‘We Are Spiritual Machines’ – the Works of Mike Saijo

New Mixed-Media Show at Porch Gallery

May 1 to June 29, 2014

Opening Reception — May 10, 5 to 7 p.m.

By Demitri Corbin

It’s another beautiful Spring day in Ojai as I approach the Porch Gallery. Co-curator Lisa Casoni has arranged for me to meet Los Angeles-based mixed-media artist Mike Saijo.  He’s in Ojai working on his installation, We Are Spiritual Machines, the new exhibit at Porch Gallery opening May 1.

As I climb the porch stairs the doorway frames the artist, a youthful smile beams from his face.  To say “multi-media” doesn’t quite do justice to this all-encompassing exhibit, for this artist specializes in exploring the very essence of a place, in this case Ojai, right down to its cultural DNA.

We shake hands & exchange hellos. Saijo, has just hung the first piece, a 72 x 74 inch portrait, “Great Oak Tree.”  The atmosphere in Porch Gallery is always warm and relaxed – ideal for conversation.  Saijo is very clear and concise in relaying the scope of the exhibit and the vision behind his process.  “I’ve had to really examine and clarify my vision order to gain support.”  And indeed, clarity was needed for Porch Gallery to take on such daring and innovative artistry, for Mike Saijo’s medium is history.  Using archival source materials, emerging technologies, strong community collaboration and a Xerox machine, Saijo explores the history of place.  “I go into a place and mine its historical riches and ask what is the place known for? what makes it special and what’s there in the history that can be re-imaged in a new way?.”

Before the interview begins curator Lisa Casoni suggests an impromptu photo shoot and the  eloquent artist reveals himself to be one unused to the spotlight.  Ironic, I think, for someone who is about to turn our local art scene on its ears.  The exhibit promises to be exciting and thought provoking, engaging all aspects of the community and imploring the spectator to be a part of what has been before and what is to come.

We finish the shoot and set out for Casoni’s home.  As we leave Saijo takes out a Zip Loc bag filled with various vials of essential oils; artemesia, orange blossoms and peppercorn.  The oils were foraged by local perfumer Janna Sheehan of Trance Essence, who will blend bespoke scents to be unveiled as part of the exhibit.

We arrive at the house, a short distance from Porch Gallery, and head directly toward the studio.  Sawdust blows across the studio threshold and I am drawn directly towards a photograph of Anne Besant, (circa 1880s) superimposed over a copy of her 1905 translation of Bhagavad Gita.  “This one isn’t finished,” Saijo explains.   As he describes his process,  I notice the book bears a stamp from  Barrington Library in Illinois.  He found it after an exhaustive internet search.  “It was difficult to find.  Books by Annie Besant are very rare.”  I point out that in finding his source material, he has unwittingly carried out his artistic vision, as the translation was published in Wheaton, Illinois, home of the Theosophical Society of America, underscoring the historic connections between Ojai and the Chicago area.

One the adjacent wall hangs a portrait of a young Krishnamurti, superimposed over his book, You Are the World.  Saijo comments on the rare photo he’s used.  “I wanted an image of him in the beginning at the start of it all.”  The 48 x 45 inch portrait is striking in its completion. Two portraits sit near by; one of Aldous Huxley, the other of C.W. Leadbetter.  Four portraits of Beatrice Wood are yet to be completed.  On a wall in a walkway lean a series of 27 x 29 photographs of rock formations taken near the Ojai Foundation.  Above them covered in plastic hang an array of batik scarves, hand-dyed using a 500-year-old Japanese method in collaboration with textile master Setsuko Hayashi.

Saijo enlisted the help of Chumash elder Julie  Tumamait-Stenslie who inspired him and Hayashi to create a series of scarves with prints of Chumash artifacts and symbols and various quotes from visionaries Joseph Campbell, Terrance McKenna, Edward Drummond Libbey, Lao Tzu and D.H. Lawrence, each exquisitely dyed in delicate colors.

The finale is a preview of the Oculus Rift, a new Virtual Reality headset.  Saijo takes the Oculus Rift out of it box, and puts it on.  “This is the first development kit, it isn’t on the consumer market yet.  You may have heard about it.  It was just bought last week by Facebook.”  He will use the VR process to record tours of the sacred spaces in Ojai to create a virtual pilgrimage for the elderly.

As Saijo packs away the Oculus, I marvel at the scope of the work to be presented.  But Saijo has more to tell me about his art activities in Ojai.  On June 27 Saijo will unveil a 13’ x 7’ mural, “The Gates of Opportunity” at Ojai Valley Museum.  The mural in honor of Ethel Percy Andrus is a photograph of the entry of Lincoln High School where Andrus was the principal for 35 years before becoming an Ojai resident and founder of American Association of Retired Persons.

And his Porch Gallery exhibit will also includes a workshop of the Soft Machine Project in collaboration with Oak Grove School and Krishnamurti Foundation and will be exhibited at USC IGM Art Gallery.  The Soft Machine Project invites artists to contribute art pieces on a 7” diameter hexagon, which will be become part of a community collaborative.  At Earth Play, Oak Grove School’s annual Earth Day celebration, participants are invited to paint a hexagon for the project as a way of collecting the community’s “social DNA.”  Intrigued with this idea, I vow to attend the event and continue my preview of the show.

The next day I stop by Porch Gallery to speak with curator Lisa Casoni and get her thoughts on the upcoming exhibit.

DC:  Lisa, give me your thoughts on We Are Spiritual Machines, how do you feel the exhibit fulfills your mission for the gallery.

LC:  Oh, it certainly fulfills our mission of this space being more than just a gallery, I mean it’s almost like an artist-in-residence.  We want to invite artists up to Ojai to experience our community and create art.  With this we get close to the artist — artists have worked and actually assembled pieces in our home.  It’s immersive.  Mike came and stayed days at a time. Financially, it’s a risk, it always is, but being able to contribute by working with the artist, the experience is very powerful.  And for him to meet and collaborate with other local artists has allowed him to go deep in his process.  And he’s gone deeper with this work.

As we wrap up our interview Casoni reveals one last element to the exhibit.  A gin-based spirit will be made specifically for the exhibit, and served at the opening reception.

“We Are Spiritual Machines,” the works of Mike Saijo on exhibit at Porch Gallery through June 29.  For more information visit porchgalleryojai.com.  Read the extended interview with the artist at theojai.net.

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