Sculpture artist Harumi Ori creates fiery-hued mural for new student center

Contact: Kaitlynn Boot
Imgae of mural by Harumi Ori

The mural, created by Brooklyn artist Harumi Ori, is inspired by the poem "I am Here" by Japanese poet Michio Mado.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A striking, permanent mural adorning a wall of the new WMU Student Center is sure to captivate visitors to the building. Thousands will get a chance to experience the tactile art piece in person for the first time during the center's grand opening set for Tuesday, Aug. 29.

A competition call for artists was sent out in 2020, with artists from around the world submitting their applications for a chance to create a sustainable, permanent installation located in the heart of the new student center. In addition to supporting public art, the goal of the project was to ensure a positive and welcoming visual experience that expressed the University’s culture, celebrated diversity and inclusion and served as inspiration for visitors and students.

A selection committee chose Harumi Ori, a Brooklyn-based sculptor and illustrator known for her orange mesh depictions of people moving through shared spaces. 

Ori’s works possess an urban and modern feel, which the selection committee felt would fit well in the new student-focused space. Her sculptures, which have been installed in global art galleries and commissioned public spaces throughout New York, are inspired by the poem “I am Here” by Japanese poet Michio Mado. The 17-line poem illustrates the idea that simply existing is meaningful, and that there is truth to be found in every moment no matter how ordinary it might appear. According to the artist, this philosophy is something that is always on her mind and has inspired a series of art installations 20 years in the making.

“The selection committee liked the tactile nature of the art so that students who have low or no vision could enjoy it,” says Paul Terzino, director of the student center. “We (also) liked the theme of 'I am Here,' which speaks to a student’s place at WMU, in the student center or wherever they are.”

Regarding her ongoing "I am Here" series, Ori’s website states: “I started this project by taking photos of an ordinary spot, day after day, at the exact same time, from the same vantage point. Despite the constants of time and place, no two photos were ever the same. An endless parade of humans, cars, and even birds, guaranteed that every moment captured was different.”  

The new student center features one such moment in time on Western’s campus. Ori, who visited WMU in the fall of 2021, walked around with her digital camera and captured more than 3,000 images of the campus. It was initially difficult to find spaces populated with people, as her visit coincided with the ongoing pandemic and the prevalence of online classes. Eventually, Ori settled on one photo of Miller Plaza to re-create.

“It was very peaceful. (There were) students using the hammocks, students sitting on the grass and talking with friends. I liked the fountains and how recognizable they are. I also tried to find a picture that showcased the diversity of the students,” she says of the piece, which was installed in the new student center at the beginning of July. The work is titled "I am Here@WMU, MI, Sep 30, 2021, 3:26pm." 

Ori translates her flattened photographs into sculptures by layering folds of mesh and pinning them into place to create her loosely three-dimensional figures. The resulting images are largely of people observed during her on-site visits, often walking or running to their next destination. People carry backpacks or purses, wear masks, ride their bikes or talk on their phones. However, the murals also illustrate buildings and landscapes that exist within the space to demonstrate the relationships people have with those objects.

“My artwork doesn’t have a face,” Ori explains. “It’s anonymous, but people can still recognize themselves in it.” 

For Ori, the ephemeral and impermanent nature of people and the spaces they occupy is what fuels her work. It is also the reason for her chosen medium, a versatile, orange plastic mesh used to create temporary fencing in urban construction sites.

The industrial material was modal and fresh, something that appealed to Ori as she graduated from art school. Working with the mesh to freeze ordinary moments in time was something that she had never seen anyone do before and allowed her to express both the impermanence of the moment and the permanence of the space. She also connected with its fiery hue, a color which symbolizes love and happiness in Japan.

“If I make a sculpture in just one color and show the space itself, it shows how beautiful the space is already,” she explains.   

Visitors will be able to experience the specially crafted artwork for themselves during the student center grand opening event on Aug. 29. Ori hopes that visitors enjoy the installation and can connect to it in their own ways. Most importantly, she hopes that they will find meaning in the poem “I am Here” and understand all the beauty there is to be experienced simply by existing.   

“I hope (people) take away the spirit from the poem, that every existence is a beauty and it’s a miracle that we exist here in this moment with other people,” she says. “We live here and study here and share this space. I hope the poem kind of speaks to them through the sculpture, and (that they) have an appreciation for it.”

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.