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New Traditional: Japanese Figurines

From folk craft to art toys, or what Sumo has to do with sustainability.

The Japanese seem to have a knack for gracefully incorporating tradition with modernity. These three contemporary examples of doll-making based on traditional forms or values celebrate the familiar while reinventing in a way that is relevant to today’s aesthetic, and even environmental, concerns.


As part of a collaboration with the Los Angeles Toy, Doll & Amusements Museum, the Japanese American National Museum is exhibiting a large collection of Kokeshi dolls.

Divided into three parts, the exhibition contains examples of traditional dolls made by farmers in the Tohoku region of northern Japan.

The early versions consist of a simple wooden trunk and a round head with a few lines for eyes and a smile. The second section is comprised of versions by contemporary artists who, based on the simple Koseshi form, have produced everything from Krokeshi (crocheted Kokeshi) to works that explore the artists’ childhood memories of the dolls.

Travis Louis

For the “Custom” section, a reprise of a 2007 show in San Diego, over 100 artists, including David Horvath of Ugly Dolls fame and Amy Sol, were given an unpainted Kokeshi doll.

The result is a surprising array of painted and sometimes resculpted dolls. If you’ve got cash to spend, a number of these are for sale here.

Allison Sommers

The exhibition runs through October 4th.


While based on a painting done by the artist himself rather than on any specific traditional form, Fontana’s nestkeeper dolls are cast from the same silicon form and, like the Kokeshi, represent variations on a theme.

Though the mold is the same, the appearance and mood of the dolls range from benignly serene to menacing — depending both on how they are painted and for how long you stare at them.

The remaining dolls from the run of 30 are for sale on Fontana’s website.


The creation of conceptual artist blattke, the “dauntless gatekeepers” are the latest generation of Mumishi dolls. The dolls are incarnations of the many personalities of Mimushi, a Japanese Sumo kid with multiple personalities, adopted by American parents.

Though previous personalities, ranging from geisha to rasta, were made from vinyl, the dauntless gatekeepers series is hand-crafted from wood harvested from government regulated Amazon plantations.

The dauntless gatekeepers are said to guard Mimushi’s mind from his ever-multiplying and warring personalities. These dolls, dressed in an endless variety of wheat straw “diapers,” as opposed to the traditional sumo belt, are not only eco-friendly and whimsically storied, but also well-designed and beautifully crafted.

Because of the work that goes into each doll, only 80 are produced per month. The first series of 119 Mumishi dolls is still available, with the second series currently in production.

Meghan Walsh has a degree in Anglo-Irish Literature from Trinity College, Dublin and is finishing her thesis on J.P. Donleavy at NYU. She is currently working on two art exhibitions in New York City. For more of her writing check out her cooking blog.


Art Meets Science: They Might Be Giants’ Creative Education

What paleontology has to do with stop-motion animation and kindergartners.

They Might Be Giants are among the most iconic and revolutionary alt-rock bands of our time. They’ve founded one of the first artist-owned online music stores, stunned critics with an unorthodox children’s project, performed at TED, and consistently challenged the conventions of the music industry. Oh, and they’ve won a few Grammys along the way.

This month, TMBG have released the latest installment in their critically acclaimed Here Comes children’s series. The Here Comes Science 2-disc CD/DVD album is a bundle of creativity and entertainment, tied with a ribbon of education. Although aimed at the K-5 set, the playful lyrics and brilliantly animated videos are an absolute treat for musicologists and design junkies alike — we can attest.

From the charming illustration in this Amazon-exclusive video, to the wonderful paper-cutout stop-motion animation in Electric Car, to the infographic ode to the periodic table in Meet The Elements, the album is a testament to the transformational power of a fresh approach to a stale subject.

What makes us particularly enamored with this project is that it addresses of the sore need for creativity in education, the lack of which is often a dealbreaker in kids’ engagement in the learning process. As Sir Ken Robinson so bluntly yet fairly pointed out in his TED talk, today’s schools may well be killing creativity.

Check out Here Comes Science for 19 unexpected takes on paleontology, evolution, astronomy, photosynthesis, anatomy and other delightfully geeky curiosities that you probably slept through in school.


Seafood Sexytime: Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno 3

What Pizza Neapolitana has to do with orgies and the future of the oceans.

Early last year, iconic Italian actor, filmmaker, author, philanthropist, and model Isabella Rossellini made waves when she signed on to do Green Porno, a series of short films for Sundance Channel exploring, to put it bluntly, the sex life of bugs.

Now, she’s back with Green Porno 3, charmingly weird and brilliant as ever. This time, she explores the hot-and-steamy of marine life.

From anchovy orgies, to elephant seal harems, to the 3-heart, 18-arm, 2-penis sexomatic squid, the series is every bit as awkwardly amusing as it is enlighteningly educational — a delightful intersection of scientific accuracy and old-timey theatrics.

We couldn’t help appreciating the subtle environmental commentary of the series. Each episode opens with a cooking scene, then delves into the magnificent, intricate marine system that somehow ended up on the plate — a timely reminder that our collective choices are precisely what caused the rather serious current overfishing crisis.

Catch Green Porno 3 online for some nerdy-artsy edutainment, and if you happen to be on the iPhone team, do the oceans a favor by grabbing Seafood Watch, a nifty free app that helps you make sustainable food choices.


Illustartion Spotlight: Every Person In New York

Nachos, modern art, and how to put yourself on the cultural map.

Jason Polan is after every living person in New York — with a pencil and a sketchpad. His ambitious illustration project, Every Person In New York, is an effort do draw New Yorkers — all 8.3 million of them. Since March 23, 2008, he has been drawing people daily, and uploading the results to his blog.

He draws in subway stations, museums, restaurants, street corners — just about anywhere. And he doesn’t discriminate — from junk food lovers to junkies to celebrities, his sketches span the entire social spectrum.

To increase you own chances of getting drawn, he even invites you — yes, you — to email him with a public location you’ll be standing at for a duration of exactly two minutes.

From the standard subway sleeper, to the typical pack of art-admiring MoMA-goers, to Kirsten Durst walking down Grand Street, Every Person In New York is part art, part sociology, part fascinating slice of the cultural anthropology of the world’s most vibrant city.


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