Reflections on the world | July 24, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - July 24, 2013

Reflections on the world

Ambitious outdoor artwork by Drue Kataoka featured at Djerassi open studio event

by Renee Batti

Sometime between nightfall on Halloween and sunrise on the Day of the Dead, the tree fell. A majestic old heritage oak, it had enchanted artists-in-residence and visitors to the Djerassi artists' compound in the hills above Woodside for decades — outwardly healthy but unbeknown to its admirers, rotting away at its core.

Can anything be salvaged from those sad, broken remains of bark and branches? Enter artistic inspiration — and Drue Kataoka, who first laid eyes on the fallen hulk early this year while hiking the grounds with fellow Djerassi artists-in-residence. Though many saw wreckage where once there was arboreal splendor, Ms. Kataoka saw her next art project — one that would allow the viewer as well as the surrounding trees, shrubs, birds and sky to become part of the artwork.

Using shards of mirror purposefully shaped and arranged on 27 surfaces from the fallen oak, Ms. Kataoka created "After the Celestial Axe," which she describes as "a living organism ... living with and feeding off of the energy of the environment and the people around it."

"The viewer changes the work by shifting position," she said during an interview at the site of the glittering artwork. And because the colors and tones of the reflected images change with the time of day and weather conditions, the piece "has its own emotional tenor."

Ms. Kataoka worked countless hours with Djerassi facilities manager Skip Gianocca to arrange the tree fragments on the hill near the trunk, sanding them to smooth the surfaces so the mirror fragments would adhere. The project took longer than her residency, and she had to return to the site for an additional week to complete the work, she says.

Just as she created a work of art out of a mysteriously toppled tree, Ms. Kataoka also imagined the story of its night-shrouded fall, writing a poem, "The Legend of the Fallen Axe," that begins:

I saw the flash of a blade —

many mountains wide

that sent the sky careening sideways.

When the Djerassi Resident Artists Program hosts its annual open house and open studio event on Sunday, July 28, "After the Celestial Axe" will be the featured art attraction as the public gets its first chance to view the work. Margot Knight, Djerassi program executive director, said that Ms. Kataoka's piece will be one of three sculptures introduced to the public, but hers is "by far the most ambitious," as well as the largest and most dramatic.

"We proudly work with remarkable artists from around the world," Ms. Knight said. "It's a special pleasure to feature Drue, an international talent, who has chosen to live and work right in our own backyard."

Early start

Born in Tokyo, where she lived until age 6, Ms. Kataoka spent much of her childhood in Menlo Park, graduating from Sacred Heart Prep in Atherton before heading for Stanford University. She now lives in Palo Alto.

As a teenager and young adult, Ms. Kataoka gained considerable attention locally as a skilled flutist and a practitioner of Japanese brush painting, known as sumi-e. Her reputation has grown to international status, and she receives numerous commissions for original works.

Ms. Kataoka was invited to attend the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in 2011, where she would talk about her art, and contribute to panels on art and technology — an area she has focused on intensively for many years. She was obviously well-received: She was invited back for the 2012 and 2013 sessions, and asked to present a solo exhibition of her artwork last year.

She was also named a WEF Cultural Leader, and last year was chosen to be a WEF Young Global Leader for a five-year term.

Expanding art forms

"After the Celestial Axe" isn't the only work in which Ms. Kataoka uses mirrors. For the last few years, she has explored making those surfaces an integral part of a new form she has developed — what she calls Magic Boxes.

In these works, a viewer sees images inside of a box by looking through a small porthole in the front of the piece. But in fact, the viewer's gaze is directed at mirror fragments on the box's wall facing him or her, and therefore is seeing only reflections of the artwork Ms. Kataoka has painted on the opposite wall.

The viewer "can never see the art in its entirety at once," she said in an email. "This is designed to mimic the natural cognitive process, where an individual unites more, or less, faded memories with vibrant immediate past experiences to patch together the canvas of knowledge."

One example of a Magic Box, "Let Us Out," is "about the one-way street of human existence." In building it, Ms. Kataoka asked more than 40 people from many walks of life — a doctor, engineers, a prisoner and a war veteran, for example — to write out phrases she constructed beginning with the words "Let us out." She then meticulously reproduced the phrases, painting them out in reverse so that they would be readable when reflected by the mirror fragments.

She also found handwriting samples of people whose "voices" she wanted to include, such as Einstein, Freud, Thomas Mann, and Pushkin.

The front of the box is emblazoned with a large "no entry" symbol. The voices are, in effect, trapped inside of the box. "Let Us Out" is one of several works displayed at the Mountain View offices of Fenwick & West, at 801 California St. (The public can view the work, on the first floor, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday through August.)

Another innovative new medium Ms. Kataoka has explored: brainwaves. Long interested in cognitive science, she and a Young Global Leader colleague who works in the field gathered the brainwaves of a range of chosen leaders in business, academia, science and politics, worldwide, Ms. Kataoka explains. The participants were asked to visualize being involved in activities they were passionate about as their brainwaves were recorded.

The aggregated brainwaves were manipulated in such a way to alter a piece of electrochromic glass that is controlled by electric signals. The glass is one piece of a structure — a triangular prism — in which a small tree is contained. As individual brainwave samples rotate from "chorus" to "soloist" in the art installation, the overall intensity of the brainwaves changes, and that changes the transparency of the glass. When the work is on display, there is also equipment available for viewers to alter the glass with their own brainwaves.

"The more intense the brainwaves are, the more transparent the glass becomes, allowing more light to reach the tree — empowering photosynthesis, and life," Ms. Kataoka explains. "It is a commentary on the simultaneous fragility and elevating power of human thought."

Ms. Kataoka painted three other sides of the installation piece, which she calls "The Tree of Pascal" — inspired by Blaise Pascal's statement: "Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed."

Tear down that wall

As she explores new ways to express her artistic vision, Ms. Kataoka also advocates a more sympathetic relationship between the arts and the sciences. "There's an unnatural wall — a Berlin Wall — between them," she laments.

"There's a lot of talk in the media about the need for better STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math). Instead we need STEAM (STEM plus art).

"I see two major problems with a purely STEM approach. First, our young people need the ability to understand other cultures, not to mention their own, in order to lead in a globalized world — and art education is necessary for this. Secondly, technological and scientific skills need to be augmented with creativity. While the arts don't hold a monopoly on human creativity and imagination, they are the most effective way for developing it.

"Creativity is an infinite resource, but you have to mine it — you have to cultivate it."

Ms. Kataoka participates in panels and other means of spreading that message. She also has worked with young people to try to develop their interests in the arts.

In 2001, she established through the Rotary Club of Menlo Park a scholarship fund for students interested in pursuing an arts career, donating the proceeds of a single, limited-edition sumi-e painting to create an endowment. As of this year, 15 students have received a scholarship, she says.

Ms. Kataoka's artwork can be found at

Djerassi open house

The public can see "After the Celestial Axe" by Drue Kataoka, in addition to the artworks of many other current and past Djerassi program artists-in-residence, at an open house and open studio at the artists' camp on Sunday, July 28. The event is from 1 to 5 p.m. at the 580-acre ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains, above Woodside. Admission is $35 per person, and reservations are required. Call 747-1250, or go to for information and reservations.


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