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Running away: Artist finds safe place in her creations, rituals

Ari Tabei’s “RUNawayHOME” was featured at a 2011 exhibit in Hartford, Connecticut. Combining her mixed media creation with performance art, she hauled the mobile shelter through the gallery and demonstrated its function. 1 / 2
Mixed media artist Ari Tabei is working on a fabric creation while at the Anderson Center this month. She said it likely will evolve and become part of a performance art presentation. (Photo by Ruth Nerhaugen, contributor)2 / 2

By Ruth Nerhaugen, Contributor

Ari Tabei began packing her favorite toys in a special bag and running away from home when she was a little girl in Tokyo.

Growing up, moving to the United States and getting married has not diminished her need to search for a safe place. Now, however, she expresses that need through art.

“Running away is the essential theme in my artwork,” she said.

Tabei, who is known as “aricoco” in the art world, creates garments and portable shelters that enable her to surround herself with the essential elements of home wherever she goes.

Part of her problem is that Tabei does not like nature.

“I was always afraid of the natural environment,” she said, even as a child. When she ran away, she only went as far as the parking lot.

“I don’t feel I belong to nature,” she explained, although she is obsessed with it.

Two U.S. Midwest experiences led her to art. She spent a summer in Ashland, Wisconsin, as a teenager, and later a year as an exchange student at Hamline University in St. Paul.

“It was probably one of the best years of my life,” Tabei said, because she began taking art classes.

Although she returned to Japan and completed a degree in international legal studies, she realized, “It’s not for me.”

Recreating her childhood, Tabei began sewing large runaway bags that unzipped at the corners and opened into an artificial “grassy” surface — she doesn’t even like to walk on the real stuff.

“It’s like I needed my own place, a sanctuary,” she explained. “I was carrying my whole life in my bag — that’s my home. Wherever I go with my bag, that becomes my own place to be.”

Developing rituals to demonstrate how her bag worked, Tabei evolved into a performance artist.

She ran away again — to the United States. Tabei was awarded a full arts scholarship to attend the University of Connecticut.

Experimentation led her to create sculptural garments. “I could sort of wear my own shell, a temporary shelter” when she wrapped herself in them, Tabei explained. “It was like a little cocoon.”

She made elaborate dresses using inexpensive materials such as fabric scraps, felt and flour, tissue and newspaper.

Shedding one of the garments was akin to an insect metamorphosis.

“One of the things I was most afraid of is bugs,” Tabei said. “I have nightmares. Fear of insects is probably the main reason I don’t like to be in nature.”

After graduating in 2007, she moved to New York to immerse herself in that art scene. She had no money for supplies, so Tabei worked with no-cost materials including eggshells in shrink wrap, plastic bags, and hay and twigs encased in vacuum-sealed bags.

She used some of those materials to create a series of body bags she could carry then later unfold into sleeping bags.

Life changed in 2009 when Tabei got married. Her husband is fascinated by gas masks, she said. Soon she was incorporating them into her works as another device to protect herself from nature.

A series she calls “Unhappy Campers” resulted.

“We don’t go camping,” she explained, but they made a wheeled contraption so she could ride inside a plastic shell while her husband pulled it.

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan took an emotional toll.

“I started to feel no place is safe,” Tabei said. “We have to be prepared for emergencies. … We are worriers.”

Their answer was the “Runaway Cart” — a box on wheels that unfold to create a safe place to rest. She wore a woven plastic garment that transformed into her sleeping bag/cocoon and she pulled it through an arts festival in New York.

On a larger scale she created “RUNawayHOME” for a Connecticut exhibit — a large tent-like mobile home.

Her most recent project, exhibited at the Kawasaki City Museum in Japan, injected collaboration into the search for a safe place. Seven performers donned woven cocoons/sleeping bags as part of an emergency drill involving a small community, not unlike an ant colony.

“I think that’s the direction I’m going to now,” she said. “I’m interested in how it works.”

During her month at the Anderson Center, Tabei has been creating images on paper and on fabric that may become part of her next project.

“This is the year for me to think about collaboration and community,” she said. She is one of five fellows exploring theatrical collaboration at the Target Margin Theater Institute in Brooklyn, New York.

Tabei also is preparing for a 2015 exhibit that likely will reflect the “bug transformation process” in a community setting. It may also include carnivorous flowers since she has become intrigued by the idea that they will keep bugs away from her.

“I’m still running away from something,” Tabei admitted. But through art, she is creating an amazing new place for herself.