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Week of February 4, 2013

Faculty Spotlight

Professor uses projectors, electronics to bring art to life

A glass bell jar, a projector, several video clips, and a blank prisoner’s identification tag make up one of Heidi Kumao’s art pieces, “Transplant,” about the Japanese internment in War Relocation Centers in California during World War II.

Kumao’s image theater sculptures reveal true stories of the creative outlets prisoners have used to maintain their humanity. Kumao’s alchemy transforms ordinary objects that are trapped within bell jars, with projected video imagery.

In “Transplant” she retells the story of American citizens of Japanese ancestory that were confined in war relocation centers during WWII. Suspended inside the bell jar, a blank prisoner’s ID tag alternately becomes the face of an interned Japanese American girl, a discarded pan of dust, a guard tower, the American flag and a sprouting seedling. The shadow of the tag is worked into background imagery as her narrative unfolds through sculpted video composition and archival images of the California desert internment camps.

Kumao, an associate professor of art at the Stamps School of Art & Design, was inspired to create the piece when reading about the elaborate desert gardens that Japanese prisoners created while in the camps. “I need a problem to solve,” says Kumao of her inspiration process. “I need a strong emotional connection first, then I need to do research.”

Kumao says that her “Timed Release” pieces allow viewers to “fluctuate between two perceptions of the same tableau,” which then leads them to identify with the prisoner’s challenge to “balance hopelessness and creativity.” She received a Guggenheim Fellowship for this work.

Much of Kumao’s work is interactive in some way, and she describes her art as being “at the intersection of theater, technology and psychology.” She has a large database of video clips and photographs that she has collected over many years and uses in her various video and projection projects.

"Self-portrait with monkey (Frida)," 2011; from a series of self-portraits made during Heidi Kumao's recovery from a broken back. Photo by Heidi Kumao.

“Making art is optimizing the chance for good accidents,” says Kumao, who refers to many of her works-in-progress as “experiments.” She stresses this to her students as well. Kumao teaches one lower level and one upper level class every semester, as well as mentors graduate students, and then spends the rest of her time preparing for exhibitions, producing new work, and applying for grants.

When not in her studio or the classroom, Kumao enjoys gardening, swimming, and crafting. She upcycles wool and cashmere sweaters from thrift stores into quilts and other things, and sculpts little creatures with felted raw wool.

The weekly Spotlight features faculty and staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, please contact the Record staff at

Posted by Michael Flynn | Feb 8, 2013
You can see video of Heidi Kumao's "Transplant" and other works at
Posted by Rosemary Malbin | Feb 6, 2013
Yea, Frida is alive and well, living in Ann Arbor! I love Professor Kumao's work. I hope to see it in person.

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Heidi Kumao, an associate professor of art at the Stamps School of Art & Design, on what she can’t live without: “A camera. As an artist, it’s my tool for looking at the world in a creative and open way.” 


“From Aristotle to O’Neill: Western Influence on Cao Yu,” 4 p.m. Feb. 8, North Campus Research Complex, Building 18 dining hall.

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