Interview with Amorette Dye (a.k.a. Sakurako Kitsa)

I'm thrilled to present Food Culture Index's first interview—with bento artist Amorette Dye, who works her magic under the name Sakurako Kitsa. There are two previous posts on Ms. Dye's work on this blog (here, and here). She has been featured on Gourmet magazine's website,  Geeknews, CBC Radio's blog, Le Monde's website, and elsewhere. She has contributed to the books Face Food by Christopher Salyers and 501 Bento Lunches, from Korero Books (for which she also wrote the forward). More information about Amorette Dye and her creations is available on her flickr page as well as her bracingly honest blog, The Sururako Chronicles.  In addition to answering my questions (our exchange took place via email over a few days), she's been kind enough to share one of her most recent creations: a sea turtle made from a mushroom.

You use a Japanese name—Sakurako Kitsa—for your bento box creations. Why is this?

Sakurako Kitsa is just a Russo-Japanese mishmash that sort of loosely means "Cherry Blossom Kitten." I've always loved cherry blossom season and I had just adopted a Siamese kitten when I came up with the name. When I first started doing bento art, it seemed like people liked my work but were really hung-up on the fact that I wasn't Japanese. I'm not as worried about it now, but at the time it was extremely important to me that people just be entertained by my food-art without worrying about my ethnicity. People were satisfied enough by the ambiguity of the name that the focus went back where it belonged: the silly food pictures I was trying to show them in the first place.

bento frog

How did you get interested in the Japanese art of bento boxes?

I was one of those kids who always saw faces in woodgrain and wallpaper patterns, and it kept on right through to adulthood in the grocery store. I'd pick up a strawberry and a cleft in the pointy end would make it look like a bunny's face, if it just had some ears. So I'd get it home and try to make it match what was in my head, and it always neat to see if I could really make it work. That sort of turned into trying to make interesting garnishes, then I'd find myself arranging things a certain way when I packed my lunches for work. When other people noticed that my lunches were pictures, I'd get self-conscious and stop. Later, when I decided it didn't matter whether people noticed or not, I just went ahead and had fun with it.

Obento is an art form that's very friendly to that way of thinking. If you think that your leftover pot roast looks like a gnarled piece of driftwood, you're encouraged to go with it. It's always fun to see what other people come up with, as well. Some people get hypercompetitive with "kyaraben" (making accurate representations of anime characters, etc), and kyaraben can get really amazing, but I always just preferred to keep it casual and fun. The more freeform style I do is referred to as "oekakiben".

I love food, and it's so easy to be creative with food. It's so beautiful and so versatile, and there's an infinite variety of colors and shapes and textures to work with. And food is such a natural fit to Japanese art, the respect for form and the beauty of nature. It all comes together in a very simple way that feels very "right" to me.

bento (tomato) lobster

Your thoughts on how a strawberry can be a "bunny face," and a bit of leftover pot roast a piece of "gnarled driftwood" makes me think of something the photographer Minor White said about how an artist needs to see things for what they are, and also "for what Else they are." Food art, like your bento boxes, are kind of the ultimate "what else," and yet, in the end, it's still food, it's still eaten, and no matter how gorgeous the illusion, the art disappears. How do you feel about the transience of your chosen art form? Are you ever tempted to make more permanent, less edible art?

I've dabbled. But I think the ephemeral nature of food art is really a big part of its charm, and of its attractiveness to me. It's more beautiful because you know it's not going to stay that way forever. But no, I can't say that I could just gobble down a plate of vegetables I spent hours carving with no regrets. That's why I began taking photographs of what I did, so there would be some record of it having existed. It's been a good compromise.

I was invited to do a gallery show a couple of years ago, and it was in an upstairs space in the middle of the summer. I was thinking, "Hmm, how is this going to work?". But we made it happen, with a combination of photographs hanging on scrolls and small, fresh dishes on pedestals so that people could see that it was really food. People were poking at the lobster made from Roma tomatoes, thinking it was plastic. I kept having to put the legs back where they belonged, and by the second day, things were definitely looking a little wilted. But that's okay. It sort of drove home the idea that these things have their moment and then they're gone.

And it might sound a little strange, but I get tired of looking at my own work after a while. If I worked in a medium that stuck around, it would all pile up and overwhelm me with sameness. I like to just take the photo and move on. From what I've seen, that's a pretty typical view among people who work with food creatively. It's there to be eaten, and the photograph is enough for me.

bento Marie Antoinette

On your blog, The Sakurako Chronicles, you write quite frankly about living with a lot of incredibly difficult health issues, including spinal cord cancer and a broken neck. Do you think your bento box creations—and, more generally, your apparently deep interest in both food and art—are in any way a response to those health issues?

I was born with my spinal cord cancer, and the 70s-era radiation I received saved my life but left me with lasting problems. I was paralyzed as a toddler, and I didn't regain use of my legs until I was around four years old. My mother jokes (well, she jokes now) that I was the easiest toddler in the world to raise because I stayed wherever you put me. A toddler who can't walk around getting into things has to find other ways to stay entertained, and I read very early. Some of the books I loved best had vivid photos of life and art in Japan. I would just sit there and take it all in, the colors and that wonderful combination of the simple and serene with the ornate, and how perfectly nature became art. A lot of my love for the Japanese aesthetic probably started then, with those beautiful photographs.

My health issues always made a lot of decisions for me. Instead of running around in gym, I'd be helping the art teacher get ready for her next class. Instead of recess, I'd be reading or drawing. So there was the enforced sedentary thing influencing my interests, and also the fact that I was constantly trying to find ways to work around my physical shortcomings. I think that working around my physical issues validated the general creative process for me. I don't hold back, because I know by experience how useful creativity can be.

Geisha bento

Have you ever been to Japan?

I haven't been to Japan yet. Maybe someday. I've always wanted to, for hanami (cherry blossom season). Cherry blossoms are ephemeral, too...the beauty is all around you, raining down on you, but it's so delicate and it's gone so soon.

garden bento

You are the mother of a toddler. What's your policy on letting your daughter play with her food?

I encourage it. She eats well, so I'm not worried about that. When she was a little under two years old, we took her to an Italian restaurant and she had a little piece of ravioli and a spoonful of minestrone on her plate. On her own, she picked up two pasta shells from the minestrone and put them on the ravioli as eyes. Then she thought for a moment and put a little sliver of carrot underneath, slanted downward like a frowning mouth. She told us that this was Problem Face. Then she looked down and said, "What's your problem, Face?" It was great to see because it's such a simple, natural thing to do. She saw a face and she went with it. I would never want to stifle that sort of creativity.

sea turtle bento
Amorette Dye's Bento Boxes
Blue Rice and Unfamiliar Fishes

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