What do cats and mayonnaise have in common? Why do we love these little felines so much? Who is Kewpie? Japanese artist Sumio Sugimoto puts us on the trail. Until November 12, his illustrations are exhibited at the Sway Gallery in Paris and, on this occasion, the painter has kindly given us the secret of his universe, as comforting as it is abundant.

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When you enter the Sway Gallery, there are beautiful ceramics, period kimonos and a whole collection of Kokeshi, those traditional wooden dolls that have neither arms nor legs. Above them, on the walls of the unique, refined but warm presentation room, cats dressed in symbols and raised patterns look at us. These are the imaginary animals of Sumio Sugimoto.

@Sumio Sugimoto

Sugimoto-san was born in 1948 in Japan, and works in Iwate Prefecture where he lives. Quickly, he began to paint the memories of his childhood: women, flowers, animals, symbols, stars and cats. He enjoys sharing these visual nursery rhymes with simplicity and lightness, inspired by the poems and short stories for children of Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933). But what do the colorful coats of Sugimoto-san’s sketches tell about? He entrusts it to us with joy. Small trip in a world of carefree and dreams.

First trailer of “Night Train in the Milky Way” (Ginga Tetsudo no Yoru / 銀河 鉄 道 の 夜) directed by Gisaburo Sugii, based on the tale of Kenji Miyazawa:

Poulpy: How do you work? Do you have a ritual, a method, a favorite place?

Sumio sugimoto : I mainly work in my studio, on the second floor of my house. After applying several coats of oil paint to create a ceramic-like base, I sculpt. Then I draw black lines on the image. I color the entire piece and end up wiping the outlines with a rag to bring out the sculpted lines clearly. Finally, I apply a thin layer of color again to create an even tone. For that, I use techniques of engraving and lacquer painting.

@Sumio Sugimoto

Where do you find your inspiration?

I keep a journal with pictures of landscapes, people, animals that come to my mind every day, and I draw them again for inspiration. I first build and paint a motif that could define the work, then I work on it.

But my inspiration comes mostly from what I experienced as a child. For example, the table “「 瓜 」” (Melon) represents birds, insects and animals in a field of melons and watermelons (prized fruits in Japan). “「 時 計 」” (Clock) is a scene made up of characters, cats, and again birds and insects.

Detail of “「 瓜 」” (Melon) by Sumio Sugimoto. @Mr Japanization

Fun Fact: Among the recurring characters of Sumio Sugimoto, we find the little doll with a blond lock. Its face, very recognizable to the Japanese, is part of the popular culture of the country since it represents the famous Kewpie mayonnaise. Its origin is however American: it is the designer Rose O’Neill who designed this little character with the features of Cupid, which will be made in Germany during the first half of the 20th century. The doll, one of the most popular before the arrival of Mickey, however, will lose its notoriety, fully associated, now, with egg sauce.

Advertisement for Kewpie Mayonnaise which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary:

Since when do you draw?

I love to draw since I was little. When I drew a picture of my mother in elementary school class, I painted her face black. My classmates laughed and yet the teacher congratulated me. I remember it gave me confidence.

Can you introduce cats? Do they have a particular personality?

I imagined different cats, then I drew patterns of clouds, stars, flowers, the abstract patterns on them that make them specific. For example, “Cherry blossom cat” bears cherry blossom petals. There is also a cat with a pattern called “Hail” on the surface of a pot.

Do you have cats?

I have a cat. A small 2 year old female called Kotaro (” Boy “). I thought it was male, so I gave it a boy’s name! She was abandoned by her mother in a neighbor’s yard. I decided to protect her. With cats I feel a sense of peace, the atmosphere is peaceful. But they also keep the pots of my beloved plants falling all the time. Even though they have that comical and attractive side to me that appeals to me, I’m more inspired by Japanese folk art and clay figurines than by the cats themselves.

Did you like this little trip in the dreams of Sumio Sugimoto? Discover the other exhibitions of the Sway Gallery, after a short stroll in the Marais and ending, for example, with an exceptional tea tasting in the Ogata room, a temple dedicated to this experience.

Sway Gallery Collection of Kokeshi and works of Sugimoto. @Mr Japanization

Sharon Houri

Sway Gallery

Address (es): 18-20 Rue de Thorigny, 75003 Paris (Sway Gallery)

Open Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday

From 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., except Saturdays from 12:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

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