REVIEW: Kimi Maeda's Ephemera Trilogy at the Trustus Side Door Theatre

Homecoming By: Kyle Petersen

Ephemera (noun):

  1. things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time.
  2. items of collectible memorabilia, typically written or printed ones, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity.

"The year the law of gravity was abolished the moon wandered away. In the excitement we didn't notice that the Nakashimas disappeared. You had to hold on tight or things floated off. I suppose they never really put down solid roots."  –Kimi Maeda

It’s difficult to leave a performance of Kimi Maeda’s Ephemera Trilogy, which runs through May 7th in the Trustus Side Door Theatre, without your head buzzing with questions. What is the relationship between storytelling and art, art and memory, memory and identity, identity and truth?

Maeda is not offering up answers, of course, but is certainly providing provocative new ways of tackling these questions. Her work is deeply invested in interrogating the act of storytelling itself, of how we come to know ourselves through creative expression, with all of its messy contours and murky revelations. Using stories of her parents (and, perhaps more to the point, the stories they have told her) as logical guideposts to understanding herself, Maeda’s work is grounded in sorting through the thorny reality that the telling of a story is an ephemeral act and, yet, also the fundamental way we come to make sense of our memories and ourselves as people. Each section of Ephemera, which was developed over a period of six years, employs a different stunning and innovative method of telling a story, each of which foregrounds its storytelling artifice while at the same time reaching for something that feels true, that feels real, in the process.

In the first part of Ephemera, “Homecoming,” Maeda uses a flashlight to bring paper cutouts to life as she ponders questions about her parent’s homes as well as the kind of fables and myths we all tell about home, what it’s supposed to say about who we are. The idea is that how we think about home is a kind of storytelling in and of itself. Maeda is both fascinated and distrustful of these questions, and you can sense that lack of sureness in both the pre-recorded narrative and the ever-so-slight shake of the flashlight as she moves across and through the miniature tableaux and brings it to life. This story doesn’t, can’t, exist without Maeda there, providing that thin light and fragile movement necessary to make sense of this piece of visual art. This phenomenon is something that occurs in each of the sections, a kind of implicit recognition that how both viewer and artist are being swayed and prodded by a distinct viewpoint, one that only exists in precisely this way in this one particular moment in time. Each performance, then, is a reminder of both the power of storytelling and its ephemeral, magical nature.

The second section, “The Crane Wife,” has Maeda performing elegantly wrought shadow puppetry as she weaves together the story of her mom coming to America from Japan with an old Japanese folktale. Framed by (real?) historical letters that Maeda pens and reads aloud in real-time, the interpretation of the crane wife tale she tells becomes intertwined with how the artist understands her Japanese-American identity. Maeda renders it lovingly. She also ponders the story’s intrinsic message about sacrifice and feminism, testing what identifications she has with the story and the limits to which it can function as a genuine link to her Japanese heritage. That a folktale like “The Crane Wife” is endlessly told and retold, revised and reshaped, makes such tests of authenticity quite fraught. Yet this particular version will always have meaning for Maeda and her mother, will structure their identities and how they understand themselves. It’s an ancient practice of making new.

The final section, “Bend,” uses archival footage of Maeda’s father, suffering from dementia, and the famous Japanese sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, both of whom were assigned to the same Japanese internment camp in 1942 -1943. This footage and audio, which often features Maeda talking with her father about the past, is juxtaposed and blended with live sand drawings of figures and places, memories and fragments that are constantly erased, literally disappearing as Maeda draws over or sweeps them away with a broom the last image to make way for the next one. The idea of Maeda’s father, who is clearly a man of extraordinary intellect, warmth, and ambition having to grapple with his own shifting sands of memory makes this method of storytelling particularly significant and brings home the reality of the ephemeral nature of both memory and art.

These are by necessity brief and incomplete descriptions of what goes told through the incredibly innovative and evocative visual language that Maeda uses, but what’s even more difficult to translate is the sheer creativity at the heart of it all. The way she uses light and crumbled papers to conjure up a fire, the way layers of design and shadow move us through airports and palaces and soar us through the sky or into the interior of phone lines in “Homecoming.” The casual virtuosity of the shadow puppet illustrations of “The Crane Wife” that feel more keenly alive than any picture book. And perhaps most profoundly, the unusual framing and living transitions that exist over the course of one of her many sand drawings, each of which is remarkable in each distinct moment. It’s wholly distinct and different from simply watching a painter paint or an illustrator draw. I can’t help but think about a performance like this in spiritual and ritual terms, of finding some solace, some beauty, and some redemption in these symbolic and repetitive acts. Ritual is something that keeps tradition alive even as it changes, that gives us new spins on ancient questions, and that remind us all that all creative acts are storytelling ones, each with their fair share of an older narrative inextricably grafted to a new thread.  

To that end, art-as-ritual, or storytelling-as-ritual, or perhaps even storytelling-as-truth, feels at the heart of Maeda’s trilogy. Our stories are who we are. Even if there is something lost in translation, there is also something invented, something new, something you.   

And I can’t say that everything I pulled out of her Ephemera Trilogy is what Maeda necessarily intended. But I can without qualification say that such a rich, nuanced, and simply extraordinary piece of artwork is a treasure that contains multitudes and is very much worth spending your time with.

INTERVIEW: Kimi Maeda on her Ephemera Trilogy Opening at Trustus Friday

  Kimi Maeda

This Friday night in a departure from their typical programming, Trustus Theatre opens Kimi Maeda's Ephemera Trilogy, a piece of performance art based in puppetry, but delivering so much more than an adult puppet show. Staged in three parts and using performance art methodologies that include flashlights, sand, shadow art, and more, the performance will take place at the Trustus Side Door Theatre and will run from April 22nd through May 7th on Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, and on Sundays at 3. Jasper asked artist Kimi Maeda a few brief questions to better prepare us for receiving her work. Here's what we learned:


Jasper: Jasper has been following your work on the Ephemera project for a while, but for our readers who are just learning about this project can you please summarize what the project is about?

Kimi: In The Ephemera Trilogy, I use shadows and sand to capture the strangeness of living in between two different cultures.  Japanese folktales combine with stories of my mother coming to America, and archival footage from Japanese American relocation camps are intercut with sand drawings of my father as a young boy.  The constant desire for Home and a unified Identity that always seems to be just out of reach.


Jasper: This is a trilogy, right? How is it divided and what should viewers expect from each section?

Kimi: I see The Homecoming as a short shadow puppet overture to the other two pieces, and so I have placed it at the beginning of the evening.  Themes that get introduced will be revisited and elaborated upon later.

The Crane Wife provides several re-readings of a Japanese tale in which a crane transforms into a woman, combining it with my own experience growing up as a Japanese American in a white New England town and my mother’s experience immigrating to the United States.  It utilizes an overhead projector, mounted and hand-held lights, paper cut-outs, fabric collages, three-dimensional objects, and even my own body to cast shadows.

Using sand, shadow, and projection Bend tells the true story of two men incarcerated in a Japanese American relocation camp during World War II: my father, an Asian Art historian who suffered from dementia at the end of his life, and the subject of his research, Isamu Noguchi, a half-Japanese-half-American sculptor.


Jasper:  You created this completed project over six years, is that correct? Was the project fully formed when you began it or did the trilogy aspect present itself to you in the process?

Kimi:  When I began working on these pieces I had no idea of the scope that the entire project would take.  Like a lot of artists, I think there are certain themes that I gravitate toward: Home, trans-cultural identity, and memory.  While The Crane Wife focuses on my mother’s story, Bend focuses on my father.  After I created Bend it seemed natural that the pieces should fit together.  I create work as a way of understanding my place in the world.  As I get older I learn new things and try to incorporate that into my work.

kimi crane wife


Jasper:  And you've had the opportunity to tour this performance, is that correct? Can you tell us a bit about taking the project on the road -- where you've been and what that experience was like?

Kimi:  There are many different themes in Bend and so I think people connect to it in different ways.  When I took it to the International Sonoran Desert Alliance in Ajo, Arizona, as well as the Crossing the Borders: Puppets in the Green Mountains Festival in Putney, Vermont, the topic of immigration was very much on people’s minds.  In Arizona it was powerful not only to be in the desert landscape that my father experienced when he was interned, but also to hear the stories related to the border.

Taking Bend to Arkansas and the former site of one of the internment camps was also an amazing experience.  All that’s left of the camp is a smokestack at the edge of a cotton field.  The only Japanese American in the audience was a man who had been born in the camp.  His family was one of only seven that stayed in Arkansas when the camps were closed, and his was the only family that remained permanently.  It was moving to hear audience members talk about asking their parents why the US government had incarcerated its own citizens.  Before I began my last tour the Mayor of Roanoke, VA wrote in reference to Syrian refugees that “President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt compelled to sequester Japanese foreign nationals after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it appears that the threat of harm to America from ISIS now is just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”  As more survivors of the camps pass away, I think it becomes more vital than ever that we remember the injustice and we make sure that it never happens again.

I wrote this Facebook post before I started the last tour:

For the past few years my father has been slowly fading away. The illness that began as a wrong turn on a familiar drive home eventually reduced him to the shallow breathing that kept us on edge by his bedside. When he died, he left an emptiness in his wake.

People ask me if it is difficult to be doing a performance about his life so soon after his death. In some ways I think it is actually comforting. I created this show during his illness as a way to cope with everything that I was feeling. Rehearsing in preparation for the tour has been similarly therapeutic. I come into the studio every day and draw my dad over and over again while I listen to recordings of his voice. I am memorizing the shape of his face and the wrinkles on his brow. He feels very present, and that is filling the emptiness.

Bend is about forgetting, but it is also about memory. The New England Chapter of the JACL and I originally intended this Day of Remembrance Tour to commemorate Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066 which led to the incarceration of Japanese American families on the West Coast after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Now I think it is actually a fitting memorial for my father, as well.

A friend of mine whose father died recently wrote that “After the initial flurry of burial, obituary, and funeral arrangements passed, I began to think more about my dad from when he was healthy. The years of sickness have faded more, and the memories of my dad through all the years of my childhood and beyond have become stronger. It was like when my dad passed, the years of illness did too, and I was left with the times of what really mattered.” In Bend I express my fear that my father’s memory will be forgotten. However, this tour is not only allowing me to keep his memory present, it is also giving me the opportunity to share his story with so many people.


kimi bend2

Jasper:  Finally, is this it? Is this project completed and are you moving on to something else now? Or will there be another part to Ephemera? If you're moving on, do you know what your next project will be or can you give us some hints to what you're thinking of?

Kimi:  I don’t know that there will be another part to ephemera, but I think the piece as a whole will continue to grow as I get older.  Even returning to The Crane Wife after six years I feel as though I’m in a very different place emotionally and intellectually, and so I’ve added a whole new section at the end to try to address this.


Purchase tickets here.

McClellan Douglas, Jen Rose, Kendal Turner, and EPHEMERA

A couple of months back, Jasper challenged local artists to, in the interest of both creativity and sustainability, come up with an idea for how to use the abundance of corrugated cardboard boxes we have left over after every magazine release. We called it the Creating Out of the Box (with a bunch of boxes) Contest. We're delighted to announce that McClellan Douglas came up with the best idea!

McClellan, who, as an artist does everything from portraits to murals, trompe l'oeil, photography and edible art, plans to create a massive paper mache model of a homeless person right on the streets of Columbia for the Artista Vista festival. McClellan is doing this in conjunction with the Jasper Magazine presentation of EPHEMERA: The Art of Multidisciplinary Improvisation -- which we're doing in conjunction with local artist and Vista pioneer Clark Ellefson.

Join us for This year's Artista Vista starting on the evening of Thursday April 26th -- and then close it out on Saturday afternoon with art by McClellan Douglas and Jen Rose, another fabulous poetry reading by Kendal Turner, and EPHEMERA: The Art of Multidisciplinary Improvisation. (We'll be talking more about EPHEMERA in an upcoming post.)