by Lee Armfield Cannon
If you ever drive, jog, stroll or walk your dog down Albemarle Street east of Connecticut Avenue, chances are you’ve noticed the house on the hillside, high up over the street, surrounded by large-scale steel sculptures and bearing the name “House of Sheeba,” announced by a sign halfway up the steps. You wouldn’t be the first person curious enough to climb the steep staircase, knock on the door and be greeted by the quietest internationally-known artist in the neighborhood, long-time resident Setsuko Ono.
Ms. Ono has been a neighbor in Forest Hills for two decades, since she found the house on Albemarle that fit all her needs: close to the Metro, accessible to anywhere in the city and featuring an elevator that could serve her aging mother’s needs. The house on the slope was perfect and Ono and her husband were delighted to take up residence and name their home “House of Sheeba,” in honor of their first cat together, an Abyssinian. Little did Ono realize that the house would become more than a home; it would gradually morph into an indoor and outdoor gallery space, as well as a studio for painting and sculpture.
Ono comes from a family of many artists, and even as a child she showed a lot of passion and talent for drawing, but she never predicted she would become so serious about art as a vocation. It was only in the latter part of her career in international development that she began taking courses at the Corcoran College of Art and Design’s Continuing Education program – first in painting, then in sculpture, then in painting again – rediscovering her childhood love of art and channeling the artists she had appreciated as a viewer all over the world.
Ms. Ono comes originally from Tokyo but spent part of her childhood in the United States, attended university in Japan, then went to Geneva for her Master’s and Ph.D. work. There she studied, met her husband – scholar Piero Gleijeses of Italy – and landed a job in international development with the World Bank. She spent the next 28 years traveling the world and negotiating aid for the economic development of nations large and small. Traveling roughly 150 days a year during her career, Ono has been just about everywhere. Because of her lifelong interest in art, she made opportunities in her travels to expose herself to different kinds of art in the places she visited and lived. Of her time in Europe, she says, “Art is everywhere in Europe. I was completely immersed in art, but informally.”
Her own style is an eclectic mix and changes with the material she is using at the moment: oil, acrylic, charcoal, pastel, wood, plastic, stone or steel. A tour of her home shows her versatility in two-dimensional and three-dimensional space. A wooden sculpture in the living room shows Ono’s ability to draw a human figure out of a large trunk of wood, while leaving enough of the natural shape to highlight the original material. The result is a blend of woman and tree reminiscent of the myth of Apollo and Daphne, in which a human maiden pursued by a god is transformed into a tree by another god who takes pity when the maiden cries out for deliverance.
A painting a few rooms away seems to draw from the same myth, “Une Femme,” an oil of a distinctly woman-like tree.
“I don’t really plan when I’m painting. Things just come out,” Ono says. The same is true for her with sculpting. She plans very little and avoids making blueprints, if possible.
“When I’m working in steel, I just pick a sheet of steel, pick a crayon and draw, then later decide how to cut, fit and undulate the pieces. When I’m working in wood or stone, I look at the shape of the material and see what can come out. It’s like a conversation with the material. In my art, I’m playing with color, space, figures and images. I hate to be limited by social rules or legal rules or any other kind of rules, or to be put in a box. I don’t want my work to be in a box either. So I decide what I’m doing while I’m doing it,” Ono says.
She does, however, admit that she must keep in mind the rules of gravity when she works.
“It’s easy to balance a small steel sculpture like “Flying Cactus,” but when it’s larger, you have to think about the equilibrium. Sometimes a work doesn’t stand up! My original idea for “Oceans” [displayed in Shinagawa, Tokyo] was to have three waves coming together, one leaping and crashing, but it wouldn’t stand, so the crashing wave became a circle, which is very strong. I wanted a tall wave, too, so the tall wave now leans on the circle and it’s very sturdy.”
The concept of motifs and meanings arising naturally and without a plan is most evident in Ono’s large-scale scroll paintings, some as large as six and a half feet tall and 32 feet long. In order to work on such a long piece of canvas, Ono unrolls only a portion, paints her vision, allows it to dry, then rolls up the finished portion and unrolls a fresh area. Without thinking ahead to the end, or even the next panel, Ono paints whatever figurative or abstract images occur to her at the time, so the end result is a long painting with distinct sections and an episodic feel.
In one scroll painting, “My Childhood,” part of a series called “Dreams of Peace,” black birds and tadpoles populate an abstract landscape of bright hues. A later panel features clearly delineated skyscrapers – Ms. Ono is not positive which real-life models she used, but the skyline has the feel of New York – and faithfully rendered vegetables floating in the air and collected on the ground. Ono’s Abyssinian cat makes an appearance here, as well, looking off toward the previous sections of the scroll with an inquisitive air.
Asked to explain why she featured the various animals, vegetables and buildings, Ono simply notes, “I love animals. I kept rabbits and tadpoles as a child, and I rode horses. And of course, I love my cat.” She quotes an unknown artist who described cats as “living sculptures,” to explain why she again and again returns to her cats as subjects of her art. Beyond mentioning her general love of animals of both the land and sea, Ono smiles and says, “Picasso said an artist shouldn’t interpret his own paintings.”
However, some of Ono’s paintings and sculptures show she has definite ideas and specific messages she wished to convey. In the series of paintings she titled, “Resistance to Overwhelming Force,” Ono pulls from iconic photographs as well as fresh war photography to portray both scenes from and her reactions to violent conflict in history and the modern day. The title piece, another 32-foot canvas scroll, shows sharply contrasted scenes of conflict and the weariness following conflict, tied together by the appearance of unmistakable figures from Picasso’s “Guernica,” which depicted the horrors of aerial bombardment during the Spanish Civil War and the effect on wholly innocent people and creatures.
Another painting in the series, “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: Give Us Our Daily Bread,” depicts very realistically a scene from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Children hoist themselves onto a concrete wall in the background and middle ground, while the figure of an old man crouches over in a posture of suffering in the foreground.
The idea came from a story Ono heard. Before the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, children would make daily attempts to escape in order to find food and bring it back to the adults still trapped in the ghetto. Ono was so moved by the story that she painted her vision of the scene, the children climbing and scrabbling at the wall, hoisting each other up and peering over. None of their faces are visible, only their backs, but the wall they climb is covered with abstract faces rendered in charcoal, watching the children and staring out at the viewer.
The next paintings in the series again tackle the theme of war, but this time with an opinion visible and a message beyond man’s inhumanity to man. In “Victory in Defeat,” and “For Our Beautiful Earth,” Ono uses the juxtaposition of title and subject to make viewers think more deeply about particular conflicts and perhaps see an alternate view.
“Victory in Defeat” includes a charcoal rendering of the iconic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising photograph of a young boy in a hat and coat, lifting his hands in surrender. In the painting, the boy is surrounded by the helmets and blacked-out faces of Nazi soldiers, but it is the boy’s face and gesture, as well as other hands reaching skyward in surrender, that win out in the competition for the viewer’s attention and empathy, as he resists the wave of Nazi imagery that threatens to engulf him.
“For Our Beautiful Earth,” shows scenes of Palestinian resistance to Israeli bombardment and attack. In the foreground, masked gunmen stand ready with AK-47s raised, and in the middle ground, a youth highlighted by the yellow-orange conflagration behind him, draws back his arm to fling a rock. One striking contrast, though, is the lack of anger in the eyes of the resisters. Their faces are covered, but the expression in their eyes alone transmits enormous humanity. In the background, a green-clad figure plants a Palestinian flag on a mountain of rubble rendered darkly in charcoal, while in the distance, a mosque minaret teeters on the verge of collapse, the angle creating a triangle with the planted flag, and a heavy sense of tension. Abstract patches of stripped paint lend to the chaotic and frantic feeling of the painting.
About her titles and how they interact with the paintings, Ono says, “The resisters in the Warsaw Ghetto knew they would lose, but they had to save their self-respect. On the contrary, the Palestinians are hoping to regain their land, but they are also fighting against great odds and trying to save their self-respect. When I heard in 2008 [about the bombardment of Gaza], I was so hurt and anguished that I made this painting. It looked to the public like the Palestinians were terrorists, but I felt they were fighting for justice and peace. They were struggling in their own way for a beautiful earth.”
The contrast of the titles with the subject and apparent tone arrest the viewer on the verge of making an assumption, and invite the viewer to draw parallels and connections not readily apparent, but nonetheless real.
“Blackened Sun” is another painting with a sense of a political statement, yet it uses animals rendered partly figuratively and partly fantastically to convey the understated meaning. The painting immediately draws the eye to the figure of a lion, standing upright and roaring out at the viewer, covered or perhaps entangled by frantic lines of deep blue. Stylized birds speed by over the lion’s head while cartoon-like creatures swirl at its feet. On either side of the lion are black and white sections suggesting architecture, perhaps even confinement or a fencing in of the lion. The painting suggests so many themes and yet points to none clearly, leaving the viewer with a desire to solve the riddle. Ms. Ono offers no hints, except that she is often thinking about the incursion of civilization on the natural world and that seems to have come out in the painting; however, “It’s difficult to say; it’s like interpreting a dream.”
Many of Ono’s paintings and sculptures have a dreamlike quality to them, and seem to draw inspiration from the work of other artists whose work had the feel of a dream, with space and form distorted and combinations re-imagined. The idea for the acrylic and charcoal painting, “Garden of Delights,” photo came from a postcard image Ono saw of Hieronymus Bosch’s work, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” but the tone of her own work came out completely different.
In Ono’s painting, the circular energy and feeling of activity is present, just as in Bosch’s painting, but the forms of the embracing figures are more abstractly rendered and bring to mind Picasso. Of the contrast between the painting and inspiration, Ono comments that even she was a little surprised at how different her own painting turned out, but her love of charcoal as a medium was more of a driving force than a desire to make the tone of the painting dark.
Though her art career has spanned many decades, Ms. Ono has rarely sought out chances to publicly exhibit or sell her art. Each of Ms. Ono’s public exhibitions came about because of a championing believer.
While Ono was becoming an expert on international development banking in her own career, her husband, Gleijeses, became one of the foremost experts on Cuban foreign policy under Castro. Gleijeses’ was able to use his connections in the Cuban government to place Ono’s sculpture portfolio into the hands of the Minister of Culture, who was delighted with her work.
The Minister’s eagerness to showcase her work in Cuba led to Ono’s first chance at a public exhibition, in 2003 at the 8th Havana Biennial Art Exhibition, an extensive exhibition mainly showcasing the art of underdeveloped nations and underrepresented artists. A documentary film created about her exhibition in Cuba, available on Ms. Ono’s website, reveals the process of collaborating with a team of steel mill workers for the first time to create her works of art for the public display. Prior to that exhibition, she had done all the cutting and welding of steel sculptures herself. The documentary is titled Sueños – Dreams – referencing the importance of dreams of all kinds, waking and unconscious, to Ono’s work. “Many of my works are called ‘Dreams’ or ‘A Dream.’ It seems I’m always dreaming.”
Two works in particular feature dreams in their titles, the painting, “A Dream,” in Ono’s home gallery and the large-scale sculpture, “Dreams,” on permanent display at the Hara Museum of Gunma Prefecture in Japan. The painting is an oil of a sleeping leopard and a flying osprey lit by the moon, which takes up such a large portion of the space that it seems like a third character in the painting. Is the painting a dream that Ono had? Or is the leopard the one who is dreaming? Ono just smiles.
Ono’s sculptural displays at the 8th Havana Biennial Art Exhibition, then again at the 10th in 2009, allowed her to build enough of a portfolio to show off her range. Ono’s friend showed her work and the documentary, Sueños, to the director of the Hara Museum, who immediately recognized the value of her work and the echoes of Japanese aesthetics in her style. The director was very eager to acquire her work and, unbeknownst to Ono, spent four years ironing out the logistics before approaching her and requesting a sculpture. Ono then spent a period of months in Japan, working with a local engineering firm and steel mill, collaborating with the artisans who cut, welded and gave a shining finish to her large work, “Dreams.”
“Dreams” – and the work she completed a year earlier for display in Shinagawa in Tokyo, “Ocean” – features a large wheel-like shape set off by an undulating, horizontal wave. Because of the nature of the medium, the work would look very heavy and ponderous but for the almost gravity-defying cutting and welding that make the shapes of humans, plants and animals lift right out of the steel, and uses the negative spaces left behind to lighten the work and enhance the feeling that the figures are floating.
Ono has story after story of collaborating with steel mill workers on her creations, first in Havana at the mill Cubana de Acero; then at the Mittal Steel plant at Sparrows Point, Maryland for a display in Baltimore; then at the Tsuchiura factory of the Shibaura Shearing Company and the Nasu Engineering firm in conjunction with the steel mill Toa Industries in Japan. The collaborations included their share of steel mill “office politics,” but Ono was delighted to find that the mill workers eventually chosen to work with her quickly grew excited about accompanying Ono on the creative journey.
“Usually sculptors give workers detailed blueprints to work from, and workers are used to the blueprints, but I didn’t have any blueprints, just a drawing in pencil. It was difficult at first because the workers aren’t used to freestyle creation like I was doing. But the workers ended up getting excited about the creative process and felt absolute freedom in the work. It was an adventure.”In her side yard, Ono keeps the maquette of the sculpture, “Ecstasy of Love,” which is on permanent display in the fountain of McKeldin Square, in the Inner Harbor of Baltimore, another happy case of a friend championing Ono’s work. The maquette now sits on a platform at precisely the right height for viewing from Ono’s studio window, lending extra energy to the space. The sculpture features the head of a woman with electrified hair standing straight out, an arm here, a leg there and a body comprised entirely of tightly waved steel ribbons. The movement and explosive power of the work strikes the viewer like a physical force.
“I felt the tight undulations would express the emotion of a woman in love,” Ono says, standing by the window and looking out at the sculpture.
Just beyond her, the painting “A Dream” leans against the wall, waiting to be mounted and offering a contrast to the sculpture outside. One is frantically energetic and the other restful, yet the restfulness is belied by the quiet power of the bird of prey in flight. The thread that runs through Setsuko Ono’s work is here apparent: energy, activity, and motion, as well as metaphorical and physical striving after goals. From crouching house cats to raging lions to leaping sea creatures to wall-scaling children and rock-throwing fighters, energy and movement are the uniting factors in Ono’s style. Even a restful painting of Ono’s mother holding her as a baby, or the closeup of her husband’s face, has a liveliness and energy that hints the figures might suddenly move. Ono’s sculptures all look to be on the verge of dancing.
The next phase of Ms. Ono’s artistic development is already under way: her transition to working in her own studio space at home, as opposed to the Corcoran’s student-use studios, the steel mills of Havana, Sparrows Point and Tokyo or the studios of Les Ateliers des Beaux Arts in Paris. Even while workmen come and go, finishing the construction and building display equipment, and even as a local seamstress prepares large, loose canvas paintings completed in Paris for stretching and mounting, Ms. Ono is painting away.
Her current projects include an oil painting of her husband and a charcoal work that will become the cover image of her husband’s next book. Since her most recent commission project in Tokyo in 2012, Ms. Ono has been focusing on whatever art form she has available to her, allowing the medium in front of her to bring her inspiration, but once her steel sculpting supplies arrive and are installed, she will be delighted to get back to working with steel.
If you’re interested in seeing more of Setsuko Ono’s work, visit her website and view her entire portfolio at www.setsuko-ono.com. Currently, only her sculptures are on public display, in Havana, Tokyo, Baltimore and in her own yard in Forest Hills. While she has displayed paintings publicly in the 10th Havana Biennial, all of her paintings have now come home to DC and are awaiting display in her new studio. She is happy to have them back.
“I haven’t seen some of these paintings in three years, so it’s a surprise to see them again. It’s like a child who grows up and becomes something you didn’t expect! I think, ‘Wow, did I do that?’”
Ms. Ono plans to have an opening event once her studio space is completed and populated with paintings and sculptures, so check back for information about dates and arrangements. Or you could always take a walk and admire her works displayed on Albemarle Street. Before knocking on the door unannounced and requesting a tour, though, perhaps it’s best to make an appointment at email@example.com.