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Big Hugs: A Studio Visit with Risa Iwasaki Culbertson

Big Hugs: A Studio Visit with Risa Iwasaki Culbertson

When it was announced that Risa Iwasaki Culberston was the next gallery artist at Rare Device, there was a bit of electricity in the air. Those who were familiar with her work knew that we were in store for something exciting, and those who weren’t definitely got curious as process photos of her newest felted creations started to trickle in. Giant shrimps soft to the touch, colorful felted bowls of ramen, and woolen sushi platters are part of Gather, Risa’s newest collection of felted artwork and our newest gallery show. 

Risa wears many hats. She’s a fabric artist, an illustrator, the owner of the card company Papa Llama, an instructor of online classes with CreativeBug, aspiring kids show host, and has a project in the works with Chronicle Books. 

A bright coral colored corner of Risa's kitchen, with an incomplete papier mache olive on a kitchen table and bright multicolor letters cut out to say "It Feels Good to Be Home"

Risa's kitchen corner featuring a papier mache project.

Her studio/apartment in the Inner Richmond of San Francisco is much like her; welcoming, bright, and undoubtedly unique. Every space, nook, and cranny is filled with something she’s made, or things with special meaning. You could spend an hour in her kitchen (we almost did), visiting each shelf, each object holding a story that Risa has breathed life into. 

A grid of polaroid photos taped to a wall of how people hold their toothbrushes

One of Risa's bathroom collections.

Her bathroom is full of “collections”; a group of polaroids of how people hold their toothbrushes, artwork that she’s collected over the years hung like a salon gallery, shelves with a collection of human teeth including the ID card of one of the tooth owners, and a little journal entry where she glues her daily disposable contact lenses and writes a description of something beautiful they helped her see that day. 

Risa holding a puppet of mini Risa in her studio

Risa with her mini me puppet she created during the pandemic.

Down the postered hallway is the room where she creates. The best way to describe it is like stepping into that interactive portion of an art museum where you can let your kids touch and play with everything; a combination of Pee Wee's Playhouse and At Home with Amy Sedaris in real life! There is cardboard, giant rolls of colorful wool, puppets, dioramas with working lights, cranks and pulley systems that make them move. There are pieces of colorful paper and fabrics of all textures strewn over her desk. Did I mention there are PUPPETS??

Mini replicas of Harold the puppet and Risa that sit on a shelf in her studio

Smaller replicas of Harold, a life size puppet, and Risa. 

"I think in most of my work there’s a deep sense of wanting people to feel like they belong. What I love about creating this type of playful stuff is that I want to meet people wherever they’re at"

It’s no surprise to say that we spent a good amount of time just “playing” in that room, Risa is the most generous of hosts, and equally as excited about sharing her creations as we were to be seeing them. Aside from that we were also able to ask her some questions about creative burnout, making connections, and the marriage between analog and digital creation.

Risa with a cardboard paper creation of a wheel with houses

 Risa and a creation.

Rare Device: Papa Llama is your full time job, you create exhibit art in your free time, and you develop online classes. Do you ever experience creative burnout?  

Risa Iwasaki Culberston: Oh yeah. Creative burnout is real. I feel like being creative is such an experience unlike anything else because you have to conquer your fears, and face your emotional and mental state. Earlier in the week, I was depressed and in bed for two days. Now I’m like, I have to find a way to get myself out and try to find some sort of joy in creating something. Like this olive I’m bringing to a picnic tomorrow. (She gestures to a giant papier mache toothpicked olive on her kitchen table) It’s that idea of delighting people through your art. 

But creative burnout is a lot and I think it’s a lot more than what people portray online. It’s unsustainable to be like “I’m gonna give 110%” when really you’re feeling like you can only give 10%. Rest is so important especially now, especially for creatives, for everyone. But we don’t really allow ourselves to do it and I’m trying to be better about that. You need to feed yourself before you can feed others. 

Risa's postered hallway

 A postered wall in Risa's apartment leading into her studio space.

RD: Is creating delight for others the impetus for getting out of the creative funk?

RIC: Part of that, but also creating for myself. Especially being creative for your day job, your leisure time, your playtime, so much of what you create goes out into the world, and there’s nothing left for you. There’s so much pressure to put everything online that you don’t really hold onto anything for yourself. Once I brought my own personal work out into the world, I forgot to leave something for myself. Sometimes I’ll just make something and I won’t post it. Maybe it’s just for a couple of friends, maybe it’s just for me. Having something to hold onto just for yourself, where the only purpose is for your own joy.

RD: So out of all the ideas that you get, how many of them actually get made?

RIC: Probably a small percentage, but I write things down in this notebook for ideas. It has random ideas for stuff, drawings, so at any point if I’m in a creative rut, or burnt out, or start to think “I’ll never have another creative idea again,” or like, “This is it. I’ve used up all my creativity and I have nothing more,” I’ll try to look back at this and see if there’s a project I can kind of play around with. Or just look back at it and be like, “Oh look at me and all these random ideas that I have. Oh well, I guess I am a creative person!”

A picture of Risa's late grandmother and great aunt resting on felted pieces  of food

 A photo of Risa's late grandmother and great aunt.

RD: The show, Gather, is inspired by your grandmother, and great aunt, who is a Hiroshima bombing survivor. (You can read the show description here) When your show is as big, colorful, and fun looking as this one is, how do you make sure that the deeper message is coming across?

RIC: I think in most of my work there’s a deep sense of wanting people to feel like they belong. What I love about creating this type of playful stuff is that I want to meet people wherever they’re at. I want art to be accessible to everybody. If they’re coming to see the show and they’re like, “This is so cool, there’s a giant, green, big foot!'' that's great. But for people that have been with me for a long time, they understand that the big green feet represents relationships, and being able to meet each other wherever you’re at, whatever form that you come in. 

I love the idea that there’s this buried story underneath because that’s something I’m able to bring that’s not just fun for fun’s sake. For me, I can appreciate the joy, the color, and playfulness because there’s always the other side, the flip side of history, of missing things, and missing people. It is hard sometimes to get that story out, but it’s not necessary for me for that story to be out in order to find joy in sharing. 

This is also my healing process. I won’t be able to gather with my aunt and grandmother again. But in doing this, I remember that there are all different sorts of families. There is a chosen family, and we can all gather in different places together. 

A card design by Risa's card company, Papa Lllama.

RD: You’ve talked a lot about connecting with other people, but you also describe yourself as an introvert.

RIC: Totally, yeah. 100%. People are always like “You’re an introvert?” Hell yes, I am. As introverted as I am there is this part of me that’s like “Yeaaaah let’s hug!” That’s also genuinely my personality as well. I think it’s more about the recovery time if I’m around a lot of social activity, I need to be alone in silence for three days. But I think having art that’s really approachable and colorful - to me my art is a big hug. Like, wherever you’re at, I’m just hugging you. It kind of takes the attention away from me, but at the same time an extension of me. Like I’m hugging you like this (with arms fully extended away from her body). But sometimes it is challenging to be out more, especially with social media. I don’t want to be seen all the time. 

RD: Is there a medium that you’ve always wanted to try?

RIC: Something that interests me that I’d like to dive into is video and animation. I feel like I’m always trying to figure out how to best tell the story of something. That’s why I play around with so many mediums because it’s not necessarily like trying to figure out the medium, it’s the story. I have an idea. There’s something about video and animation, movement… that’s something I really want to play around with. 

Felted food pieces; a mackerel, a ikura sushi and a tuna nigiri.

Pieces from the show, Gather

RD: So much of this reminds me of analog type, optical illusions from Michel Gondry movies. With video and animation, is that a venture into more computer / digital stuff?

RIC: (Shaking her head no) No, I want to do stop-motion. I love that look of “This was made entirely out of cardboard.” Using those types of mediums forces people to use their imagination. Like, this obviously isn’t a house (turns on lights in a series of cardboard box houses towards her ceiling), but in your mind, you’re like “this is a house!To me, it engages people more than if this was a realistic, CG version that you’d just glance over. I’d like to be able to use the digital perks of being able to do things a little bit faster, using computers and animation as the vehicle of how I get a story across. I want it to still be tactile. That analog style, It’s about connecting people with their imagination. 


Gather by Risa Iwasaki Culberston is in our gallery September 16 through November 6th.

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