Miyuki Nakajima: The embroidery sculptor

A sculpture made thread by thread


For some unknown reason, people tend to sit on the floor when visiting Galerie Momogusa in Tajimi. The exhibition space of the gallery is set up like a typical living room with a small charcoal grill on a coffee table. We sat around, admiring the perfectly grilled mackerel pike that looked so tasty, at some point, we thought we could almost smell the freshly grilled mackerel. The fish made by the embroidery artist/sculptor Miyuki Nakajima looked so real that even our noses were deceived by the visual sight.






“This mackerel pike can still be improved,” said Miyuki Nakajima, “I’ve received a feedback, after someone who took a look at the exhibition promotional photo, that went, ‘The fish looks like it’s cooked in the fish grill (a small pull-out grill that can be found in a typical Japanese kitchen). Mackerel pike cooked on a Shichirin grill should have some different grill marks.’ This made me realize it shouldn’t be displayed this way,” Nakajima explained in a cheerful voice. As a person who is not bothered by small matters, she is surprisingly strict with recreating things in the most truthful way and display them in the best setup. When talking about her art, she would all of a sudden become very serious.

Nakajima majored in sculpture art in college and learned embroidery on her own upon graduation; embroidery has, later on, become her primary medium of art. The biggest difference between her and other embroidery artists is how she identifies embroidery as sculpture art. Sculpture art is, perhaps, a better way to categorize her works. Instead of stuffing the embroidery fish with cotton balls, she actually kept stitching until it became a three-dimensional fish. As the fish embroidery got seamlessly stitched with layers of thread, it became almost impossible for her to poke a needle in even with the greatest strength; only until then did Nakajima decide to stop threading. The whole process is so manual and time-consuming, the little “dried fish” that is no longer than 5 cm actually took her one whole month to finish making. People may call her crazy, but she would happily take this comment without disagreeing.

Miyuki Nakajima has always been attracted by sculpture art. When making a sculpture, the artist can apply all the five senses in the creative process. Nakajima hopes that her embroidery sculpture can also spark the imagination of viewers from all perspectives including vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Looking at the mackerel pike, we began to feel hungry. Not only did our nose get tricked, but our stomach also got triggered to feel ravenous.

R:Ron Lam
N:中島美雪/Miyuki Nakajima



R: Since when have you been working on embroidery art?
N: I got to know a lady who I admired very much when I was in college. She embroidered me a piece of hair accessory, which inspired me to learn embroidery. In the beginning, I was too much of an amateur who could not recreate what I had in mind using the technique of embroidery, therefore I had given it up for a while and turned to leather shoemaking. At the same time when I was considering to stop making shoes because of my tenosynovitis, my embroidered headpiece was broken. This reminded me of the option of trying embroidery for one more time. I would like to make something that can reflect my personality. This happened in 2010.

R: You have a very unique style. When did you start building up this style? How did you establish your personal style?
N: My earlier works were not limited to making animals and fishes. My current style began in 2015 and it started to build up from there. At first, I wasn’t too aware of the idea of originality. I’ve never properly learned embroidery. I am sometimes asked where did I learn embroidery, but to be honest, I haven’t even read any books on this topic. I don’t even have the knowledge of the technical terms related to embroidery. Honestly, I never planned to learn embroidery or to observe other people’s embroidery art. I believe it is more of my style to make artwork based on my intuitive thoughts. I enjoy keeping trying and exploring. So when people ask for my advice, all I can say is to suggest them to dedicate their mind to threading.




R: Is your creativity inspired or influenced by anyone?
N: I believe I am certainly influenced by every single person I’ve met. If I have to name a turning point in my life, it would be when I was taught by Atsuo Ishii at Tama Art University. There was a period of time when I was a bit lost. I was struggling a lot to maintain a balance between my ambition and my skill. When I have decided to express my creativity through embroidery, Professor Ishii told me “No matter what medium you choose, just do not forget your status as a sculptor.” His advice was implanted in my mind. From then on, I endeavor to create embroidery works made by a sculptor.

R: Animal seems to be a recurring theme of your artwork. Is it true that you became an animal lover because of your parents?
N: That’s right. My life has always been surrounded by animals, I’ve been living with all types of animals like rabbits, hamsters, squirrels, medakas, turtles, ferrets, goldfishes, dogs and so on.

R: How do you usually come up with an idea for your art?
N: I’m often curious about how natural things appear unnatural, and what makes things look natural or normal after all? Me and my friends once played a game in the mountains to compete who could find the most beautiful leaf eaten by bugs. There are unpretentious, beautiful and unnatural things in nature, which are so fascinating. I would say they are the inspiration to my art.




R: What are your concerns when creating new work?
N: The most important thing is to take embroidery beyond handicraft. I hope to demonstrate the beauty of art through my embroidery. Then I realized it actually takes a lot more extra techniques. My works are mostly themed around nature, therefore I want to replicate their most natural form. One can easily make a vertical line to represent the philtrum; however, I would like to recreate the cleft as well as the texture of the skin, I would need to replace the vertical line with numerous horizontal lines. To recreate the smooth blue skin of a whale, I prefer to do it with multiple layers of thread in various colors. As for a grilled salmon, the crispy skin has a completely different texture when compared to the flesh. I need to carefully adjust the stitch density so as to make the end product look appealing.

On the other hand, I would like to learn more about the general perception of people so I can view the objects I plan to reproduce from an objective perspective. Apart from observing the thing itself, I would also spend a lot of time researching photos and information online. I would only begin the actual production process only after these steps.

My works are all made with common materials using generally known techniques. I do not dye my own thread; all I do is to buy the typical DMC 25 floss but pull the six strands apart to use them separately.





R: Could you share with us the happiest and the saddest moment in your job?
N: I often have a feeling that this is a really time-consuming and troublesome job. If I were a painter, I could easily fill up a one-square-centimeter space with a brush and paint. To fill up the same space with embroidery, it requires a lot more time. I often feel like being stuck in an extremely long tunnel when working on my work.

It is up to my artwork to decide when it is finished. When I finally see some light shining from the piece of work I am working on, all the effort I have spent seems to be worth it. This gives me genuine joy. After seeing my art, some would ask, “Why are you spending so much time on this clumsy and tricky thing?” I would laugh and say, “It’s time to make another one.”

R: Are you looking for taking up some new challenge?
N: There are many things I would like to try making. For example, I share the same name as the singer-songwriter Miyuki Nakajima, it would be an interesting project to make an embroidered album cover for her. But if you are asking about challenges, I think I would like to make an artwork of a larger scale. I want to make a life-size dog embroidery based on my own beloved dog. Compared to challenges, it is more important to focus on things that can last forever. This is my way of saying thank you to people who have been supportive of me. Making things that can last forever is now my utmost priority.