Typically, friends made in college tend to be friends for life — going to each others weddings, becoming godparents and maybe even helping to raise each others children. Artists who become friends in school, however, can do a little bit more.

Take for example Yoonmi Nam, an associate professor in the University's visual arts department. Nam recently opened an exhibit entitled “Wood + Paper + Box: a project inspired by mokuhanga” in downtown Lawrence at the Wonder Fair gallery.

“When I was a student in 2004, I applied for an artist residency where you’re funded to either work alone or with others on whatever style of art you want to learn about,” Nam said. “I went to a small island in Japan called Awaji where I learned the Japanese style of mokuhanga printing.”

Nam was among other artists who applied for the residency to learn the ancient Japanese art; two other artists, Katie Baldwin and Mariko Jesse, were in residency with her.

“We each brought different experiences and perspectives to the art, which really helped to learn about the printing itself," Nam said. "Sharing our points of view, helping each other with different aspects of the art and learning from each other as we went was what brought us together and made us stronger artists.”

The three artists grew to be good friends and, even though they separated after the residency ended, Nam and the others continued to keep in touch. In 2014, roughly 10 years after they met and the announcement of the first International Mokuhanga Conference, the three began working on a collaborative box of art.

“We would send each other pieces of art through the mail that would fit in a small box and give each other feedback and ideas,” Nam said. "Eventually we traveled among our galleries in Kansas, California and Alabama, drawing on our collective experiences and personal perspectives. We decided to create something together. What we were really doing was trying to recreate the experience we had together in Japan."

Together the trio collected and sent dozens of mokuhanga prints, personal experiments and ephemera across the country. Their collaboration became one of the eight boxes presented at the conference. Because the art had to be shipped among the three friends and kept within a box, the pieces on display are all very small.  

One such piece, which Nam created by using the mokuhanga technique, is affectionately and very accurately named “Tiny Chairs.” The piece is nothing more than two finger-nail sized chairs that one would miss altogether if not paying particular attention to the display at the Wonder Fair gallery.

“Her delicacy and deliberateness strike me most,” said Meredith Moore, curator from the Wonder Fair, referring to Nam’s artwork in the show. "Yoonmi's work always feels breezy and effortless, playful, content, even though it's been made with the utmost care and concentration."

Such concentration can be particularly seen in Nam’s personal work, in which she’s produced what appears to be nothing more than take-out containers and plastic bags.

“I wanted to experiment with something I had little experience in,” Nam said. “When you see the take-out boxes and the plastic bags, they appear to be normal, but look closer and the oyster containers are made of porcelain and the plastic bags are made of Gampi paper — an incredibly delicate Japanese paper.”

Indeed, the plastic bags look so mundane at first glance, but the fragility of them at a second glance is alarming.

“Connoisseurs of printmaking can see how laborious and carefully-made her work is, and that's what I love most about it,” Moore said. “It feels good to look at her work. And to think about it conceptually is even more rewarding.”

Nam’s inclusion of personal pieces in the gallery is an experiment with common packaging materials such as wrapping paper, brown paper bags and other disposable containers.

“I’m really interested in this idea of man-made things that are both ephemeral and eternal," Nam said. “Plastic bags are meant to just be used once, but they really last forever.”

This experiment with materials and concept value drew Moore’s attention to Nam's art and made her want to display the work.

“I enjoy having the opportunity to make haters admire the work,” Moore said. “Because the 'take-out' series looks almost indistinguishable from actual trash, some viewers enter the gallery and dismiss the pieces, thinking they're just modern found object sculpture or someone's lunch left behind in the gallery."

The mokuhanga box collection and Nam’s personal sculptures can be seen at the Wonder Fair gallery at 841 Massachusetts St. and shown until Nov. 15. Each piece is for sale. 

 — Edited by Rebecca Dowd

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