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On the blog: Q&A with Masayuki Nagase

By Anna Seaton Huntington

When sculptor Masayuki Nagase leaves Rapid City next month, he’ll be three of five years and 14 of 21 granite pieces into the carving of Passage of Wind and Water. We checked in with the artist to find out how he’s feeling about the work.

Is your work progressing according to your original schedule?

Overall, yes. Earlier this year, knowing that the pieces in the Black Hills Tapestry Garden are smaller, I thought of moving more quickly this summer. But they’re actually big pieces and it became clear I can’t move so fast.

Also, my original idea was to do both spires in the final year. But I’ll start the Black Hills spire next summer, because I’m not sure how long they will take and this gives me some slack. [The spires are the two 35-foot high structures at the corner of Sixth and Main that mark the intersection of the Badlands and Black Hills Tapestry Gardens.]

You complete roughly one stone per month. Do you have specific ways of figuring out how much time your work will take?

If it’s a similar surface manifestation and way to carve, including the depth, you can calculate more or less how far you can proceed each day based on surface area. This is how professional masons work. But it’s not so simple because different stones have different challenges, different processes. There’s a big difference between working on the stone samples on the work table I used for testing and the vertical wall of the stones here. There’s always something you learn. And that’s good, you know? This summer, I was humbled, my ambition was crushed. [Laughs.]

In addition to starting on the Black Hills spire next summer, what will you be working on?

The final four stones in the Black Hills Tapestry Garden. The next one, with images of horses, is kind of major. And the last piece in the series, I haven’t completely designed. Now I’m looking at some plants, and thinking about how much design, what kind of design, I should add. So, that’s after I go back home, I’ll think about the design for those last stones. I have made the plaster models already, but my drawings for the spires are preliminary, only one side is developed. I didn’t put much flora and fauna into the spires designs yet and hope I can add more elements.

You had reservations about the Rockville Beige grey granite in the Black Hills Garden before you began carving, but have said you’re happy with it now. How has your approach to working on it been different from the Carnelian granite in the Badlands Garden?

Since I worked on the sample stones at home, I got more confidence that it can be OK. With the real scale of the stones here, it came out pretty well and I am content. Also the Black Hills stone is nice material to carve. It reminds me of the material I used to work in Japan. When I first started working in stone in Japan, I worked in gray granite. It was a finer grain but basically similar to the stone here. So I feel like I’m handling familiar material.

I am carving deeper into these stones. Compared with the red granite of the Badlands Tapestry Garden, this material doesn’t show so much contrast color-wise with different manipulations like polished and chiseled surfaces. With very shallow carving, the red granite showed a lot of contrast against the honed surfaces, but the gray granite doesn’t. So, that’s one reason I don’t put so much fine detail in these stones; I go for much larger configurations. Also, the wave pattern is a much stronger representation of lines, with strong edges, and to address those lines I use a little deeper carving.

With this gray granite, very subtle, delicate surface manipulation doesn’t work the same as on the red granite. I knew this difference between the materials when I created the original design. But I didn’t work on realizing the exact effect so precisely, though I was aware with the difference, I would have to handle it.

It seems like your original design concept has been a reliable map, and that your work hasn’t diverged much from your initial plans?

During the artist selection process in the spring of 2012, we were asked to send a preliminary sketch or drawing. At that time I had to give some rough idea of what I wanted to do with this whole composition. I always thought of the 21 granite pieces as one piece, I never separated them one by one. I knew the composition would include many elements, but at the end it had to be united as one integral piece. I strongly believed that is the only way.

The community design workshops in the winter of 2013 strengthened my confidence, my kind of guess, about what is important to the people who live here and that I wouldn’t have to change the nature-oriented design concept.

Also, my initial concept, wind for the Badlands and water for the Black Hills, used themes I’ve used as a sculptor for the last many years, as I always try to express the essence of nature. So, even though initially I didn’t know the community and didn’t have much information about the space or the landscape architect’s concept, I knew that I would be working with my themes that are the foundation of my work. I had photos of the Square and was trying to read from those. When I visited the Square in August of 2012, I looked at the site and the people using the space, and thought, ‘Oh, my guess wasn’t so far off.’

I think an important thing about site-specific public art is that the space already exists, and from there you start. So as an artist, you have to find out what kind of space it is and how people interact with it — what its function is and its relationship to the surrounding environment. I think I analyzed that and understood it pretty objectively because I didn’t see something completely different about the town or the function of the Square when I visited. Generally speaking, reading designers’ and planners’ intentions for different projects is a key to building a firm concept to me. I give a lot of attention to what they do. Many times I don’t get commissions, but always I have good responses from architects because I give a lot of attention to what they did.

What’s it been like working in a public space without any real privacy?

I don’t have any difficulty or sense of discomfort with the experience. The nice thing is, you get to know people every summer. Local people come again and again and talk about my progress and it’s really a unique experience. I feel more connected to the people.

Usually, as a public artist you work with the local community or a community representative, but usually it’s not that deep a connection. I get their feedback, make the piece in my studio and then install it.

My experience here is very different, partly because of the involvement of so many people with different projects connected to my work. They have made the project a sort of creative center for the community, anchored down by their work. The educational programs with Gabrielle Seeley and Teaching Artists Program, Sara Olivier’s ongoing collaboration, and the Gathering all make this feel like it is not just a single project. With all these different energies, it’s really in a way strengthened the project, altered the meaning of the project.

This project in Rapid City is such an incredible opportunity and this time span, also. Every summer I come for five years. It’s pretty remarkable, it’s unique.

Can you talk more about the origins of your design concept and how it has changed along the way, if at all?

When I first started working on this project, I read a lot about Rapid City and this region and was struck by the constant change. Especially in the last hundred years, there has been a lot of change and conflict between the Native people and newcomers. And my main concept became a focus on expressing something about this change and some suggestion of positivity, that this community means not just one side, but includes the whole. So, treating these many pieces of granite as one group, the wholeness of the design, is symbolic.

That spring I began to think about this project and was thinking about the German philosopher Hegel’s concept about history — Aufheben or sublation. This is an idea that was popular in my college days in Japan. His idea is that change is not like going up a staircase. Instead, it’s a spiral movement, with different, conflicting energies both preserving and changing each other. There’s a kind of tension as one is denied and then another one comes up. But the first is not completely denied, it appears to be discarded but it has also been included. As this spiral moves upward to an altered state, both are included as an integral whole.

So, when the artist selection committee asked for the project to reflect the natural and cultural history of the area, I wanted to understand the history of this region and talk about wholeness. Of course I had studied the conflict between Natives and Europeans and I wanted to include both. Also I, thought the project should include a big expanse of time from the beginning of life in this region up to the present and an image of the future. It should not just be the story of the last 200 years, but much, much further back into geological time.

I worked very hard on the initial concept, even though I knew I wasn’t going to get the commission. That’s the hard and the fun part. [He laughs. Yuki has said he was surprised to be selected as the project artist because his abstract work is different from most of Rapid City’s public art.]

This spring I thought of adding flora and fauna, including some birds and butterflies, to the stone I’m working on now. I carved some ideas into the sample stones, but eventually I decided not to add them, and I’m glad I didn’t.

When I started thinking about the design, I wanted something durable. I didn’t want to put some descriptive things in just to get peoples’ attention. Less is more, and I wanted something more universal, that people can participate in using their imaginations.

I’m glad I used this concept of wholeness. It has helped Gabrielle [Seeley] apply the project to her work using Oceti Sakowin standards to develop curriculum for students. And the title, Passage of Wind and Water, makes it easy for other artists to connect with because it’s about pure energies. It shows movement, and that’s why Sara [Olivier] could connect and work with it.

Have there been any surprises along the way in the project?

Yes, how many people are really supportive of my work in the community, including the financial supporters and The Sculpture Project advisory committee, as well as the public in general like the many people come by and exchange words with me, both Native and nonNatives. It’s kind of a good surprise. People sincerely think about the future of this community, they’re aware of the challenges, including racism, and that there’s a long way to go but many people are thinking of a better community for their children and the coming generations.

You have said you hope this project can be a “legacy for the community.” What do you mean by that?

Sometimes I feel like art can do so little to change a society. But art is one ideal form of human expression that reaches people across borders, across different languages, and even across different cultures. Art can reach people directly and helps acknowledge everyone’s humanity.

I probably meant something like bringing a new awareness to the community about its own potential. So that the community recognizes their own power and energy and potential. That’s what I meant.


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