Visiting Artist Mami Takahashi Illuminates the Power of Art through Traditional Japanese Lantern-Making Process

HumanitiesX
5 min readJun 29, 2022

By Sergio Godinez

DePaul students explained the stories embedded in their paper lanterns in a public exhibition at Rotofugi Gallery on June 2 (Sergio Godinez).

What to do with a blank piece of paper? This was the question posed to students taking “Geographies of Displacement: Migration and Immigration in Atomic-Age Art,” an interdisciplinary, community-engaged, project-based course created by fellows in HumanitiesX (DePaul’s experiential humanities collaborative) and offered for the first time this spring.

The students traveled a few miles from campus, to the Japanese Culture Center in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, to learn the traditional Japanese practice of paper lantern making. An intricate and delicate art form, the students completed the process from start to finish, creating paper from mulberry fibers, decorating the paper, and constructing their own lanterns. Each student devoted time and their own personal expression to the project.

While the process at first seemed intimidating, the students were led by a visiting artist and experienced instructor, Mami Takahashi. A multidisciplinary artist from Tokyo, currently based in Portland, OR, Takahashi has led countless workshops in the traditional Japanese practice of lantern making. At the beginning of the session, she joked: “For you this may be hard, but I’ve done this a million times.”

This kind of hands-on experience is fundamental to the HumanitiesX course, where the goal was to take what students had been learning in the classroom about Japanese art during the Atomic Age and apply it, experiencing for themselves how artistic expression can be a powerful form of communication.

Each of the lanterns that the students created will be used in Toro-Nagashi Ceremony at the Garden of the Phoenix on July 31st.

Takahashi passionately conveyed why this traditional practice has survived for centuries. Toro-Nagashi holds a special importance for Japanese communities here in Chicago, but also globally. The originally Buddhist festival is traditionally held in the peak of the summer, where in traditional Japanese culture the space between the physical and spiritual worlds is thinnest. Thus, loved ones who have passed have the opportunity to return to Earth to visit those still living. The lanterns are then used to guide spirits back to the spiritual realm.

Toro-Nagashi took on renewed importance after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when over 200,000 Japanese citizens were killed by the US-dropped Atomic Bombs. Today, the ceremony commemorates those that have passed, offering a somber moment to pay respect to those lost as civilian casualties of war. This is why the traditional lantern making process is so important to Takahashi. It is a way to communicate experience.

“As a nation historically struggling with the complex history of its diversity, the US offers a unique perspective on the relationship between its citizens and an increasing immigrant population,” Takahashi said.

The complexities of expressing one’s identity were on full display over the two-day workshop. Each of the students had brought in materials that represented the message they wanted to communicate through the lantern. Some chose to tell stories of themselves. Others chose to tell the stories of others.

There was a sense of importance in the air. Their lanterns meant something to each of the students. For many, this was the first time they were asked to tell a story that mattered to them within an academic context.

Senior Vincent Abella shared his artistic intention, explaining why his lantern featured small red envelopes on each side. “Given to celebrate special occasions, ang pao (red envelopes) are a common Asian tradition. I always carry one in my wallet, both for the good luck and because it reminds me of home,” he said. “Blending imagery of both flowers and fireworks, this lantern utilizes a collage of red envelope designs cut apart and redefined into explosive patterns.”

Aizik Prabowo, a sophomore, chose to tell a story of his grandfather through his lantern. “The paper is infused with the paint chippings from my great-grandfather’s puppets from an Indonesian art form known as Wayang,” he explained. “Wayang is a shadow puppeteering art style that is usually accompanied by traditional music known as gamelan and has been an Indonesian staple for over 1000 years. The writing on the paper are the names of my grandparent’s ethnic languages, Sundanese and Javanese, in their original script before the Latinization of the alphabet.”

The lantern-making process was more than just an assignment for a grade; it was a chance to connect with a larger historical narrative.

On June 2, the lantern making process culminated in an art exhibition that the students put together to share the stories they told through their lanterns. Held at Rotofugi, a designer toy and art store, a crowd of around 50 people came out in support of these young artists. One by one, the students took turns standing in front of the supportive crowd to explain the important aspects of their lantern — the materials used, color choices, symbolic drawings, and important cultural references.

“My lantern seeks to illustrate the idea of embracing one’s identity and showcasing it with pride, confidence, and assurance despite external and internal conflict.” — Florina Chhay, student

There was a solemn air in the room as each student spoke from the heart, illumining how the lanternmaking process had asked them to dig deeper and reveal parts of themselves that they weren’t always comfortable sharing. That they were able to share such personal stories was due in part to the community that the students had built throughout the 10-week course. Through thought-provoking discussions, collaboratively designed assignments, and field trips, they had learned to rely on each other. The classroom had transformed into a community.

Now at their final time together, students and attendees understood that this event was more than a mere art exhibition.

“The students’ rawness and realness when presenting these artful negotiations of identity made it clear that something special had transpired in this class,” said HumanitiesX Coordinator Deborah Siegel-Acevedo. “I was impressed by their creativity, but also by their analytic capacity to tie their projects to larger cultural narratives around migration and immigration.” Siegel-Acevedo attended the exhibition with her 12-year-old daughter. They were both quite moved by what the students shared.

The lantern-making process can be boiled down to a one-word description: transformative. For this is what happens when a traditional Japanese art form becomes a reflective moment for students to connect with themselves and the world around them with honesty and intention. The lantern process, start to finish, teaches us how to tell a story by going beyond words. It is beauty and pain, hope and sadness, the future and the past, all wrapped around a 4-sided piece of handmade paper.

The public is welcome to come witness the release of the lanterns at Toro-Nagashi by visiting the website of the Japanese Arts Foundation.

Sergio Godinez is a 2021–22 HumanitiesX Student Fellow.

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HumanitiesX

DePaul University’s Experiential Humanities Collaborative