Aiko Morioka | Language of the Soul


By Gussie Fauntleroy

You would think that by the time you reach the mid-century mark, you’d pretty much know what your talents are. But life sometimes hands us surprises—good ones—and sometimes they really do come in small packages.

In 1999, when she was almost 50, Aiko Morioka had no idea her life was about to be radically transformed as she opened a small present from a friend. It was a cheer-up gift, intended to give her something to do as she tried to regain her health. After years as a financial planner in a company she and her husband owned in San Francisco, Morioka was struggling with asthma so severe that she was unable to work or to walk a city block. She’d been at home for weeks, and during that time, as she realized later, the linear, logical side of her brain had taken time off well.

So there she was, sitting and chatting with her friend and playing with the gift, a little ball of self-hardening clay, the kind that in children’s hands often ends up as tiny pots. Morioka, though, had never played with clay as a child, so she had no experience with it. Yet her hands moved almost unconsciously, pinching and shaping the clay as she talked with her friend.

Then she looked down and was surprised by what she saw. “I had made a bust of a woman. It even had musculature—maybe all the muscles weren’t in the right places, but it looked good. I was absolutely shocked!” she recalls, her words tumbling out in characteristic, irrepressible enthusiasm and appreciation as she recounts that pivotal event. It was the start of a new phase in her life, the swinging open of a door—one she hadn’t even known was there—that led to a new career, improved health, and art that would end up in galleries and collections nationwide.

The eldest daughter of Japanese-American parents, Morioka grew up on a small family farm in California, where she and her four siblings were out in the pepper and strawberry fields from morning until dark. It was a time of dutiful labor, tomboy play, and a quiet home life with books and poetry read to the children by their mother, who spoke of having loved drawing when she was a girl.


Aiko was good at drawing, too, especially women’s faces. But art was not a career encouraged by the sensible side of her heritage, a fact she has come to understand and accept. Besides, she had no idea how to turn a love of drawing into a viable career. So she turned instead to the study of practical things like math. And as soon as she could, she left the farm and headed for the city. In 1980 she met the man who would become her husband and business partner, and for almost 30 years she successfully worked in the financial services field—until her health forced her to take what she initially thought would be a temporary break.

Looking back, Morioka can see the hand of fate at work. “I think I had been feeling kind of finished with the financial field before I got so sick, but how do you leave your own company? It was not in my consciousness to do that, so I had forced myself to do something I really didn’t want to do anymore,” she relates. “I look at that time of being sick, as scary as it was, as one of the great blessings of my life.”

After her initial encounter with clay, she did leave the company, and she and her husband moved to Marin County. Soon she was taking sculpture lessons from an Italian-born artist, later traveling to Italy for further study. Her first assignment in clay was to carve a hand. “I discovered that I just knew how to sculpt a hand,” she remembers, still sounding amazed. “My teacher looked at it and said, ‘You’re three-dimensional. It’s just in you.’ It was weird. I don’t know how I knew how to do it.”

Morioka set up a basement studio, sculpting in both clay and stone and then shifting primarily to clay. Some of her work was, and still is, classically realistic, while other pieces are elegantly abstract. But always, the human figure is her subject of choice. Today she works in a large studio on the harbor in Sausalito, with five windows looking directly onto San Francisco Bay. She still creates some marble, plaster, and fired ceramic pieces, but these days most of her work is cast in bronze.

Among the artist’s early sculptures was a commission for a large outdoor piece to be installed at a new professional center in Novato, CA. After studying the site, and aware that Coast Miwok Indians once lived in the area, she knew she wanted to create a piece that would honor the ancient tribe. The 6-foot-tall bronze, WINDOWS OF WISDOM, became the first of her works she refers to as “modern,” a style of gracefully sculpted figures in highly abstracted form. Often they feature scooped-out areas or oval openings representing the heart or head. This type of work, she notes, is more ethereal and symbolic than her other series, and points to the deeper, non-material aspects of life.

“I’m trying to get a sense of the spirit,” the artist reflects. “I’m sculpting a language of the soul.” WINDOWS OF WISDOM depicts two figures standing together, their flowing forms suggesting the fluid nature of life. The figures face toward the future, while the openings—in the area of the heart—represent the wisdom of ancestors and a view to the past. In the original installation plans the oval openings were meant to frame a leafy creek-side area known to be a Coast Miwok site. In fact, while Morioka was creating the piece, the 1,000-year-old remains of a Coast Miwok woman were discovered nearby.

By the time the work was to be installed, however, the configuration of buildings had changed, requiring a last-minute shift in the sculpture’s orientation. As it was lowered into place, Morioka noticed the openings framed not the creek, but an outdoor staircase instead. Her pleasure in seeing the piece installed was tinged with disappointment—until the developer suddenly realized something important. He pointed out that in its new orientation, the sculpture’s openings now framed the exact spot, aligned with the staircase, where the Indian woman’s ancient remains had been re-interred.

Surprise is not only an occasional response to the final form, but is an integral aspect of the process in Morioka’s art. Unlike most sculptors, who create by adding and then shaping pieces of clay, often around an armature, she begins with a solid block of clay and subtracts, carving away to discover what’s inside. It is a process akin to stone carving, except that in Morioka’s case there is no advanced planning, no sketching or measuring, and usually no idea of what will emerge until she puts her hands to the clay.

“It’s a free-flowing creation, like peeling away the layers to find what was already in the block of clay. It’s an exploration,” she explains. “I might notice a little shadow that reminds me of something, like the shadow under a chin. Suddenly I almost see the whole sculpture in the block, and then it’s a matter of taking it out of the clay. I’m always looking for the line that takes the eye all the way around the piece, but since I’m working with a solid object, I have to create a dynamic of shadow and light. I’m looking for that grace of balance.”

Morioka is also seeking ways to express meaning, not just creating a beautiful form. WINTER SLEEP is part of her “figurative” series—works with stylized imagery that is more overtly human. An androgynous figure lies on his or her side, knees tucked in and head resting on an arm. Like trees that draw into themselves in winter, or animals in hibernation, the piece speaks of a time of regenerative rest, of dreams that serve to re-create and re-emerge as new life.

WIND WATCHERS, from Morioka’s “modern” series, is a striking, fluid sculpture with curving scooped-out areas, suggestive of faces, on both sides of the sculpture. “We live in such a kinetic world. This is about that quiet, still moment when you can see all around you,” she explains. “It’s about going inside and finding that strength and the true genius that exists in all of us.

“I guess I came into art at the time when it was right for me,” she continues. “I don’t think I would have had anything to say when I was younger, but now that I have some wisdom and experience and have something to say, creating art becomes much more rewarding in my life. Now that I’ve truly found what I’m absolutely positive I came into this world to do, I’ll never retire!”

Featured in July 2008