A Heart and Art Collaboration: An Interview with Ellie and Akira Ohiso
East coast artists Ellie and Akira Ohiso have collaborated for over 15 years. For this duo, collaboration comes in many forms. From long-standing projects like Green Door Magazine to raising three children together, creating something as a team is more than just executing an idea, it’s recognizing each other’s strengths and weaknesses and building upon them.
Hi Ellie and Akira, welcome to the Lonely Arts Club! You’ve done so much more than the occasional project together. From many exhibitions to starting the successful Green Door Magazine, what has it been like collaborating together after all this time?
Ellie: Akira’s job is to come up with the idea, and I ask, “How can we make this happen?” I’m very detail oriented and I’m able to fill in the holes where Akira is not able to. In Seattle, there are so many artist grants available, and Akira has gotten some. But there is this other side to it where you have to present a budget and very concrete lengths of time. I know how to do that and stay on budget. That is a problem that a lot of artists have. Akira is like a balloon, and I’m a like the string on the balloon.
Seattle Viaduct Fish Kites, Akira Ohiso
Akira: I’m a bit of a dreamer. If I didn’t have someone with her skills, none of these ideas would come into fruition. I’m very “in the moment”, and not very detail oriented. Sometimes I’m like, “I’m trying to make a statement here,” and Ellie is like, “You’re not going to sell anything with that statement!” Historically, I know it’s cliche but it’s sometimes true, artists really do think about producing something but then don’t know what to do after that.
Ellie: Akira is very prolific. He’s always working, creating two or three drawings a day and some of them never see the light of day. He’ll show me things and I’m able to know what does and doesn’t work. I’ll understand if something has commercial value. I feel like every artist needs someone like me, like an artist manager. Someone who can help with editing, marketing and commercial applications.
Tell me more about one of your biggest collaborative projects, Green Book Magazine.
Ellie: After we had kids we moved to upstate New York, in the Catskills, which is an hour in a half from New York City. There was this growing trend of artists that were priced out of Manhattan moving there. It wasn’t like here where you can move to Tacoma and still have coffee shops and civilization, it was really out there. It snowed 8 months out of the year, so it created a haven for artists to create. Around 2011 when we started Green Door was when print magazines were taking off again. It was very timely.
Akira: I think we captured something. We started it because we felt like we didn’t have anyone like-minded, so we said, “Let’s do a publication that featured things we like and want to do.” The first few issues I was writing everything and, slowly, people started reaching out. By our last issue, we had Martha Stewart and Mark Ruffalo on the cover, all of these famous people who had a root connection to the area.
Ellie: With Green Door’s success, we ended up renting a disgusting storefront on the main street as our headquarters and created an art and event space.
Akira: That space was cooler than the magazine. That was what was really the magic, having people coming in and having blowout parties. One time there was a huge storm with a foot in half of snow, and three hundred people came.
Ellie: It was really “of the moment” because we were all these city refugees that lived in a place that felt very disconnected. We would throw parties, and because we had the popularity of the magazine we would get free drinks and food, and we could showcase art on the walls. We had taken our exposure from the magazine and had turned it into community engagement.
Akira: Everyone felt lifted and supported by each other because of that. We had a little opening, and they filled it.
Ellie: Us creating a magazine legitimized a community, and in turn, the community legitimized us with their voice.
What ended up happening with this project?
Ellie: By 2014, we were too big to be small, too small to be big. We were breaking even. Towards the end of Green Door, we were hiring photographers, make-up, and hair. We were issuing 1099s. It was crazy. It was coming to the point where we needed to hire an investor. Some of the investors we were looking into wanted us to pull back a little bit, to not write what we wanted to write.
Akira: We were in the middle of an issue and I said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” People had a hard time understanding that. As an artist, when is it ever a good time to stop? I think it’s when you’re still feeling like you’re being honest.
Akira, your art has a very specific style of line work. Was there a particular shift that changed your art into what it is right now?
Akira: As an artist, it’s all a process. I’m experiencing a shift in my art right now. When I came to Seattle three years ago, I did a lot of drawings while just walking around the city, capturing the homeless community, and the gentrification that is happening. I started documenting all of this and built some shows around that. I did it for two years, and now I recently deleted all of my social media accounts so I could start fresh. I’m in that shift now and you go where the work takes you. It’s early days, and I kind of like being under the radar and experimenting. I get to test things out a little. I’m always reinventing my visual landscape or narrative.
I see a lot of illustrative, and colorful layered lines in your work.
Akira: Yeah, before coming to Seattle I was working only on paper. When I moved here, I started testing an app [Sketches and Procreate] and I liked the limitations of the app. It has ten colors, and I like working within those constraints. For me anyway, it’s very freeing because I can get overwhelmed with too many choices. I also take a lot from pop-culture and give images some movement and different meaning.
Ellie: He was quoted as the “democratizing of art”, because everyone can access this app with limited amount of money.
What have people gotten right about what you both do, and what has been the biggest misinterpretation?
Ellie: I’m a talker and Akira is the quieter one. What was interesting was when we were doing the magazine, we would be interviewed and people always minimized my role in things. I used to just sit there and think, “Well, my name is on the masthead above his.” The misconception is that my role in Akira’s success is undermined.
Akira: If Ellie says this is how it should be, I trust her because we’ve done that in the past and it’s been successful. It’s about what she brings to the table. She can make things very succinct, get them to the point to where it has a clear message.
Lastly, since you’ve come from the east coast to Seattle, what have been your successes and challenges with engaging with our community?
Akira: Personally, coming from New York, I think the diversity in this city has been a little lacking. Seattle says all the right things regarding diversity and inclusiveness but systematically, nothing really changes – or at least very slowly changes.
Ellie: In New York, you live diversity, but here they talk about diversity. That’s a step, but you need action. For instance, my children are multiracial. I worry that if you don’t understand diversity, there’s tokenization. You throw someone on a board not because you find inherent value in their voice, but because you just think you need their voice.
Akira: On the flip side, Seattle has been very positive to me due to the long history of the Japanese communities here with the internment camps and World War II. So I actually began to explore my Asian identity more due to coming to Seattle. My newer work is coming back to things I haven’t visited since childhood and put away for a while.
Ellie: In New York, you have to be pretty up the chain to get a gallery show. Seattle has more space for all types of artists, and you can make real money in emerging art. Akira has sold more work in Seattle than he has ever in New York. One of the things that Seattle is doing right is that it isn’t always about “connections”, it’s about emerging talents and voices.
Want to see more of Akira Ohiso’s art?
April 13th at the Ballard Artwalk, Featuring Nine New Works by Akira Ohiso and at Populuxe Brewery June through July