On February 7, 2024, NOW Art Founder Carmen Zella sat down with artist Nancy Uyemura for a live conversation about public art on Instagram (@nowart_la). We’ve been having a blast chatting with our favorite arts leaders and artists in Los Angeles, and we hope you’ll join us for future talks. RSVP here.

Below is a transcript of the video:

Carmen Zella (CZ): Hi everyone! Thank you so much for attending. I’m going to let the room settle in. My name is Carmen Zella. I’m the Chief Curator and Founder of NOW Art, and I have the privilege today of being here with Nancy Uyemura, who’s a public artist and a renowned artist in the Los Angeles area. So we’re going to have a little discussion that’s going to be 15 minutes and then after the discussion, if you could please put your questions in the Q&A box. We’ll open it up for Q&A after we have a 15 minute discussion. 

I’m really excited because we’re in the studio, Silk Studios, which is off of 21st Street in downtown Los Angeles, and we have this beautiful backdrop of Mike Saijo’s artwork, and I happen to collect him. He’s an incredible artist! So yes, excellent, we’re going to have a seat with Roo, the little dog here. I’m just going to adjust the camera a little. Okay perfect. 

So Nancy, this is such a privilege to be here!

Nancy Uyemura (NU): Sure, this is fun! I’m glad that we decided to do this and I’m happy that you could come and and even though this is not my studio, we’re using it to sort of prep for this public art piece that I’m working on right now. And Mike Saijo, whose art you collect, happens to be the fabricator so he’s been a big part of this project for me.

CZ: Yeah and we’ll move the camera over so that everybody can see the work as it’s in progress and we’ll get a little guided tour from Nancy after we have our discussion. But I wanted to open it up, Nancy, and I wanted to first of all ask you if you could tell us a little bit about yourself and a little bit about your artwork.

NU: I’m born and raised in Los Angeles, went to all of the schools. I went to Dorsey High School which is in the Crenshaw district, and then I went to UCLA and I went to USC and I went to Otis for a while. I studied in Japan for a while. Actually I started out in ceramics – I guess that was how I got started into art because I had gotten a scholarship out of high school to take ceramics and three-dimensional design at Mount Saint Mary’s College and the instructor, who was a graduate student at UCLA said, “Well, what do you want to do? You want to sit in a laboratory or do you want to do art?” I mean because he was a ceramics major, getting his Masters in ceramics – so I mean when somebody says that to you…I mean working with clay is so much fun and I really enjoyed it. 

Anyway, so that’s how I ended up an art major at UCLA. I took all kinds of classes. I think I still have that problem: I really like all kinds of art and I like all kinds of public art too. So how did I get started in public art – I think that was one of the questions that you wanted to ask me – when I first started, my first public art piece was in Little Tokyo and it was the entryway to Casa Heiwa, which was affordable apartments for residents in Little Tokyo, done by Little Tokyo Service Center. 

CZ: That’s the one at the county right? 

NU: No, it was CRA… 

CZ: Oh it was CRA, okay yeah. 

NU: Yeah, I mean I’ve been around for a really long time so I’ve seen the genre of public art sort of grow. That was the beginning stages of it, so I feel sort of fortunate that I was able to see the very beginning and so now there’s so much more out there. So for people wanting to do more public art, there’s more opportunities. They’re putting art in different kinds of places that we never really thought about before and there is some more funding for it. So artists are not…we used to say we never made any money doing a public piece because we always go over budget, it’s out of our pocket, and they never really think that art costs money. But that’s improved a lot. There are people out there funding good projects and there are people like you that are involved in public art so it’s come a long way.

CZ: That’s really encouraging to hear because you often think that budgets are shrinking but it’s interesting to get the vantage point that there actually more opportunities and that this is expanding, so how do you see the future of public art?

NU: That’s a hard question. How do we see the future of our society and our world? Because art is a direct reflection of what’s going on out there and right now it’s pretty tenuous. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but I think art provides that opportunity to express oneself – to sort of reach out and make connections with the people, the public at large. So in that way public art is really great. Even if it’s a small installation, a pop-up, or something that’s on a building that’s supposed to last for 30 or 40 years. Any kind of public art is really good.

CZ: What is your favorite type of public art and why?

NU: Well I was thinking about that. I have two pieces. They’re sort of old-fashioned public art pieces, but my favorites are the Biddy Mason wall, which is downtown, and then the timeline on the sidewalk in Little Tokyo. I really like both of those pieces.

CZ: And is it because of the narrative or the storyline associated? 

NU: It is. It’s the narrative and it’s the history and it tells you about somebody that you would have never known about and and it’s done very tastefully and aesthetically. I really like both the aesthetics of both of those pieces so those are my two favorite off the top of of my head. And they’re just not that difficult. They’re sort of simple to understand and it gives people a reason to think about the history, the power of place, and who these people were. 

CZ: You’ve also done some of that narrative and sort of reflective work in your own art. Can you talk about some of your favorite pieces of public art that you’ve done and what made them so compelling for you or inspiring for you?

NU: Well, like the Casa Heiwa piece, it was really about the diversity of the people in the city that lived in Los Angeles and since I was born and raised here, I’ve always loved LA. I still love LA. There’s a few things that I don’t like about it nowadays but it’s been my home for so long, and I wanted to capture friends, family, and just people that I saw on the street and that was what was reflected in that Casa Heiwa piece. They were photographs that I had taken and also that piece was a very community-oriented piece because all of the fabrication was done with the help of artists in the neighborhood. They were either Little Tokyo or Arts District artists. They did the silk screening for me, some of them helped actually put it in and I had a Japanese American tile person who really doesn’t do public art but he did the tile work for me. So we really did it on a shoestring. 

It’s interesting because it’s sort of come full circle because I’m doing this public piece for Little Tokyo Towers, which is an affordable housing development as well, and then I’m using Mike Saijo, who’s in the community, as a fabricator and he’s doing all the work himself just about. So you save money by not doing a professional fabricator, although I have nothing against those really top-notch fabricators because they really know their stuff and they do really good jobs but it’s very expensive. So if they’re giving you a project and then they’re giving you a budget, then you have to figure out how to make that happen. It’s like everybody wants on time, on budget and so that’s one of the things – if you’re going to do public art you really have to be aware of that.

CZ: Yeah and I also love the comment that you made about the process, because often times with studio artists their process is research-based or sort of self-reflective. It’s not as inclusive to other people and the community and so often times what I’ve experienced in watching and observing artists create public art is that when they open it up to the conversations with the community, it really helps to deviate their project in magical ways – not in negative ways but in really magical ways. Can you talk a little bit about that part of the process of doing public art?

NU: I think that’s one of the pluses of public art, because it makes those connections and it creates a relationship between the artist and the viewer and when you’re doing public art, because you have to sort of please so many people, you really have to watch and listen and know your community – and know the people that are going to approve this public art, one – but that you really touched a variety of people and then it makes people more aware of art and I think that’s the intent with any kind of art. You want that awareness to be built. 

There’s one little story – I know she’s on one of your boards – I worked for Sandy Gooch for many years. She had these markets called Mrs. Gooch’s Markets and I helped her do all of the interior and she did these little vignettes – they were little stories, and so it was like little public art within a market, and artists helped. We got art students from the local art schools and artists from the neighborhood and we would create these little scenes and themes. It was very charming and I think it added to the success that she had because Mrs. Gooch’s sold to Whole Foods after that. 

CZ: Right, well it also helps with education and when we’re able to position art in unexpected places, and really shift the site specificity and the imagination and catch all different demographics into that experience, it’s also very powerful.

I’d love to have you talk a little bit about your piece as well, so I’m going to shift the camera a bit here so that we can actually see. We positioned it on a tripod…

So this is the work, here, that’s on the ground – that Mike has been fabricating. And this is Mike! 

So Nancy, can you talk a little bit about this work please? 

NU: They’re hexagonal tiles that actually came from Home Depot, and there are 65 different artists of different levels and abilities, known and unknown, and they all were to take some part of Little Tokyo – and this project is to honor the Southern California Gardeners Association, the JACL or the activists, the Buddhist Church Federation, and the Christian Church Federation, who are all founders of the Little Tokyo Towers. So each of these people sent in an image that related to that somehow – and so it was really inspiring to see the different kinds of images that people came up with, and I know some people were professional artists so I got stuff like right away and they knew how to do a bio. And then some other people who are not so accustomed to doing this, we had to wait a while or change a little something, tweak it. 

I don’t know –  I don’t know if heart-warming is the word, but it’s was so interesting to hear people’s stories that have to do with Little Tokyo and with the history of their ancestors. There are some that have a grandfather that started a Christian church in Little Tokyo and there’s another one whose grandfather and fathers were gardeners, and Japanese gardeners are so famous and talented so it’s sort of nice to see that. I have some Buddhist priests, and Buddhist priests are always very good artists for some reason, I don’t know. I think art and spirit…

CZ: Shingo Honda? 

NU: Yes, Shingo Honda’s great, I wish he were here to participate in this.

CZ: Mike, do you want to talk a little bit about the process of where you’re at with the project and what you’re going to be creating?

Mike Saijo (MS): Sure – right now we’re organizing placement for the different images and deciding what color background color is going to come through, and so from this point we’re going to be silk screening the images onto an art decal process where we’re going to use a water slide process to apply the the image onto the tile and then firing them in the kiln.

CZ: And what’s the location of the final installation?

NU: Little Tokyo Towers is located on Third Street between Central and San Pedro and it’s going to be on a little wall that’s going to be facing inside to their courtyard, so you’re not going to really be able to see it from the street but that’s okay. It’ll be more of a walking piece for the the community and for the people that live at Tokyo Towers.

CZ: Beautiful, it’s absolutely gorgeous.

MS: And there’s going to be some aluminum trim that goes over the art tiles so the aluminum trim will kind of link them all together. 

NU: It’s about connections. It was a little cheesy because I used the honeycomb and I put bees in, here and there, in the definition or explanation. 

CZ: So we have a question here, Nancy. Is there a dream location that you’ve always wanted your public art to be displayed at?

NU: A dream location? Wow, I never thought about that. Well okay, I always wanted to get a job with Metro, one of the stations – I’ve never gotten one yet! But anyway…a dream location. Wow, I don’t know, that’s a hard one. 

CZ: Yeah it’s a great question because I think, as an artist who has created site specific work and you’ve been born and raised in LA, there’s so many incredible opportunities for expression. Is there like a dream scenario? Like to do something more permanent or more temporary or on a bridge? 

NU: I like sort of smaller pieces, more intimate pieces. It would be great to have like a series of little pieces that would connect the different neighborhoods in the city. I think that would be really great and it’d probably be easier to do than some really big thing. At this point in my life, I like the smaller things that are more intimate that really tell a story and touch people’s hearts. It’s that connection between the viewer and the artist and I think that would be a dream. 

CZ: Absolutely, excellent. Thank you so much. We are just a little bit…we’re actually on time so I really appreciate the fact that you have come and opened up your studio to me to be able to do this Instagram Live session and Mike, thank you so much for your insight and your fabrication is gorgeous and your artwork is also spectacular. Mike is going to be installing a public art piece as well, in Boyle Heights. 

MS: Yeah it’s already completed. 

CZ: Do you want give the address of where that is? 

MS: Sure, it’s called Brooklyn Heights Park and it’s opening February 14th, not sure the time yet. It’s located on Mathews Street between Caesar Chavez and First, one block over from Soto, behind King Taco and across the street from La Veranda, new Section 8 housing that they just constructed over there. 

CZ: Amazing. We’ll be posting that also on NOW Art’s Instagram feed – so stay tuned for the next IG Live and thank you everybody so much for joining and spending your time with us in this way. Excellent, have a good night, stay safe and stay out of the rain!