A world-class Japanese sculptor toured Western South Dakota over recent weeks – from Spearfish to Pine Ridge. His purpose is to learn more about the state, its history and its cultures. But, as we hear in the first of a two-part series, the artist’s ultimate goal is to hear the voices of South Dakotans.
Parking lots aren’t a favorite part of the scenery for most folks - unless you’re looking for someplace to park your car. That said, a few years back a group of people in Rapid City decided to reverse the process noted in the classic song “Yellow Taxi.” They paved a parking lot and put up a community gathering spot. And they called it Main Street Square.
“Part of the design for the square included twenty-one granite blocks,” explains Wyss. “They were shaped so they would have some appearance to them over time before they were sculpted.”
Patrick Wyss and his landscape architect company were hired to oversee the search for an artist to create the $2 million Main Street Square sculpture project.
“The intention from Day One was…the architect had identified that there’s a real culture of sculpture in the Black Hills, and that this square should be part of that,” Wyss continues. “Originally it was to be 20 blocks of granite, 20 years. One per year, a different artist every year. “
But we all know about the best laid plans. After some reassessment and re-thinking, it was decided to go with one artist over a much shorter time-frame – three to five years.
Notice was sent out around the world that a sculptor was needed for the project. The 88 applicants were first narrowed down to 30 who were sent a video of local scientists, artists and historians describing how the sculpture should reflect the natural flora and fauna of the region.
From their responses of how that goal would be accomplished, five artists were chosen. Those finalists were invited to tour the Black Hills as guests of the project’s sponsors to gain a greater insight into the area’s history, culture and landscape.
A final round of proposals resulted in Japanese artist Masayuki Nagase being selected to sculpt the granite at Main Street Square.
“Yuki had a very strong concept for the entire piece,” says Wyss..”He used metaphors versus realism, and the committee felt that that would bring a new style of art to the region, that we have great sculpture, great artwork, but this would be a different language to express in stone.”
I meet Yuki Nagase on a brisk, cloudy afternoon at Main Street Square…in the heart of Rapid City. The California resident is bundled from head-to-toe and comments on the contrast in the weather from what he’s used to. Fortunately, he’ll be working on his sculpture during the summer months, so won’t have to wear those heavy mittens.
Enjoying the warmth of a nearby office, Yuki reviews the long road that led him to Rapid City.
“I was born in Kyoto, Japan, 1949,” says Yuki. “Not so many years after the war. I remember when I was a kid, [there were] still American soldiers in town riding a jeep around.”
Descended from 14 generations of weavers, Yuki’s artistic interests took him down a different path - toward drawing and painting. It wasn’t until Yuki attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Tokyo that he developed an interest in sculpting. After apprenticing for five years in traditional stone carving, Yuki began working internationally from Chile to Austria, Slovenia, across the U.S. and back to Japan.
Reflecting on a life begun under the watchful eye of an occupying force of US soldiers, Yuki says he’s pretty amazed that he’s sitting in Rapid City to start work on the largest privately funded public art project in America.
“[At] first I thought, okay, South Dakota,” Yuki explains. “People said it’s a very conservative place. But since I came here and to meet people, it’s not just, you know, conservative people. But there’s so many different conglomerate.”
And that, says Yuki, is very interesting. The artist plans to access that diverse cross-section of people to assist him in completing what he sees as “their” sculpture at Main Street Square.