Miya Ando. Photo: Lauren Ward
A profile of Miya Ando, a Buddhist artist who works with art with steel.
Steel holds up bridges and buildings, and conjures up a sense of permanence. But “everything is ephemeral,” says New York-based artist Miya Ando. “Even steel, one of the strongest substances we have on Earth, will at some point dissolve.” This is one way that steel, with all its shades of grey, reflects the dharma.
Dharma and steel are in Miya Ando’s blood. On her mother’s side of the family, she is a descendant of samurai-swordmaker Ando Yoshiro Masakatsu and for fifty years her grandfather was head priest at a Nichiren temple in Okayama, Japan. That temple, surrounded on three sides by rice fields, is where Miya Ando spent half her childhood.
“I loved the temple and when I was really young I wanted to be a nun,” says Ando. “But I’m half Japanese and half Caucasian, and I look very Caucasian. It became clear that in Japan being a Caucasian nun would be difficult. So I had the notion that I would represent my family, temple, and the craft that is steel in an unconventional way, in my way.”
Now age thirty-six, Ando is best known for her two-dimensional steel panels, on which she creates textures through sanding, grinding, heat, and patinas, and in this way she frequently gives the impression of a horizon slicing across her steel canvases. “I am putting forth imagery that is universal,” she says. “Anyone can look at a rectilinear form that is bisected and say horizon—land and sky or sea and sky. That is a natural division of space to any human. It’s a universal language and, I hope, a comforting language. It says, ‘Oh, okay, I know where I am.’”
From there, the viewer is invited to dive into more abstract concepts. In Ando’s panels, you can find clouds and light, but look again and you may see a field of nothingness. The emptiness, according to Ando, hints at the Buddhist concepts of no-self and non-duality, but her work is not didactic. She’s interested in conveying a non-denominational spirituality and a sense of hope. The optimism inherent in emptiness, she continues, is that it is open to everything; it’s an opportunity for change.
Steel in Miya Ando’s hands can also be playful. Case in point is the interactive Hikari Cube she made in collaboration with software artist James George, which mimics normal human breathing via a light transmitted through the cube’s midsection. Then there are her whimsical steel sculptures of geta, traditional Japanese shoes, and the steel skateboard she created as a fundraiser for Haiti. She says, “Whenever I go to make something, I automatically think steel.”
Growing up, when Ando wasn’t at the temple in Japan, she was in California and there, her American father, a first generation Russian Jew, had a big garage full of car pieces that he was always welding, blazing, sanding. “From when I was really little,” Ando says, “I was happy playing around sparks—fire no problem. I loved metal shops. I felt comfortable around muscle cars.
“Now, in my studio, a lot of what I do is borrowed from automotive people. I use automotive lacquer. I use automotive sanding techniques. There are all kinds of tricks that auto people use—they are expert metal finishers. My dream is to take a car, strip it down to bare steel, and refinish it. That is what I do with my panels, only in an artistic way.”
The aesthetic of Ando’s art is very Zen. She says the clean lines and reductive visual vocabulary is rooted in the Zen notion of migaku, polishing the self, paring away all that is not essential. Zen also very much informs Ando’s Buddhist practice. Nichiren, the tradition in which she was raised, does not emphasize sitting or walking mediation. Yet Ando, who still considers herself Nichiren, embraces both of these practices and incorporates them into her creative process. As soon as she enters her studio, she sits. Then she does what she was raised to do at the Nichiren temple; she chants and prays. After that, mindful of her actions and her breath, she works on her art, fully absorbed in each task. She calls the way she works “walking meditation,” but explains that it’s really meditation of movement based on traditional walking meditation.
Ando doesn’t have a particular sangha or temple that she attends in the U.S. She feels her family’s temple is something she carries with her. “I’m not a Buddhist who feels the need for a certain cushion or 100 percent silence,” she says. “In my upbringing, I learned that practice—being conscious, being mindful—is like brushing your teeth. It’s an everyday thing.”
When Ando first told the Nichiren side of her family that she’d decided to work with steel, they were incredulous. The youngest of all the grandchildren—a girl—was going to work with that tough metal? Now they’re proud, and her great uncle says they always knew steel would come back to the family. They just didn’t think at first that it would be her.
Metalworking is not a conventional field for women in the West either, and according to Ando this was an obstacle when she was younger and working with metal as a trade, rather than as an artist. “In Oakland, I tried to get hired for welding jobs in three different fabrication shops,” she says. “I was a really good welder at that time, but they were like, ‘No, we don’t need a bookkeeper.’”
These days, in the art world, people are still surprised to see a petite woman working with steel, but it’s not an obstacle. Ando says, “I’m happy to have people say, ‘You don’t look like a metal worker.’ I like helping to change perception.”
Miya Ando also likes working with other materials, including the very antithesis of heavy steel—light itself. And she has done a whole series of indoor and outdoor installations using phosphorescent paint. It’s invisible during the day but, in darkness, it very briefly glows, making it an apt material for exploring the concept of ephemerality.
Recently, at a show Ando did in Berlin, she painted falling, phosphorescent cherry blossoms in a field of snow in front of the Reichstag building, a symbol of the Third Reich, which is now viewed by Germans as a symbol of hope and change. For her, this show was a way to acknowledge the tragedy of the Second World War for all peoples involved, including both sides of her own family—the Jewish and the Japanese. She says, “Falling blossoms are a poetic way to say something has occurred; something is still sort of there. But they’re also a beautiful way to proceed into the future.”