‘Spiritual Mechanic’ – Interview with Artist Mike Saijo

By Demitri Corbin

At Earth Play, Oak Grove School’s annuel Earth Day celebration on April 19, the campus was packed!  It is here that artist Mike Saijo conducting the “Soft Machine Project;” inspired by the “cut-up-fold in” method devised by William S. Burroughs in his sci-fi novel, “Soft Machine.”  The SMP is designed to bring together science, education, design and community and has no intended resolution.

Working with the concept of “program art,” Saijo has made an open call to artists in Ventura, Santa Barbara and LA counties to submit works based on their personal experiences with spirituality within the Ojai Valley.  That experience is to be set on a hexagon.

I work my way around the campus and finally spot Porch Gallery curator Lisa Catoni.  She’s standing under the gazebo next to a large sandwich board-like rack where dozens of hexagon art pieces hang drying.  At two large picnic tables, 20 or so people of all ages sit painting their personalized hexagons.

“The response has been amazing!” Catoni says speaking over the clamor.

“Where’s Mike?” I ask.

She points to Saijo standing over the table assisting the students.  I beckon him over.

DC:  Wow, what a crowd!

MS:  It’s amazing!

DC:  Are you ready?

MS:   Sure, let’s go.

We sit at a small picnic table just outside the gazebo.  The festival crowd strolls by as we speak.

DC:  Since we last spoke I’ve taken a look at your website.  Lots of work.  Very impressive.

MS:  Thank you.

DC:  Looking at your bibliography prompted my first question – 2007, there seemed to be a lot going on for you.  Tell me about 2007.

Saijo pauses for a moment before a smile grows on his face.

MS:  2007 … Yeah, that was when I started doing solo exhibits.  Yeah, that’s when I started taking art seriously … having a solo show I got a lot of practice making connections, being able to work in these different studio spaces and I began setting in the discipline, making a commitment to the craft.  It was also a time when I was on the road with a carnival. I toured for 8 months from Los Angeles to Washington State and I remember passing through towns and being drawn to the history of places and nature and we were in Calaveras County and I just love exploring its history. I was looking for source material to make a book and I came to a fork in the road – am I going to be a carnie or an artist.  And I saw these horses in Reed California – I was at a crisis point – and I saw these horses coming from the distance … there was this connection to the horses, like they were there to give me an answer … it was a turning point.

DC:  Now I’m just going to ask you about some of the images I saw on the website that really resonated with me, so many striking images.  Let’s start with “Worker’s Resistance,” tell me about that one.

MS:  “Worker’s Resistance” is a still from Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis,’ set in the industrial era, the Machine Age, the man is struggling with Time.  I thought it was the perfect image for the book called, ‘The Unpopular Ones, The Stories of 15 Men and Women Who Influenced Popular Opinion.”

DC:  “Theater of War at the Orpheum,” from 2011; what’s the story behind that piece?

MS:  “Theater of War” was a part of the “Dream Deferred” exhibition, which looked at pre-war history in Boyle Heights.  That piece shows an incident during the Zoot Suit riots at the Orpheum Theater.  There were a group of Mexican-Americans in the theater and a group of Marines dragged them onto the stage, stripped them of their clothes and started urinating on them – you see how the violence was even onstage.  The piece first looks very seductive,  then you see the Marines are carrying sticks and the men don’t have their clothes and the true story is very disturbing.

DC:  And the piece, “Dreamed Deferred,” that of course struck me.

The piece is of the Langston Hughes poem written over a photograph a man in a Japanese internment camp.

MS:  Yes, with that piece Langston Hughes is able to express it in words.  Japanese are different.   They would use haiku, they’re very quiet.   I wanted to show that oppression is not an ethnic experience – it’s one that is shared.  It’s post-identity, it’s universal.

DC:  Tell me about WAVE Project.

MS: That’s a Virtual Reality project – I just shot some new footage for the exhibit, it looks great!  I got interested in exploring it 3 years ago.  I was researching 3D cameras, and the Oculus rift came along I began experimenting with it.  I’ve got one of the first to be released and I’m using it as part of the exhibit and so far feedback has been successful in creating a sense of presence.  Now that Facebook has purchased it, the bugs will be worked out before comes to mainstream.

DC:  “Diplomacy Art?”

MS:  “Diplomacy Art” came about as an idea of relational art … a way for entities, organizations to create art to communicate and serve diplomacy between countries.

DC:  You’re Japanese-American.  Tell me about family.  Do you have siblings?

MS:  I have one brother.

DC:  And your parents – were they supportive?  How did they influence and encourage your artistic growth?

MS:  I’m from East LA.  My parents are from Japan.  My mom is a calligraphy artist, so I was taught at an early age to use ink and brush.   My father grew up on a farm, so he was really strict.  Academics were the emphasis.  But I spent lots time looking at art books and watching television growing up.  Father built things and he’s a sailor.  Mom is not very supportive…you have to have a career, job, finances …I still struggle with that.  I’m a combination of the two.  My dad’s an idealist combined with all that knowledge acquired through eight generations of rice farmers … thinking spacially, numbers and structure, due diligence, planting a seed, just having faith.

DC:  Looking at your upcoming exhibits, you’re booked solid.  You’ve got two shows in April, you’re opening here in May through June at the Porch Gallery, another show opening down town Los Angeles on May 31 at the Breed Street Shul, then in June you’re showing here again at the Ojai Valley Museum.   How do you feel about all this activity?

MS:  It’s like a golden time with a lot going on.  I feel like I’m making up for lost time or it’s just the way the stars have lined up, everything falls into place.   I’ve got the show at Shol at the end of May, the museum show, and the “Soft Machine Project” here that’s going to USC.

DC:  How’s it going?

MS:  Oh, it’s going very well.  Young and old, people are responding to it really well.

DC:  One last question; can you give me your thoughts on Ojai?

MS:  Oh, there’s so much to say … small town, big vision, I don’t know.  Everything nice has been said already.  I feel Ojai has given me the type of opportunity I’ve been seeking … to tell a story related to its history.  It’s something I’ve felt strong about since and early age; sharing that gift to an audience, representing their story in an esthetic way.

DC:  Thanks Mike.  You’d better get back.

MS: Thank you.

“We Are Spiritual Machines,” works by Mike Saijo on exhibit at Porch Gallery, Ojai, 310 E. Ojai Ave. through June 29.  For more information visit porchgalleryojai.com.  For more on Mike Saijo visit msaijo.com.

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