Spirit Messenger: Glassblower, Naoko Takenouchi Breathes Loss And Rebirth Into Her Abstract Sculptures

By Laura Goldstein

The blue translucent wings of Flightare in repose, as if wrapped around itself for warmth or seeking comfort; Winged Aspirationextend their life-affirming ruffled wing tips to the sky from nautilus-like heads. Glassblower, Naoko Takenouchi breathes loss and rebirth into her abstract creations of migratory birds and flowers, instilling them with her own life experiences in which coincidence (or fate) has played a major role.

“I came to Vancouver 30 years ago on a Work/Holiday exchange after getting my degree in design and glassblowing at Tama University in Tokyo,” relates Takenouchi. She was also a scholarship student at the famed Pilchuk Glass School founded by glass maestro, Dale Chihuly in Stanwood, Washington and the Swedish Center Foundation. “Some Swedish glass artists there knew someone at a glassblowing studio on Granville Island and I decided to make the move,” explains the diminutive artist from her light-filled home in Vancouver’s eastside.

Unbeknownst to Takenouchi, as she blew glass in that Granville Island studio, was her future husband, Lawrence Heppell, a cabinet-maker who owned Granville Island Woodworks next door. They met and were married for twenty years.

“He was my greatest supporter,” Naoko Takenouchi relates with tears in her eyes as Lawrence passed away from cancer three years ago. “I found a beautiful place to spread his ashes under a huge tree near the water at UBC. I heard a whistle-like cry and soaring in circles above me was a Bald eagle. The odd thing is I could never find a nest. I could see the eagle’s face so clearly and amazingly, every time I visit there, I see that eagle.”

This spiritual connection and her belief in reincarnation was the basis for her Spirit Messenger Exhibition at the VisualSpace Galleryin Vancouver this year and at Spark, for Crafted Vancouver. Channelling her grief into exquisitely intricate art pieces depicting abstract heron and eagle wings has helped the healing process and “creating has given me the energy to live again,” she confides.

Takenouchi‘s glass installation, Celestial Symphony, captures delicate mauve magnolia petals in their final stages of bloom falling from branches into a water-filled garden vessel and floating on its surface.

In another, a hand-dyed blue cotton backdrop with eagle images was created by Naoko Takenouchi by pulling out horizontal threads to depict the birds. “It was extremely labour intensive but highly meditative,” she explains.

Blowing glass with her assistant in a downtown studio, she prefers to work using the Italian murrine technique of glassblowing in which complex colours are blown into long poles of glass, known as canes. “When cut into many cross-sections, then fused together and stretched, the results are spectacular patterns, like a roll of sushi,” Takenouchi smiles.

An avid gardener, a stone path zigzags through a delightfully unruly Japanese-style garden behind her home to her glass finishing studio built by her late husband. This is where Naoko Takenouchi carves out her sculptures with a gigantic compression sandblaster. A ladder a-top the studio leads to a platform where vegetables are grown.

Fan-like gingko leaves gilded in 23-carat gold and life-size glass-blown magnolias on branches, so realistic that you would assume she just gathered them from the trees outside, are laid out on tables in the studio awaiting the sandblaster.

“Each piece is one-of-a-kind,” says Takenouchi and it takes about 30 to 40 hours of hot (the glassblowing) and cold (sculpting and hand-finishing,) to create each piece.

A life-size glass hiking boot with wings seems oddly out of place amid all the delicate organic pieces in the studio. “Oh, I made that to commemorate my last and longest walk – 40 miles of the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain,” laughs Takenouchi. She is referring to the popular spiritual pilgrimage known as The Way of Saint Jamesdeemed a UNISCO World Heritage site. She has done various trails there six times, once with her late husband.

The award-winning glassblower was commissioned to create the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards for three years. Currently working on a new collection of glass entitled, Earth, Sea and Air, she annually exhibits at the Duncan McClellan Gallery in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“You know, all migratory birds have a survival instinct. For me, the process of blowing glass is kind of a similar process. You need to listen to yourself, follow your intuition. It’s an inner journey.”