Helen Fukuhara began her visual arts education at the Braille Institute in 1987. While being blind from birth, Fukuhara has pursued the fine arts in earnest, dedicating her university studies to music. Today, she remains a prolific and passionate artist who works in ceramic, mosaic, printmaking, and fiber arts. In addition, her print Dancing Fingers was recently awarded an honorable mention in the American Printing House for the Blind’s (APH) annual art competition InSights.
“I like the feel -- the tactile qualities -- of mixed media projects since I use my hands to see. I also like how multimedia allows me to work independently. When I’m in the process of making a piece, I can feel and experience the design fully as I create it section by section. In my work, I also am open to letting things happen rather than sticking to one specific plan. However, when I finish a piece, I feel somewhat sad because my entire surface is covered, and I cannot experience each part of the design as well. So, I create again. And again.” -Helen Fukuhara
Erin Schalk (ES): Please share with us how you came to be a visual artist:
Helen Fukuhara (HF): I started at Braille Institute in Los Angeles during the end of September of 1987, when I moved from New York to California. That’s when I started taking art classes because the art teachers at Braille made it comfortable for me to do art, since art is generally done with your hands. Basically, it involved the colors and materials being explained to me in more detail.
I also learned from Hailstones and Halibut Bones, which is a children’s book. It takes colors and puts them into poetry so I have something concrete to relate to, for example, black is the color of licorice. I like to associate art with music since I was a musician originally. For example, I might think of the bright colors as piccolos in an orchestra.
The lower notes would be the darker colors, and so on. I used to do sewing when I lived in New York, so naturally, I worked with fabrics in different colors and textures. I was aware of colors, and I wrote the color combinations on a braille sheet to remember the combinations that go together. Sometimes if I am in the mood, I’ll make something unusual, which you can do in art!
I love doing art. I love the making of it rather than the completion because once it’s done it’s finished and hurrah. But when you’re doing it, I think it’s more fun.
ES: You studied music during your college days. How did your practice evolve into visual art? Is there overlap?
HF: I studied music at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York. I didn’t have any idea that one day I would be moving to California and go to Braille Institute, nor did I know that Braille even had an art or music program.
In time, I realized art and music work together in certain ways. I read music history books, so I figured there must be art history books! I began reading art history, took art history courses, and received six credits from Cal State Northridge. In art history, I had opportunities to do some art projects related to the class such as a beehive tomb [from the Bronze Age Mycenaean civilization].
If I’m working on an art piece, I’ve thought about how to make the piece connect to the sound of music. Some people can do that, but I find that’s difficult for me to do. When I try to make shapes, it’s never the same as what I’m visualizing in my mind. For example, when I saw the movie Chariots of Fire and they played the running music, I didn’t picture somebody running. I don’t know what that feels like or what that looks like visually. I can’t compare music with art that way. However, one thing I have done is take poems that people have written and put them to music.
ES: What artists, contemporary or classic, influence you most and why?
HF: It’s an interesting question. I mainly go by era more than individuals, since I cannot see or touch the work or have it in my hand. I prefer Renaissance and Baroque music, so I tend to like art of that nature as well. The difference is I do know I could write in the style of Beethoven, or I could change a song to fit a composer.
When it comes to art, things become a bit more complicated. If somebody says, “Do a piece like DaVinci or like Picasso,” it can happen sometimes. One time, I made a piece at my friend’s house, and she said, “That actually looks like a scene from Manzanar!” I said, “What do you know? It just happened!” Likewise, if someone says a piece of mine looks like a Monet or similar, I wouldn’t know, and I’m quite surprised because I don’t have anything touchable to compare.
I can do abstract art more than abstract music. With music, I’m used to rules. So, when I wrote music, I preferred writing music with rules, whereas music now can be more freeform, so you can do anything you want.
In regard to art, I like mosaics. I’d also be fascinated to try more paper mache sculpture sometime in the future.
ES: You grew up in an artistically rich environment in New York City, and your father was acclaimed watercolorist Henry Fukuhara. How have these influences shaped you as an artist?
HF: My family was supportive of me, and my parents and family came to my concerts. My dad was always fond of watching the conductor more than listening to the music!
My father really became influential to me as a visual artist once I started taking art classes. Before that, we would only talk about art once in a while, and I didn’t know I was going to be taking art at Braille Institute at all. For a long time, I didn’t ever think about doing art myself. Also, my father didn’t know how to teach me art then, so we didn’t discuss it much. However, I went to his art workshops and demonstrations, and I found it interesting to listen to the art demonstrations if they would talk. And some of the people at the workshops would ask questions. I always enjoyed the questions.
I began taking art classes at Braille Institute because I knew you could do art with your hands. Things opened up and my father and I would discuss. Sometimes my dad would be painting and have music playing. I would ask him, “What kind of orchestral piece did you do today?” and he would laugh. So I could understand, he would say, “Well, I have violins here, and I have trumpets there. This one is a mixed orchestra.”
As time went on, I really wanted to do an art show with my father. First, he arranged for me to have a solo show. Later on when he became totally blind and still painted, he finally agreed to have a show with me. That was exciting!
When we had our show together, I imagined a 50-50 setup. But, my dad suggested I submit more pieces to the show and he would enter just a few. He was a well-known artist by then, and he didn’t want to dominate, rather, he wanted my art to be the highlight of the show. That really surprised me!
Later on, my father became fully blind and still continued to paint. He confided in me that he was more sure of himself as an artist even when he lost his vision, because he knew all that I was capable of as an artist.
ES: What are some of your favorite artistic media and why?
HF: I like them all. I like doing mosaics because you can use different shapes and different textures of pieces, and you can make your own tiles if you want. You can also incorporate found pieces to create an image. I’ve done mosaics that are freeform and ones more like a realistic picture. For example, I once made a mosaic artwork of my neighbor’s birds. He had a picture taken from a magazine so we had something to work from. Someone helped me because I couldn’t cut out the feet since they were really tiny, but I was able to put them in place. That was a challenge!
I also like paper mache. You can mix materials into the paper mache to give it different textures. For example, I’ve experimented with adding in sand and sequins. Of course, you can put in a variety of paint colors as well. I like that paper mache is light, versus clay which is heavy. I also like basketry because you can add a range of materials like beads, whether they’re commercial or handmade. You can have different patterns and shapes of baskets, as well as wide or narrow reeds. Mosaic, paper mache, and basketry...I would say these art forms have been the most successful for me.
ES: You once said about your ceramic and mosaic combo works, “When I’m making a piece, I can experience the design as I create it section by section.” Tell us more.
HF: Some of the clay medallions or shapes were found or abandoned in the studio. With the ceramic and mosaic pieces, they’re not in my head originally. It’s a matter of what I have to work with, and then it’s placement and glazing. So, I just do them as they come. I may have nine ceramic circles of a certain size, and I begin to arrange them. Once I can say that it feels like a nice arrangement, I begin fitting ceramic or glass mosaic tiles in between and so on.
Sometimes I work in sections, and sometimes I don’t because I have the whole board to work with, unless it’s a particular section with a particular color of tiles. Then, I might try to do a border first, then fill the inside.
ES: What do you hope your audience will gain when they encounter your artwork?
HF: I leave it up to the eye of the beholder. That’s why a lot of my work is untitled. Viewers have to look for it. When people ask me about my art, I don’t have a list of all the textures I used, where I placed them, or what colors they are.
I think things change in people’s minds when they view my work. Why did I use a certain color in a certain place? Not seeing, I have no idea. I just hope that when I’m able to see them - if I get my sight back while on Earth - that I would enjoy seeing as much as I enjoy doing them.
My father used to say to me, “Seeing is believing.” And I would say in return, “Believing is seeing.”