When I first interviewed Japanese-born artist Yuri Tsuzuki for TOWN four years ago, she was about to take flight with her Butterfly Project, a gift to the city that has become her adopted hometown. Today, downtown Greenville is aflutter with about 400 of her glittering steel butterflies. The story she has imagined is that the butterflies emerge in her sculpture called Transformation, which adorns the front of Brooks Brothers on Main Street. From there, the butterflies take flight—you can see them on buildings, lamp posts, street signs, and trees along Spring Street. They end up at the 6.8-acre Cancer Survivors Park, which connects Falls Park to Cleveland Park behind the Greenville Chamber of Commerce. Heralding the entrance to the new plaza, Tsuzuki has installed her Butterfly Journey, a 16-foot-high, heart-shaped gateway covered with vivid blue steel butterflies. I recently caught up with Yuri again to find out more about this project and others.
How did you get involved in the Cancer Survivors Park project? >> About four years ago, I went to Mayor Knox White and asked him if I might donate a piece of art to the city. I proposed a butterfly, as the butterfly symbolizes Greenville’s transformation from textiles to advanced manufacturing. At the same time, I had heard that the city was going to build a Cancer Survivors Park, and I thought the park would be a wonderful way of beginning to tell the story of hope and rebirth and the butterfly.
Why a butterfly? >> I lost my father to cancer, and it’s a fight that everybody fights. When people come out of chemotherapy, they’re weak, and nothing is happy. And imagine they see [like Yuri and her father did, coming out of a chemotherapy session one spring] a butterfly—that sudden lightness, freedom, flight. That’s what prompted the butterfly. If there’s any way to capture that hope, that feeling of fragility but strength, the juxtaposition of those two things in an image, it would be the butterfly. The butterfly is the symbol of fragility, of struggle, of rebirth. And I wanted to create that as an art form.
Didn’t you recently publish a book related to the butterfly project? >> About the same time as I installed the Transformation sculpture downtown, I wrote a children’s book titled Do Butterflies Dream?. It was illustrated by my dear friend, Keiko Kamata. With the generous kindness of two donors, we were able to print a limited edition, most of which will be given to the Cancer Survivors Park. Each artist book is numbered and signed.
Why did you title the arch sculpture Butterfly Journey? >> I called it Butterfly Journey, as each day is a journey, each life is a journey, and a cancer diagnosis is the beginning of a journey.
“I called it Butterfly Journey, as each day is a journey, each life is a journey, and a cancer diagnosis is the beginning of a journey.”—Yuri Tsuzuki
When people see your sculpture in the park, what do you hope they will feel? >> Any entrance or portal to any place is a demarcation, a line you cross. When you step through it, you enter a different mindset. I hope people will feel a moment of thoughtfulness, of mindfulness, of peace.
What is it that appeals to you about steel as a medium for your sculptures? >> Working with steel is a catalytic medium that challenges and inspires me to imagine and create. Innovative collaboration and artistic exploration are so important to the creative process, and steel allows me to interface industry/technology and the arts. Since steel is a masculine medium usually associated with functionality, war, and brutality, I love the challenge of making it feminine, elegant, thoughtful, and whimsical.
How has your work evolved over last few years? >> What has changed in my work is that it’s not just art—it’s now incorporating advanced manufacturing capabilities. I utilize those new technologies to create artwork that is not only visually pleasing, but also speaks to what’s happening in South Carolina’s industry. I have forged relationships with fellow creators in industry who have become my true accomplices in creative work.
How does the simplicity of nature define your work? >> My life has always been about contrast, dichotomy, and juxtaposition. I thrive in that juxtaposition—negative space versus positive space. Emptiness. That’s where the simplicity is.
Yuri Tsuzuki’s work is currently on view at the Hampton III Gallery in Taylors through May 26. For more information visit yuritsuzuki.com.