A candid chat with visual artist Nishiki Sugawara-Beda


In March 2019, Execute Project gallery opened its first exhibition that features works by Nishiki Sugawara-Beda. In the exhibition titled “Tonality,” paintings and sculpture installation have been presented by artist. It is the first exhibition out of the four planned for the year and it is currently holding in the space created. Through her work, Nishiki Sugawara-Beda explores the power of mark-making—a spiritually engaged mark-making. Nishiki consciously applies marks, create forms and patterns that represent her mindless state of mind and emotions.

Nishiki Sugawara-Beda is a visual artist who works primarily on painting and sculptural installation. As she was born and raised in Japan and immigrated to the US as a young adult, her work deals with the examination of various cultures. To speak to the core of humanity, she seeks the connections among cultures both from the past and present, and currently she is researching on Japanese traditional activities including Chado (tea ceremony) and Tenkoku (seal). Her  work has been presented in solo exhibitions as well as numerous group shows nationally and internationally. She has been shortlisted for various art competitions, including the Door Prize (Bristol, England), ArtGemini Prize (London, England), and 7th National Juried Exhibition at Prince Street Gallery (New York). Her work has been published in the 87th issue of New American Paintings, Fresh Paint Magazine, Expose Art Magazine: Special Edition, AEQAI, and 100 days 100 women. She is an Idaho Art Fellow 2018 awarded by the Idaho Commission on the Arts funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, USA.

  1. Tell us about the title of the exhibition and meaning behind it.


When I was completing my sculptural installation, I looked at it for a long time at the Execute Project space. The flow, volume, formation, height, airlines, pattern, space, and tempo… The word tempo clicked in my mind and started viewing my sculptural installation as a musical composition. They also looked like a sheet music as if each sculpture piece is playing the role of a musical note.

So, when I was imagining the tunes for the music, first I wanted to feel the tone of the sounds that I am hearing from the sculptural installation. In fact, there are a few tones that I sensed myself and it offers different tones with various time of the day, etc. These would vary from myself to others. Therefore, this became my title, Tonality.

  1. What is your installation made of? Is material important for you?

Each sculpture is made of mesh wire as a structural foundation to form a Mobius strip, then strips of rice paper were carefully applied with rice glue (papier-mâché). The wire supports the Mobius strip to retain its shape and papier-mâché reinforces the stability. Seals were stamped on small piece of papers and applied on top of the surface of the strip. The meanings of the seals, the contents of the characters, revolves around the communications/relationships among us as human being.

While the wire keeps its form, it also offers the appearance of a grid system which not only adds a visual complexity but also refers to practicing papers for young leaners of Japanese and Chinese characters.


  1. Tell us about process of making this installation.

This installation was a challenge. Each venue offers some challenges, spatially and logistically. For this specific venue, I imagined this installation to be a wall piece, but still hanging from the ceiling. My initial idea was to install sculptures in such a way that they look like waterfalls. But the idea was quickly turned down by the logistics of the hanging system that I created. I couldn’t stack them vertically more than three sculptures at any point. However, because of this limitation, they started to form musical notations on the wall.

Another challenge was the use of the blank space of the wall. I treated this sculpture as a wall piece, like a painting, which meant that the wall itself needed to be viewed as a canvas. Lighting also acted as a painting tool.

  1. How did this exhibition influence your painting? Eg. thinking process?

Actually, the sculpture has jumped out from my painting, when I was trying to see the spirit of a word in a tangible form. I am glad that this was asked, because after installing the sculptural installation at this exhibition venue, various ideas started forming. One of the ideas that I acted upon was to paint in reaction to the sculptural installation in the same space. I painted a large sheet of paper (about 4 x 9 feet) on the floor in front of the work as if to add calligraphy to parallel the sculptural installation. The two pieces echo each other, providing space for the tonal waves to move in between them. I want the viewer to become the conduit for the sculpture and the calligraphy to sing to each other.

This process opened up my approach to mark making as I tried to incorporate various techniques in order to create genuine yet uncontrolled brushstrokes. I have not finished this painting, but I am excited to continue with this approach.

  1. In your opinion, what matters in the painting? Is the surface of the painting equally important for you as the concept?

The surface of the painting is the primal stage for us, artists, to communicate our visions, stories, and concerns. There are many other areas to utilize for effective communication, but the surface remains the front row. So, for me, the concept and the surface of the painting are equally important and carry the same weight as visual object. In addition, the concept needs the surface to manifest, and the surface is supported by the concept. The relationship is intricate and symbiotic.


  1. You are using Sumi-ink almost as a base for every painting. I can see a strong relation to Japanese culture. I am wondering how you feel when you use Sumi-ink in your painting?

As Japanese children, we were exposed to Sumi-ink from early age, even before entering grade school. It was not a main medium to write or draw, but it certainly had a special space for the Japanese school curriculum, and still does.

When I desire to be the “real me” (authentic), I want to use the materials that brings out my cultural heritage. The Sumi-ink is the perfect medium to do so.

It is interesting that you asked how I feel when I use Sumi-ink. I chose Sumi-ink for several reasons. I like the feel of the ink. I like the smell of the ink. I like a wide variety of (black) tones that I can see in the ink. I like the wonder that I have when I paint with the ink, the wonder of the process of making the ink. I like how it beautifully ties with my concept and the material. There are so many “likes.”

So, when I think of how I feel when I use the ink, I think of the word, neutral. I feel that the ink allows me focus on what I am painting. It does not require me to be a certain way, nor to bring the baggage of the western history of painting into my painting process. It simply allows me to be “me,” who was born and raised in Japan. Therefore, when I think of how I feel when I use Sumi-ink, it is almost like taking the weight off of my shoulders and being free to make marks on the surface.

  1. What is the next step for Sumi-ink in your work?

This summer, I am going to Nara, Japan to study Sumi-ink, including its making process and the culture around the workshops and their users.

While I view the process of making Sumi-ink poetically, I am also looking at the process of making Sumi-ink objectively. I have been talking with a chemist at my university and planning to burn something to get soot to make my own Sumi-ink. In Nara, I will be meeting with a chemist and with historians specializing in calligraphy in Asia. There is so much to learn and observe, and I am sure how I approach my painting will be affected by those encounters and experiences. I am thrilled by this opportunity.

There are many artists who uses Sumi-ink in Japan and Asian countries. I look forward to meeting artists in Nara to hear about their relationships to their materials, Sumi-ink, as well.


  1. What is Sumi-ink?

Sumi is made of soot and has been used in Asian ink painting. The soot was mixed with animal glue and formed into a mold to make a stick. After being dried and cured, it is ready to be dissolved with water and ground together to become ink. The whole process is poetic and full of thoughtfulness.


  1. You are now living and working in Dallas, Texas. What does it do to your art?

I am not sure yet, as it has been just over 6 months since I moved here, but I can tell that the energy of the Dallas art community is definitely positive. Through the SMU Division of Art where I teach and its university-wide research community, I experience and participate in highly intellectual discourse regarding art and other fields of study on a daily basis. I am fortunate to have this environment, and I am excited for it to continue to be part of my daily activities.