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Transplanted Art

The new Niho Kozuru sculpture "Transplanted" (front) sits in the Sheldon Museum of Art's Great Hall near the 1958 Isamu Noguchi sculpture "Song of the Bird." (FRANCIS GARDLER/Lincoln Journal Star file photo)

From the second it was installed in the Sheldon Museum of Art's Great Hall, "Transplanted," a new sculpture by Niho Kozuru, captured the eye and the imagination, simultaneously contrasting with and speaking to its surroundings.

Brightly colored and playful, it awakens the solemn, white-marbled space, catching the light to dance in the eyes. Made of rubber over steel rods, it is new material surrounded by pieces in traditional stone and metal. Constructed from molds cast from turned wood architectural elements, like urns, it is post-modernism smack in the middle of a temple of high modernism.

But it's also in conversation with "Song of the Bird (Bird Song)" the towering, two-piece granite and marble 1958 sculpture by Isamu Noguchi that, for years, has been a fixture in the Great Hall.

That dialogue is a key to the sculpture by the Japanese-born, Boston-based artist, her first permanent commission by any museum. The offer to create a sculpture in response to Noguchi's work came after the Sheldon Forum, the museum's collectors group, paid a visit to New England.

"They came to my tiny studio," Kozuru said last month during a visit to Sheldon to install her sculpture. "We kept in touch, and it kind of developed from there. They'd never heard of me until then."

A fifth-generation artist born in Fukuoka, Japan, Kozuru comes from a family of nationally known ceramicists. But, in the 1970s, her father broke with the family tradition to make larger, sculptural work. In 1981, when Niho was 12, the Kozurus moved to New England, where her father was a visiting instructor at Harvard University.

Drawn to glass rather than ceramics, Kozuku went to New York's Parsons School of Design where she received her BFA in 1992. Her material transitioned from glass to rubber, which she had begun working with while making the molds for her glass pieces.

In the late 1990s, Kozuru moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, to attend graduate school at the University of Hawaii, and, she believed, to get closer to her Japanese roots. But something unexpected happened there that changed her outlook and her art.

"From my first coming to Hawaii, I felt it wasn't about looking to fit in, but finding my own culture," Kozuru said. "It's a blend of Japanese and American. But I probably will never fit in in America or Japan. I have a third culture."

That revelation led to her very personal 2001 MFA exhibition in which she cast her body parts -- leg, spine, etc. -- in rubber with the architectural turned-wood elements inside, combining her cultures and herself in her art.

"The 'Transplanted' work here at the Sheldon really stems from that," Kozuru said. "It has developed in between, but this is the start of the autobiographical work."

"Transplanted" also fits perfectly into Sheldon's emphasis on "transnational" art, an effort to link art and cultures from in and out of the United States, by finding itself between Japan and America, past and future, traditional and new media.

To create "Transplanted," Kozuru came to Lincoln to visit Sheldon, studied Noguchi's work and found a maquette of the Sheldon sculpture. She also took a trip to Sheldon architect Philip Johnson's famous glass house in New Canaan, Conn.

At a pond near the glass house, she came across a scale model of the high arches that are the dominant form at Sheldon and its "twin," the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, and stood in it -- her 5-foot-5-inch frame coming just below the ceiling.

"I wanted to reach the ceiling here with my artwork, but it was a little too big, 27, 28 feet," she said. "That wouldn't work."

So Kozuru crafted a multibranched piece, with 11 rods covered with linked, rubber- molded, turned-wood-based ornaments placed in a steel platform. The strongly vertical, sectioned tendrils echo, to an extent, the design and multiple elements in the Noguchi sculpture.

The sweeping curves in the taller branches of "Transplanted" also speak to "Princess X," Sheldon's marble sculpture by Constantin Brancusi, who was Noguchi's teacher and who studied with Auguste Rodin.

"What an honor for me as an artist to be doing a piece in response to Noguchi, thereby Brancusi, thereby Rodin," Kozuru said. "I hope I can live up to that chain."

With "Transplanted," she's not only found a place in that lineage, she's taken it in a new, entertaining and thoughtful direction. It's a fine piece that fits perfectly in the space and in Sheldon's collection.

Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/KentWolgamott.

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