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This Couple Turns Rope Into Awesome Art Objects

Doug Johnston and his partner Tomoe Matsuoka are unique, even among artists. After meeting in graduate school, Doug and Tomoe developed a special rope coiling technique that can create art objects of almost any scale, from small table pieces to larger wearable structures. And though these pieces are wholly contemporary, they draw inspiration from unexpected places, like indigenous basket-making techniques and traditional Japanese eel traps. Intrigued, we reached out and they were kind enough to host us at their Brooklyn studio, where we checked out their work and talked about their lives living and working as a couple, making art for a large hotel, and even the differences between Japanese and American audiences.

When did you meet each other? When did your synergy for creating start?

Doug: We met in 2006 while in graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art. I think our ability to work together came over time, and we’re still figuring it out, to be honest. We have many of the same interests, get excited about the same kinds of things, and enjoy working in similar ways, so working together was a natural thing to try. We started by helping each other out with projects, which we still do, and played a bit of music together, which we haven’t don’t in a very long time. Those kind of broke the ice and paved the way for future collaboration.

When you first moved to New York together to pursue art, did you have to have side jobs to support yourself?

Doug: Of course! I think very few people are able to support themselves with their work straight away in NYC, or any large city for that matter. It takes some time to get things going— to get a studio set up, to meet people, and to get your work out there. We both worked full-time jobs for about 4 or 5 years after moving here before we could support ourselves with the studio work. During that time the economy collapsed, we got married, got a studio, and all the while we were trying to spend any free time and energy to do our own work. NYC is a hustle.

How did the rope coiling technique start for you Doug? Could you explain more in detail of what made this technique intrigue you?

Doug: It was a confluence of several interests that I had been exploring separately. In grad school, a colleague and I had built a few pavilion spaces out of plastic tubing and I loved the process we used in those projects. I wanted to continue to explore ways of transforming flexible lines of material into spaces and objects so I had been trying knitting and some other approaches after I moved to NYC. Concurrently, I had been making some drawings for years—repetitive freehand line drawings in which the accumulation of line after line slowly built up a composition. The drawings and repetitive yet steady work was very relaxing and satisfying for me. I had also been making my own bags for several years and loved making things with the sewing machine. When I tried out coiling and stitching rope it immediately clicked because several things I had been working on could be focused into a single way of working that would allow me to explore it all in a single direction. I knew right away that I would be doing it for a while because its so full of possibility.

Doug, how did you discover your unique rope-coiling technique? Why did it intrigue you?

Doug: I had bought some cotton rope in the dollar store below our apartment at the time and thought it would be wonderful to make a bag out of it. I tried a few techniques, such as weaving, but they didn’t really click with me for several reasons. I remembered some Native American and African coiled baskets that my parents had in Oklahoma and thought I would try coiling the rope. In researching that technique on YouTube I came across some videos of people sewing coiled bowls from fabric scraps. I loved that I could coil with the sewing machine and tried with just the raw cotton rope and colored thread. The formal possibilities are practically infinite and I loved that the colored thread highlighted the construction of the pieces and contrasted with the texture of the rope. The pieces were soft and flexible but the construction allowed them to be mostly self-supporting, which satisfied my architectural tendencies.

Tomoe, what are your favorite mediums for creating art? Why?

Tomoe: I often work with hard materials and soft materials at the same time. I like welding and I like sewing—welding because it’s pretty amazing when something solid melts like lava and you can feel it in your grip; sewing because it’s very forgiving.

You both create work together and separately. What are your favorite pieces you’ve made together? What about the ones you’ve made on your own?

Tomoe: Our favorite piece we made together is the Two-Hump Haus from 2014, which is a large coiled-and-stitched rope wearable mini-hut for the two of us. The two domes are sized to our respective heights and working together we were able to make it relatively quickly. It sums up a lot of things about us that I don’t know how to express otherwise.

Doug: My favorite piece of my own work changes frequently—it is often one of the most recent pieces I’ve made. Currently my favorite piece is one that I made over a year ago, but only a few people have seen. I probably won’t show it publicly for another year or so—I like it too much and I feel very precious about it, I guess.

Tomoe: I like all of my work. They are all parts of one exploration into questions of public and private, hard and soft, and body and space. I know it’s vague, but that’s what I like about my work.

You’re active in Japan. How do your Japanese clients and admirers differ from your American ones?

Doug: There’s not a big difference but we’ve noticed that Japanese people seem to engage our work more through the aspect of craft, details, and materials while people in the US are more willing to engage in conceptual aspect of the work, either critically or favorably.

You recently completed a big project for a well-known hotel. Can you tell us about that?

Doug: We were commissioned to make 2700 small baskets—one for each guest bathroom at the Park MGM hotel in Las Vegas. It took over half the year and dominated our production schedule. Our amazing, incredible, wonderful, awesome assistant of almost 5 years, Barbara Pearsall, made all of the pieces herself! This enabled us to keep all of the other projects and commissions on track in the studio at the same time. It was by far the largest order we’ve ever completed and was a good test of everything we’ve learned over the past 7-plus years of selling pieces.

How has art affected your lives? What would you most like to accomplish through your art?

Doug: Art making for us is a process of exploring the world and our existence in it. It is a way of engaging with life and asking questions in order to understand the nature of existence. At it’s best moments we can gain experiences that are powerful, beautiful, and enduring, which is what we are working towards with our own work.

Where do you find inspiration?

Doug: Historical artifacts, philosophy, and social theory. Looking at industrial processes and materials. And looking at a lot of art and design.

What are you working on next?

Doug: I’m learning FDM 3D printing and starting to incorporate that into my work. I’m working on some larger free-standing pieces, new lighted pieces, and sculptural vessels. I’ve also been learning various techniques of glass work and have been exploring how my interests and processes can translate into glass.

Tomoe: I want to experiment with different materials and techniques, like silicon and rubber, as well as mold making and weaving.

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