The beauty of details: 79-year-old artist cuts out images from flyers to create large collages

Courtesy of Tokyo Shibuya Koen-dori Gallery/Photo by Ujin Matsuo
A large collage composed of four size-100 canvases, from the series titled “Mangekyo” (kaleidoscope). This work was well received when displayed as a special exhibit at a recent exhibition.

Cutting images out of newspaper flyers and mail-order catalogs and pasting these small pieces of paper one by one on a large canvas — this is how artist Eiko Shima creates collages. Due to the unique style and charm of her work, Shima, 79, has suddenly attracted public attention.

A resident of Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, and a former oil painter, Shima uses paper as her sole artistic medium. “Paper is paint for me now,” she said.

Her work became a hit when she held a solo exhibition at a small community gallery in the ward near her home in October last year.

She displayed three collages on Japanese-size-100 canvases (about 1.6 meters by 1.3 meters), along with about 300 bags made with newspaper that she worked on daily, as one keeps a diary, during the coronavirus pandemic.

These works were recognized by editor Kyoichi Tsuzuki, who then made arrangements to display some of Shima’s works as special exhibits in an exhibition titled “Museum of Mom’s Art,” which was held in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, from January to April.

A collage by Shima appears to portray a modern metropolis, and taking a close look, the viewer finds it filled with small images of condominiums, furniture, jewelry and other objects, all incorporated to evoke a scene.

The collage’s overwhelming sea of objects became a topic of conversation on the internet, with such commendations as “tremendous” and “astonishing.” The work was also featured on TV and in magazines.

“I became aware of my hidden strength. I didn’t know I have so much power,” Shima said happily and a little surprised.

Shima has loved painting since she was a child. As her family could not afford to buy expensive paints for her, she instead used paper, which she says is available everywhere.

“I thought to myself that paper is my paint. I made paper cutouts, like those works by Kiyoshi Yamashita and [Henri] Matisse,” Shima said.

After finishing high school, she was employed by a mining company in Tokyo. While working as a keypunch operator, she painted in oil under the instruction of a teacher at the company’s art club.

She won a prize at an art exhibition that was open to submissions from the public, but she was not happy.

“It was unbearable to see my teacher retouch my work before displaying it at the exhibition,” she said. She returned to making paper cutouts, which she felt she could create freely, without anyone watching over her.

After she got married, she was busy with child-rearing, housework and her own work. In her mid-50s, she resumed her creative activities in earnest.

One day, she by chance dropped on the table some photos of houses that she had cut out. When she arranged them together, she found they made a nice picture. It motivated her to make collages by pasting paper cutouts on canvases.

She made small works at first, and then in 2002 she started using large canvases about 1.6 meters in height. She thought: “This is interesting. No one’s done this before.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Eiko Shima works on a large collage on May 6 in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo. “I like symmetry,” she said.

‘Because paper is there’

Shima’s morning routine is to look for materials. In the newspaper she subscribes to, she checks inserts that advertise supermarkets, houses for the elderly, graves and other products and roughly cuts out and keeps whatever she feels is usable.

“I do this because paper is there, like climbers say they climb a mountain ‘because it is there.’ I like the sensation of cutting paper,” Shima said.

To make photos look like they have depth, she knows to cut at the very edge of their outlines.

She keeps these photos in the drawers of a transparent storage box on her desk after classifying them into such categories as “houses” and “fruits.”

She is currently making a size-100 collage that will be displayed at a solo exhibition scheduled for October at a community gallery.

She says that she chose a bright sun as a motif to express her gratitude for the vitality that her sudden popularity has given her.

When she prepares to make the collage, she does not draw a detailed sketch on the canvas but just draws diagonal lines and large circles in pencil to roughly designate where to arrange the paper parts. She then pastes images of tomatoes, strawberries and circular slices of oranges to express the shining sunlight while creating shading and depth through images of grapes and blueberries.

She says it is enjoyable to think of which photos are to be combined together. One problem she has is that she sometimes cannot get the materials she desires for the project she is working on as soon as she wants. Due to this problem, each work for her previous solo exhibition took three months to complete. She is sometimes concerned about whether she will be able to complete works for the next exhibition in time.

But she said not to worry: “I’m the type of person who can work well when under pressure.”

Her daily life, spent flipping through flyers and catalogues to get artistic inspiration, is full of joy.