My Job Is Preserving Damaged Scrolls and Precious Art
Some family treasures have passed down through generations. And occasionally an item is haunted.
NAME: Hiroko Sakurai
JOB: East Asian Art Conservator
BEGINNINGS: Sakurai, born in Kyoto, Japan, says she decided to become an artist at age 3. After earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture and design from Kyoto Institute of Technology, she resumed her focus on art.
In 1999 Sakurai and her husband moved from Japan to Seattle, where her son was born, and later to Hawai‘i when her husband became an art history professor at UH Mānoa.
Sakurai created art all the while, and held various jobs as an art instructor, studio assistant and art book buyer before becoming an apprentice in scroll mounting.
MISCONCEPTIONS: Sakurai explains that she is an art conservator, not an art restorer.
“It’s not a bandage. It’s to give the art a long life and sometimes it’s more important to do a treatment with chemicals than to just clean it up.”
Fixing damaged art takes time. For scroll mounting, the art stays on the drying board for at least six months. Art that has many layers of material and different processes may require even longer to preserve.
CHALLENGES: Sakurai was in her 30s when she had to decide between going back to school to earn a master’s degree to become an art conservator in museums or continue to build on her experience.
She says she ultimately chose to continue preserving art on her own since she loves helping people.
“Museums are important but there’s lots of art in the world. I wanted to help other people who had art that was important to them.”
HAUNTED ART: One client brought her an old crinkled newspaper. He found it in the wall when he was remodeling his house and wanted to preserve it to remember the old house. After it was removed from the house, the client claimed the house shook and lights suddenly broke.
Sakurai repaired the newspaper and was quick to return it to him, and when she did, everything at the house returned to normal. “It was interesting for me. Sometimes I think there are spirits in the art and I think about it a lot.”
WHY I DO IT: “If I don’t keep doing this technique and using traditional materials, this type of art could die out. When I talk to people who inherited art from their families, it makes me keep going. They didn’t just inherit the art, they inherited the culture. If I can help preserve that, it makes me feel good.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.