some barriers between the Square and the outside street and space. But at the same time he wanted to have interaction and opening so it’s not completely closed. It’s not transparent, but kind of translucent. So that gave me the idea, it reminds me of the folding screen that we have in Japan. If you look at the stones, it’s huge blocks, but basically a panel. So that gave me the idea and the confidence to compare to a screen. So I thought I can bring two different, contrasting designs to the outside and the inside of the granite pieces.
AH: Can you talk about how you approached your design for the two 35-foot-high spires? How did you come up with the idea of including community members’ handprints and the idea that the spires would represent our community’s hopes for the future?
MN: The spires were the most surprising structure. And we were asked to include them in the sculptural composition and carving process. I wasn’t quite sure what I could do and it was hard to tell much from pictures. I found I couldn’t carve them too much because they are basically made of stone panels and can’t take much impact.
I was thinking not just for the spires, but for the whole composition, looking at the forms and textures the landscape architect created and thinking how physically I can deal with these compositions and material. It’s already installed. Usually I work from raw material and in my studio I can roll it over and work with it in the ideal position. But here, it’s not possible, everything is installed and in its position and I can’t change its direction. That’s a huge challenge.
Also, in the process of developing the design concept, from my observations of the Square, I thought this sculpture has to be for the community people. The Square is really community and so somehow I wanted to include the community peoples’ ideas and thoughts in my project. But I didn’t know them, so somehow I wanted to figure out how to include their thoughts and opinions in the project, or at least the inspiration of their thoughts. So my answer was carving relief in the entire composition. My concern was how to maintain this kind of harmony the landscape architect created. I didn’t want to do something to lose that strength.
And another thing, it was very clear to me from the beginning that all 21 pieces have to come together and say one thing. If I don’t keep the simplicity, then it’s a failing. So I wanted to really have integrity behind all of the pieces saying the same thing in the end.
When I was thinking about the concept for the work and I brought up the theme of transformation and change and noticed from my observations all the change that has happened in this region, I thought it’s very important that people understand this change is always inevitable. Our life is basically very unpredictable and impermanent. Impermanence is the essence of all life. That is a truth. We have to really see that, we have to really accept that. And through that, if you really understand this impermanence, we’ll get peace in our minds…
You can say it’s Buddhist, but I’ve read about Lakota philosophy and they are very close to nature. Their belief is very beautiful. They often talk about spirit, but basically they are giving everything to this nature. That is what they’re understanding, they receive everything from nature, their life depends on nature’s will. So that’s what I thought of connecting to this understanding of impermanence… The important thing is that we just appreciate this moment.