154 Hiroko Lancour

Born Fukuoka, Japan, 1954 / B.A., English, International Christian University, Tokyo; B.A., Computer Science, Wayne State University; MFA Wayne State University / Lives in Royal Oak

Grief is finding yourself in an unfamiliar world suddenly absent a loved companion. But grief can also be the doorway into new ways of life you could never have anticipated. For Hiroko Lancour, this passage led from a career as a systems analyst to a full-time artistic practice.

As befits a former information technology specialist, Lancour’s website is highly organized by year, project, and material. Her playful yet meticulous body of work crosses fiber, installations, mixed media, paintings, and paper, focusing on patterns and nature.

One bridge connecting systems analysis and art production is the recurring project Chance Operations, in which Lancour uses coin flips or dice rolls to determine characteristics of calligraphy. The artist sees this randomness as an analogy for life. In Chance Operations: Enso, from 2014, the roll of three dice controls the choice of ink color, starting point, and rotation of the Japanese circles called enso. After recording the dice-throw data, the artist used traditional inks and brushes to paint grids of enso. The variation of vermillion and black inks and the differing thickness of the stroke at the stop and start of each circle create a shimmer effect in the eight panels, like rows of sequins reflecting light.

Notable also is the Paper Sashiko series, including Paper Sashiko #14: Spring Ephemeral (2021). Sashiko is decorative and utilitarian Japanese embroidery used to mend or reinforce cloth. Lancour devised her own process, using wetted, rolled up strips of calligraphy paper in place of thread on a watercolor paper base. Paper stitches arc in high relief in these dimensional and structural works. Lancour first draws quilt-like squares of precise geometric patterns to guide holes she pokes with an awl where the calligraphy paper will be inserted. A larger piece may have as many as 10,000 holes.

Duality is a recurring theme throughout Lancour’s work, particularly the duality of East and West and the ways in which that dichotomy coexists in a single entity. This is inherent to the Paper Sashiko series as the eastern calligraphy paper melds with the western watercolor paper in Lancour’s inventive technique. Duality is also embodied in the divergent appearance of the front and back of these works. Paper Sashiko #3: Hemp Leaves (2007) is orderly on its face and chaotic, albeit within a discernible logic, on the Reverse.

Lancour’s personal experience of East and West coexisting is embodied in Dual Citizenship (2012), a Japanese happi coat inspired by Lancour’s reflections on citizenship while renewing her green card. It is reversible, to symbolize her identity as both Japanese and American after living in the U.S. since 1976. One side of the coat is silk with the crimson circle of the Japanese flag while the other is cotton painted with Stars and Stripes and the seal of Homeland Security, a symbol that surrounds her when she passes through U.S. customs after visiting Japan.

Astoundingly, Hiroko had no artistic experience until she began searching for solutions to complicated grief in 1997 after a beloved pet passed away. Meditation and yoga brought no relief. Given a geometric pattern to color at a workshop, Lancour focused fully on the experience and felt her painful thoughts ease. Art was the path to healing! She then began taking classes at art supply stores. While drawing her sleeping cat in charcoal, seeing the realistic depiction on her paper surprised her. “I felt like something was working through me, and I realized it was time to go to real art school.” 

By 2017, Lancour’s artistic training and dice-throwing method were well-established methods of providing structure to process the loss of another cherished cat. Chance Operations: The Four Stages of Grief captures her emotions of Anticipation, Sorrow, Acceptance, and Peace on calligraphy scrolls. The roll of the dice dictated the character to be written, its size and the darkness of the ink. Life and death are also factors in her earlier Uprooted series of cyanotypes on silk that memorializes weeds Lancour pulled from her garden. Although removing plants such as Chives (2011) was necessary for the garden’s health, she noted “a sense of guilt and loss” at having to destroy living beings.

In Hiroko’s studio, an image I mistakenly identified as one by Emma Kunz, who created geometric artwork on graph paper to facilitate her practice as a healer, turned out to be a schematic diagram for Paper Sashiko, and Lancour had never heard of Emma Kunz. Perhaps Lancour’s journey into art through grief has led her to a universal geometry of healing.

Mariwyn Curtin, June 2021

Copyright Essay’d 2021