Friday February 23, 2024 | by Jana Elsayed

CONVERSATION: Michiko Sakano debuts "Droplets," her sculptural lighting series at New York City's Heller Gallery

Michiko Sakano, a Brooklyn-based glassblower known for her technical precision and originality, steps into the limelight with her first solo exhibition, "Droplets," at Heller Gallery in New York. This collection represents a radical departure from contemporary trends in lighting design, introducing sculptural, molten forms that are not suspended but sit on a tabletop, as they were displayed at the gallery, glowing in hues of pink, yellow, and white. The exhibition is testament to Sakano's commitment to embrace the spontaneous, and present glass in a fluid form independent of the rigid engineering that defines much of lighting popular today.

Born into a family of esteemed kimono makers in Kanazawa, Japan, Sakano's early artistic development was influenced by traditional Japanese aesthetics, emphasizing visual restraint and disciplined handcraft. This background instilled in her the rigor of her family's generations-old approach to making, and helped shape her own artistic journey, which saw her leaving her native Japan to study sculpture in the U.S. at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

While she has taught university courses and operated her own glass studio in Williamsburg Brooklyn, Sakano has more recently become known for fabricating for prominent figures in the design field such as Lindsey Adelman and Jorge Pardo. However, Sakano has recently returned to her desire to make unique sculptural works. This transformative shift in her career allowed her to explore diverse aspects of glass, including new textures, colors, techniques, and more organic forms. This shift can be traced to an event in 2019, when Sakano created the centerpieces for UrbanGlass's annual gala, reigniting her passion for personal artistic expression.

What sets Sakano apart is her dual role, seamlessly applying her art skills to realize the visions of successful lighting designers while concurrently creating distinct, personal works that express her unique artistic vision. This duality is exemplified in her ability to blend her sculptural background with the lighting ideas she developed during her collaboration with Lindsey Adelman.

Sakano's artistic philosophy revolves around the creation of environments using glass objects, sculptures, and utilitarian pieces that explore color and texture. By skillfully juxtaposing thick and thin, voluptuous volumes with small apertures, Sakano creates a sense of tension and contradiction within individual works and in their dialogue with adjacent ones. This approach underscores her commitment to presenting glass as an expressive medium, as she blends art and design in her newest creations.

The Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet recently caught up with Sakano by telephone to discuss her exhibition currently on view at Heller, this provocative body of work, and the thinking and motivations behind it.

Glass: The Droplet series features LED lights and a single cord, emphasizing simplicity and spontaneity. How did you approach the technical aspects of incorporating lighting into your glasswork while maintaining the essence of free-flowing forms?
Michiko Sakano: I'm a fabricator and I have made a lot of glass for designers and artists for a long time. I noticed that for me, my strength, is knowing glass and it's not my strength to handle hardware and engineering. What I was trying to do is express glass, and let it be. I didn't want it to be forced, so I tried not to be forced to make lighting. The form is very fun and humorous and I wanted it to have gestures. I was inspired to make light because I'm always interested in the element installation artwork, and that's where my experience in making glass for designers comes in. It was important for me not to depend on the hardware too much and that's why I made it more about glass blowing and not so much about the lighting itself. The reason I work with glass is because I like the quality of glass, and I try to emphasize that. 

Glass: The color palette of the "Droplets" series is described as a bright warm palette, centering on a summer-yolk yellow. How do you choose and manipulate colors in your glasswork to achieve the desired visual impact? 
Sakano: I've been working with yellow for a long time, since in the hue of yellow there are varying colors with subtle differences. There are a lot of yellows on the market with a lot of subtle differences, and I like to know these differences in depth. Even in whites some differences are subtle and I look to talk about that same hue can have varying contrasts. Yellow is an interesting color that has so much variety in the yellow hue, and that is one reason to use it. Also, it isn't very common to be used in design fields so I want to use something a glass maker can use. Other softer colors, such as skin tone, are reactional colors that I never get to use or experienced using them. I want to have fun with my project and have the idea of a fun and moving in a kind humorous way. So the yellow and skin tone color fit into my idea. 

Glass: Could you share the motivations or inspirations that led you to create the "Droplets" series, which is interesting considering how this collection compares to and contrasts with your work with Lindsey Adelman? What significance does it hold for you as an artist?
Sakano: I respect her aesthetics and what she is trying to achieve. As a fabricator, I am very accommodating to my client's taste and their visions. I need to know what they are trying to express and get out of my help. I am like an interpolator and I talk about glass making for clients such as tailoring glass suits for them. I have learned so much by making glass for Lindsey and all other artists who challenge me in the subject that I have to make, and it is always demanding for different reasons. It helped me to make my glass efficiently and as an experience, I could make my glass the way I want it. It's so much easier to fit my taste than trying to figure out the client's vision. Sometimes it's hard to make art because I don't have a vision so I don't know what to make. 

Glass: Would you say that your exhibition is your way of "breaking free" from those restraints?
Sakano: "Breaking free" might be too drastic. I don't have restrictions or guidelines that I have to follow so, in that way, it is "free," but it is more like I get to use what I learn from my client's projects than use it for my work. With "Droplets," I don't have specs to take a measurement of every piece or make it fit a certain way as long as I follow my rule that things have to look a certain way. Otherwise, I try to let it be more carefree. 

Glass: Do you think that fabrication work is considered art or style?
Sakano: "Art" happens when you are trying to make a client's work happen, meaning that the glass maker's art happens when he or she is working hard to intentionally make a piece according to a client's vision. That's the glassmakers challenge, and that's where the art comes in. I'm not sure if fabrication is style and you can't express your art through the fabrication and by making things with the intention that this is where you shine as a craftsperson, and that's art. You might not be making works of art for yourself at the time, but when you make great glass for a client, that's where the making part is art. 

Glass: You mentioned, in a previous interview for Surface, a pivotal moment in 2019 when creating centerpieces for UrbanGlass's annual gala reignited your passion for creating your art. Can you share more about this experience and how it influenced your artistic direction?
Sakano: The centerpiece was interesting because as an artist and a craftsperson, I think I responded better to the assignment. The guidelines for the centerpieces were pretty loose but there was guidance and an assignment, to make a centerpiece. I was very excited to think about the meaning of the piece and get to use my imagination of what it would look like and what type of party it would be placed in. It was really fun for me to get back to using my imagination and creativity. After 2019, I felt like I was so used to working on project-based, so my body was on autopilot when blowing glass and I couldn't let my mind get back to an aesthetically creative mind for myself. The centerpiece project opened a tiny little door that allowed me to enjoy more of my work since it was really fun. 


February 9th - March 30th 2025
Michiko Sakano
Heller Gallery
303 10th Avenue
New York, New York
To learn more about the exhibition click here!

Glass: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for more than 40 years.