She goes far beyond paper airplanes

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Three-dimensional artist Makiko Azakami's "paper toys" don't wind up or require batteries. But the intricate miniatures manage to be more enthralling than a Game Boy thanks to their attention to detail and the level of dexterity and skill required to create them.

The Tokyo-based Azakami sculpts miniatures using colored paper, scissors, double-stick tape, and her imagination. Her work celebrates everyday objects such as a pair of men's dress shoes, a tube of toothpaste, and a bowl of pears.

"Paper Toys," Azakami's first US exhibition in seven years, is on display through Dec. 31 at Every Picture Tells a Story, a children's art gallery and bookstore in Santa Monica, Calif.

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Despite their reduced size, all of the 100 "toys" in the show exhibit a striking amount of detail. There's a big rig truck with a red cab and a gleaming metallic tank; a straw purse with a woven exterior, a floral lining and faux leather handles; a pay phone that beckons callers with thorough instructions on placing local or long distance calls.

Azakami says she crafts most of these deft reproductions from her imagination rather than from a model or a picture.

"I don't make human beings; a lot of artists draw people. I like objects - clothes, a kitchen tool, anything," says Azakami, who spends an average of two or three days on one piece.

To create the striking color contrast for a Chinese-inspired teacup and saucer, Azakami chose fuchsia for the background and aqua for the elaborate floral pattern. After creating the physical shape of the cup and saucer, she layered it with tiny bits of paper to make up the flowers and colors in the pattern.

An unusual exhibition

Lee Cohen, co-owner of Every Picture, says people react to Azakami's work in stages. "Once they get the concept that what they see is paper and not some other material, they have to pick themselves up off the floor," Cohen says.

When Sherie Sylvester first saw Azakami's "toys" at a 1996 exhibit, she bought 30 assorted pieces on the spot.

"I bought the whole display. I love little things, the detail, the intricacy, the craftsmanship. Everything about her work appeals to my sensibilities. And, now, I think, should I add a few?" she says, while lining up a pair of black Mary Janes next to a pair of hot-pink, polka-dot sandals. "They're so fun."

Azakami made her first "paper toy," a Godzilla waving a Japanese flag, in 1985 for a coworker at Sony Creative Products. Later that year, after being introduced to a Tokyo gallery owner by a friend, she was invited to contribute two pieces to a Christmas exhibition. Since then she's had 28 solo shows and several group shows, including an exhibit at the American Craft Museum. Her toys sell from $100 to $2,500.

Prolific designs

Most of the 100 pieces she makes every year are for advertising and publishing clients. Her work has been featured on numerous book jackets, magazine covers, posters, and billboards across Japan. Some of her American clients include fashion designer Vera Wang and Good Housekeeping magazine.

Azakami says she likes catering to an American audience. Many of the "toys" in this exhibit depict examples of US culture. There is a western shirt adorned with fringe and a silver "M" (for Makiko) bolo tie, a cowgirl bandanna with a rope border made from vellum, as well as vacation scenes that include various incarnations of Betty Grable-esque women dressed in polka-dot shorts. In "Summer Greetings," a car with a yellow surfboard on its roof is headed for the beach.

Lois Sarkisian, co-owner of Every Picture, says Azakami's work encourages viewers to reexamine everyday objects.

"Not only is her work so graphically arresting, but she takes common objects and makes us look at them in a new way. How many times a week do you use your bath towel?" she says, pointing to what looks like a freshly washed white bath towel neatly folded and hanging against a light-blue tiled wall.

"When you look at Makiko's work you begin to think of something like a towel as a beautiful thing, instead of just a utilitarian object," Sarkisian says.

Fine craftmanship

Folding all those pieces of paper isn't always easy. Azakami says one of the hardest pieces she made was a black and white cow. "The curve of the cow's body was difficult to create."

But Ms. Sarkisian considers Azakami's cow piece notable for another reason.

"From top to bottom, there's a wedge of cheese, a cow, and a pitchfork. It's both ends of the cow," laughs Sarkisian. "You appreciate the art of what she does, but it's funny to see how she puts them together."

Azakami says she's pleased with the reception her work is receiving in America.

"In Japan they appreciate detail," she says. "It makes me happy when people here tell me they appreciate my sense of humor."

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