Artist Spotlight: A Conversation with Kana Tanaka

I had the opportunity to converse with artist Kana Tanaka, whose public installations grace many municipalities across the country. In recent years, she completed large-scale permanent public art installations in Fairfield, Lafayette, and Alameda, California, as well as in Scottsdale, Arizona, New Britain, Connecticut and Spokane Washington.

A recipient of artist grants from Pollock Krasner foundation and POLA art foundation of Tokyo, Tanaka has exhibited her work at galleries and theaters in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2002.

Spirit of Camelback –Installation with Artist
(Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts)

SJL: Tell us a little about your background.

KT: I was born and raised in Aichi, Japan, and now live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

As an Arts & Crafts major at the National Aichi University of Education in Japan, I became captivated by the qualities of molten glass, which lead me to specialize in glassblowing, studying under Michael Rogers. I was lucky to continue advanced studies under Brent K Young (Cleveland Institute of Art), and Bruce Chao (MFA in Glass at Rhode Island School of Design). During that time my style shifted from making small objects to creating site-specific installation works.

Spirit of Camelback - Fabrication
(Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts)

After my MFA, working for Architectural glass companies and an architect in the SF Bay Area enabled me to gain professional training in architectural scale projects including Public Art process.

SJL: How did you come to glass?

KT: At the Aichi University of Education in Japan, I was given the opportunity to try 5 different arts & crafts majors (Metal, Wood, Ceramic, Glass and Fabric weaving). Among them, Glass was the most appealing material and technique to me.

The manipulation (achieving the craftsmanship) of the material seemed very difficult and time-consuming, and requires much more commitment.

The accessibility to the glass blowing facility was limited/precious in comparison to other choices (for instance, ceramics and wood-working are all well-known to be a part of Japanese traditional crafts everywhere). I like the challenge, and I wanted to be a special, not being among many others.

And, from experiencing/practicing the glassblowing process myself (in other words, having conversation with the material, physically with hot, warm and cold glass), I became more and more attracted to the visual effects, which the process will bring/transformation that the material goes through – especially the glowing orange light from molten glass that shifts into colder/whiter light as it cools and hardens. I felt the privilege of glass artist was such a special thing and that I wanted to be the one.

SJL: What guides your artistic philosophy?

KT: I think a reverence for light phenomena characterizes my work. I hope to inspire curiosity and exploration through glass and light, and try to create situations that surround the audience and affect their senses directly and broadly, by means of exaggeration, amplification, distortion and division. Viewers become part of the work as they interact with it and observe light.

SJL: How and why did you become involved in public art?

KT: From the experience working on large-scale projects for architectural glass companies, I was introduced to the process from application, design to fabrication required for Public Art.

And, from executing many of my own (site-specific) art installations for galleries and theaters in the SF Bay Area, which was always temporary, I began to think of pursuing the permanent installations – Public art.


of Capturing a Moment - Installation
(Solano County Government Center)

SJL: Can you tell us more about the theater work?

KT: The usual installations (in the US) offers the exhibit to stay up for one month, which is worth the effort to install everything (many people could come to see the show within one month, more than once if they want), whereas the small theater projects that I was involved in offered only one or a few weekends, not even all day long, but only for an hour or so during the performance time.

of Capturing a Moment - Night View
(Solano County Government Center)

The special experience we create was only for the audience who chose to come to the theater. With all the collaborations between performers and stage set with special theater lighting, the experience for audience was much saturated, and memorable (as I hoped), but again, taking down the work comes too quick.

Using the glass as material, the process of making is costly and time-consuming, which is not so suitable for instant stage prop. Many people had told me that the glass stage set should be preserved in different location permanently since it was so precious and real – contrary to the theatrical concept of “Suspension of disbelief.”

SJL: You are known for your large public art installations. Can you tell us more how you came to that type of artwork?

KT: My past installations in galleries and theaters have focused primarily on the ephemeral quality of light and the viewer’s changing perceptions. Through these projects, I have become increasingly concerned with the challenge of retaining this element of unpredictability and the uniqueness of the viewer’s experience. Creating permanent public artworks allows me to make such experiences available to an unlimited audience for all ages and over time.

SJL: What are the challenges of creating such work – conceptual, design, technical?

KT: In general, challenge is being patient. A lot of waiting time required to get any answers from office people and even payments and everything beyond my own control. The bigger the project, the bigger the problems to be solved, even before making actual work.

Conceptual challenge is a good challenge. Design for Public Art requires lots of research for its region and local community, and art committee’s needs. But this effort would all contribute to make something unique and special to the community, which is worthwhile at the end.

SJL: Can you tell us about the largest or most complex work you have made?

Optical Streams – Fabrication
(Lafayette Library and Learning Center, Children's Activity Deck)


The Heaviest single unit suspended sculpture: of Capturing a Moment (Solano County Government Center) – estimated over 1,200 lbs.

The Longest (area for the suspended sculpture): Cascade (Washington State University Spokane) – 130 feet (suspended over the stairs from 1st floor through the 4th floor)

The largest Number of the glass pieces in one artwork: Thinking Globally in Human Scale (Central Connecticut State University): Approx. 10,000 handmade glass beads

The most complex background assembly: Spirit of Camelback (Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts): 135 connections of handmade glass rods to the fiber optic fibers that are branched out from 18 illuminators. I prepared original colors of dichroic glass filters (6 each) cut to fit and assembled inside each 18 illuminators behind the wall.


Optical Streams
(Lafayette Library and Learning Center, Children's Activity Deck)

SJL: What work are you doing currently?

KT: To be honest, currently I don’t have any big project lined up. I will keep working on applications for that.
I recently moved. The moving process meant that I had a few months off from working, and I’m still catching up, in the process of re-organizing everything.

When I get a chance, I try to spend time in my studio. Looking back what I have created in the past 20 years in front of me (too much extra materials and old art works kept in boxes and boxes all discovered from moving!!!) has been overwhelming. I am quietly waiting for my new ideas/answers to come – what to do with all my old glass materials and artworks and what would be the next step…?

SJL: Where can we see your work?

KT: 3 Gallery Exhibitions this summer in 2015:

Glass Contemplations
May 8 – June 7, 2015
Olive Hyde Art Gallery
123 Washington Blvd, Fremont CA 94537

Shattered: Defying Expectations in Glass
June 5 - July 30, 2015
Chandra Cerrito Contemporary
480 23rd Street, Oakland CA 94612

California Now
Clay, Glass & Enamel Juried Exhibition
June 14- August 21, 2015
The Richmond Art Center
2540 Barrett Ave. Richmond, CA 94804

The more accessible public places in my local area are:

of Capturing a Moment (Suspended sculpture)
Solano County Government Center
675 Texas Street, Fairfield CA

Optical Streams, part 1 & 2 (Children’s activity deck)
Lafayette Library and Learning Center
3491 Mt. Diablo Blvd, Lafayette CA

If you travel to Phoenix area,

Spirit of Camelback (Indoor/outdoor wall installation with fiber optics lighting)
Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts
7380 East Second Street, Scottsdale AZ

I will be lecturing at the GAS conference on Sunday, June 7.

SJL: Thank you, Kana! I look forward to your lecture and to seeing your installations!