An Inside Look at Heather Ujiie’s Upcoming Exhibit at HAM

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Artist Heather Ujiie’s upcoming exhibit at the Hunterdon Art Museum may be called Fairytales, Monsters, and Hybrid Creatures, but the issues behind it are very human.

By Sarah Emily Gilbert

“I’m very interested in the idea of a narrative having a symbolic allegory or story that resonates with some kind of mass human consciousness,” explains Ujiie, an adjunct professor at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. “Fairytales, Greek mythology, and many of the world’s religions are all versions of these narratives that are embedded in each culture to unfold and communicate the psychological conflicts we all face. Whether it’s good and evil, a power struggle in politics, or coming to terms with subordinate and dominant issues with a mother and father.”

Through what Ujiie describes as “data mashing,” she uses both western and eastern world history and religion to inform her artwork. It results in dramatic scenes featuring colorful mythological figures and fantastical patterns with narratives behind them that are less overt.

“I like to data mash because I think that the world population shares so much,” says Ujiie. “I want to leave some mystery in the work so that it’s not too literal, so that it’s up to interpretation, and there’s some kind of unresolved issue that people have to read into. I like to keep it open-ended.”

Art is somewhat expected to represent more than meets the eye, but such depth is less common in Ujiie’s other specialty: wallpaper. While living in NYC, the Bucks County, Pa. resident spent many years in the home furnishing market designing wallpaper and fabrication for furniture. Her striking designs attracted discerning clients like Polo/Ralph Lauren, Flavor Paper, and former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura.

“I’m still interested in this idea that a decorative print design can not only be functional as a wallpaper or fabric, but it can also speak to bigger issues, whether it’s charged with sexual images or imagery depicting loss and decay. You can have wallpaper that can make design resonate in art and vice versa.”

Three doors installed to “float” on the wall demonstrate Ujiie’s knack for functional design. Each features digitally printed images of a pattern in repeat, while maintaining a doorknob and other parts of the average wooden door. Additionally, Ujiie’s design background is showcased in her art-to-wear piece that can be both worn and displayed like a sculpture. In the exhibit, an 8-foot mannequin with giant horns will wear the dress make of paper and found materials.

ujiie-headshotAll of the approximately 10 works in her solo exhibition are a mix of analog and digital art, something Ujiie has mastered with over 15 years of experience in textile design.

“I hand paint all my work first. As a textile designer, I was trained to print with gouache, which is a water-based medium, and I work very small on 20×30 sheets of paper. I digitally scan in my work [to a computer] at a high-resolution and manipulate it in either Photoshop or Illustrator. Then I put patterns into repeat or I just make huge panoramic narratives that I scale up and digitally print on fabric.”

As a site-specific show, Fairytales, Monsters, and Hybrid Creatures was designed by Ujiie to fit the exact measurements of the room where it will be displayed. It is the first time the Hunterdon has designated the entire loft space, which used to be an old textile mill, to a solo artist. Each of the works in the exhibit consists of panels that will span three walls in the room.

“I took the measurements of all the walls, all the floors, and all the windows. I literally designed everything to fit in the space, so I’m really anxious to see it. It’s the way a designer would work, but it’s very art oriented. A lot of times I’ll create a piece and then shrink it down digitally and simulate it into the space to see how it looks ahead of time which is very helpful.”

Much of the works in Ujiie’s show at the Hunterdon Art Museum are oversized and dramatic, including the feature piece, Blue Monster that she digitally simulated below.

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Blue Monster comes from this idea of data mashing. It features a demon that was represented in an Indian manuscript from the 17th century. I just decontextualized it and put it into my own work as some sort of a monster/demon, but in world countries, many demons can be friendly. This is especially true in Hinduism. They don’t have to be evil, but representative of different things. The demon’s head is about five times the size of a human’s head when it’s printed and hanging up on the panel.”

With a background in theatre, performance, and costume design, Heather Ujiie is sure to create a show-stopping exhibit. Fairytales, Monsters, and Hybrid Creatures runs from September 25 until January 8, 2017 at the Hunterdon Art Museum. There will be an opening reception and artist’s talk on September 25 from 2 to 4 p.m.

Ujiie will lead two programs at the Museum this fall. Mask Making with Heather Ujiie will run on Sunday, October, 16 from 1 to 4 p.m. for children ages six and up with an adult; and Ujiie will offer a lecture and guided tour for adults on Sunday, November, 13 at 2 p.m. For more information, please visit www.hunterdonartmuseum.org. The museum is located at 7 Lower Center St. in Clinton, New Jersey. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. and suggested admission is $5.

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Digitally printed doors that will be displayed in the exhibit. They were previously installed in the Delaware Art Museum for the outlook’s Duality exhibit. (Photo credit: Hitoshi Ujiie)

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Ujiie’s art to wear piece is still a work in progress. The end product will be worn on an 8-ft. mannequin with giant horns and feature a 12-15 ft. skirt.