Masako Miki: Kuchisake-onna (Mouth Tear Woman), 2018; wool on foam, cherry wood; 42 x 71 x 13 in. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and CULT Aimee Friberg Exhibitions

Much-admired Berkeley-based artist and designer Masako Miki is the 273rd artist in the MATRIX Program for Contemporary Art at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. (BAMPFA). MATRIX is an ongoing series dedicated to presenting cutting-edge art and ideas from around the world. And Masako Miki is a perfect choice for the program since she has been an important figure in the Bay Area’s creative community for more than two decades, although she was born in Japan.

In a single gallery at BAMPFA, Miki has created an installation of large, colorful, felt-covered sculptures, inspired by her interest in the folklore traditions and religious practices from her native country.

These brightly colored, almost childlike, gently playful huge sculptures are based on shape-shifting spirits that arise out of Buddhist and Shinto traditions and early Japanese folklore. The immersive installation also includes accompanying abstract two-dimensional images on the floor and walls of the exhibition gallery, so that every sculpture has its own background wall and floor art with similar or contrasting colors.

Berkeleyside did a Q&A with Miki over email in which she spoke of her love of Berkeley, the inspiration for her current work, and her use of color (edited for brevity).

You are a native of Osaka, but have lived in Berkeley for over 20 years. What made you first come to live in Berkeley and what about Berkeley makes you remain here?

I came to the U.S. to attend school in 1992. I received an MFA from San Jose State University and moved to Berkeley after the program. I love living in the Bay area, especially Berkeley. I like the diverse communities in the Bay Area as I feel I am a part of the community. Berkeley is a beautiful city, and people are conscious of our surroundings. I also love how we are so close to everything — both city and nature.

Your new installation at BAMPFA is very different from your earlier two-dimensional art. What inspired you to create the three-dimensional felt-covered shape-shifter forms?

My work organically evolved from one series to the next. And it all began with the question of my own cultural identity. As an immigrant, it has been a significant part of my own survival… I started to use my ancestral narrative of the Shinto animism of, yōkai, or “shape-shifters” as a metaphorical departure point to explore blurred boundaries and dichotomies within the human condition. I want to emphasize that things are interrelated rather than disconnected. Shapeshifters manifest the idea of fluidity and transitional space. They are both animate and inanimate beings, and also they can cross boundaries of both material and spiritual realms.

I believe the idea of fluidity is an important idea for our current society, as we see an increasing number of non-binary spaces unique to the current zeitgeist including gender fluidity, biracial identity, and multiculturalism … I wanted to create an immersive installation where viewers can interact with these sculptures … [and] become a part of the environment rather than being spectators.

Masako Miki: Karakasa-obake (Umbrella Ghost), 74 x 21 x 21 in.; Ungaikyo (Possessed Mirror), 25 1/2 x 35 x 10 in.; and Kinoko (Mushroom Ghost), 38 x 34 x 19 in.; all 2018; wool on foam, walnut and wenge wood. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and CULT Aimee Friberg Exhibitions

Your use of bright, childlike colors and patterns seem to contrast with the idea of shape-shifters as monsters. What made you choose those colors?

Color usually expresses the sensibility of the series. This time I used vivid colors like fluorescent pink, turquoise, and evergreen to express playfulness and uplifting feelings. Shapeshifters are traditionally depicted with muted colors. I wanted to use these vivid colors to imbue a sense of life so that they are alive and present. I am envisioning these shapeshifters in a playground and having fun hanging out with other shapeshifters.

How do you make the individual sculptural pieces? Do you design and create the fabrics?

I had to use blue industrial foam inside the large scale sculptures, which range from three to 10 feet tall. I 3D-scanned my previously created miniature-felt sculptures and enlarged them with blue foam by CNC milling machine cut. Then I dressed the surface of this blue foam with two to three layers of roving wool by needle felting … For each color I used about eight to 10 pounds of color; some pieces may be about 20 pounds. It is an extremely time consuming and repetitive process to needle felt for this large scale of sculptures.

Do you have anything in mind yet for your next project?

I am designing a poster for the Women’s March. I am commissioned by BAMPFA and will distribute them at UNTITLED art fair in San Francisco. I am collaborating with Magnolia Editions in Oakland to make a special artist edition print.  Several exhibitions are scheduled this year in San Francisco and probably in New York as well.

As for my next new body of work, I would like to continue my new drawing series with watercolor and ink. It has a new direction, and I am very excited about that. I also plan to explore the felt sculptures with different size, shape, colors, etc. I also want to start researching materials for these sculptures to be outdoor sculpture. My ambition is to design a park for both adults and children where these shapeshifter sculptures are part of it. I know it is such a big and complex project, but I should at least try.

Masako Miki: Mori no Yokai (Shapeshifters of Forest), 2018; wool, gold-filled pins, wool, paint; installation 8 x 20 ft.; individual sculpture dimensions vary, 3–7 in. Courtesy of the artist and CULT Aimee Friberg Exhibitions. Photo: Maria Baranova

Is there anything else that you would like Berkeleyside’s readers to know about you?

This was the most challenging exhibition I’ve ever done. I also want to invite you to my solo exhibition “Shapeshifters” at CULT Aimee Friberg Exhibition in San Francisco. It just opened on Jan. 12 and is up until Feb. 23. I have crafted narratives in these two exhibitions. The shapeshifters are in a playground at BAMPFA exhibitions, and they are heading home at dawn/night at CULT gallery.

Masako Miki’s installation is on view until April 28 at BAMPFA, 2120 Oxford St. in Berkeley. For further information, visit

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...