Brush the Sky (2015)

For millennia East Asian artists have enhanced paintings with calligraphy, the abstract, graphic qualities of the brush strokes reverberating with the meanings of text and image. In “Brush the Sky,” a mother-daughter duo brings this ancient art into the 21st century: In the Wing Luke Museum gallery, transparent wall hangings by Midori Kono Thiel emphasize the abstract nature of calligraphic art by deconstructing Japanese characters across multiple layers. Her daughter Tamiko Thiel enhances both the gallery installation and sites of family history around Seattle with augmented reality (AR)* overlays. These virtual artworks further de- and re-construct Midori's boldly abstract, gestural calligraphy into visual poems, marking sites of this Japanese American family's four generations of involvement with Seattle.

Full Description

For the gallery exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum, Midori Kono Thiel chose to experiment with a new medium: transparent sheets of treated mylar instead of Japanese washi paper as the substrate for the traditional water-based sumi ink. Radically abstracting the calligraphy, she separated the strokes of the characters over several parallel sheets in ways that are never done in traditional calligraphy, rendering each sheet a completely illegible, abstract construction that only from straight on frontal perspective would resolve into the proper alignment. Shadows cast by lights create a second, distorted and ghostly layer, and a slight draft in the rooom stirs the sheets and the shadows in constant, animated motion.

As the mylar does not absorb the sumi ink, traditional methods of bleed and flow of the ink, or the scratch of the dry brush, did not work. Midori had to discover new ways of interacting with the page, even blotting the puddles and pools of ink, or letting them dry together only to rip them apart into two separate traces, as if the two sheets were block and print of the woodblock prints she used to work with.

For the augmented reality (AR) calligraphy, Midori’s daughter Tamiko Thiel rendered the black-to-grey calligraphy into her signature virtual gold. She preserved much of the fading and transparencies but adding elements of repetition, distortion, scale and animation depending on the meanings and relationships between the respective calligraphy and its location.


At the Pike Place Market, the phrase “Mukashi mukashi, ojii-san to obaa-san ga …” (“Long, long ago, an old man and an old woman …) is repeated over and over again, echoing the many individual stories of each family that sold their produce at the Market.

At the site of the former Nippon-Kan, the calligraphy “Yo-in” (“Reverberation, Lingering Sound”) periodically spawns a faint replicant that fades slowly away like the ringing of a bell.

At the Asian Art Museum, “Senri no Bunka” (“Thousands of Miles of Culture”) is replicated into the distance, forming caravans of characters that then drift apart, transforming the single simple Japanese calligraphy into a complex tapestry reminiscent of the multitudinous cultures spanning the Silk Road.

In this way, although the strokes of the virtual calligraphy do not have the intricate subtlety of the original calligraphy on paper or mylar, each on site installation uses the special characteristics of augmented reality to enhance the calligraphy with a visual evocation of its meaning and relationship to its site.

Work metadata

  • Year Created: 2015
  • Submitted to ArtBase: Sunday Oct 18th, 2015
  • Original Url:
  • Work Credits:
    • Tamiko Thiel, Artist, concept & augmented reality
    • Midori Kono Thiel, Artist, concept & Japanese calligraphy
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Artist Statement

"Brush the Sky" is a calligraphic family narrative, written onto the Seattle skies. Using geolocative augmented reality, the artists enhance selected sites, relevant to four generations of their family history as Japanese Americans in the Seattle Puget Sound area, with calligraphy chosen to resonate with each site.

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