The doorman for Cary Fagan and Ezla Lewis’ Arigatou Studios stands on the walkway of one of several converted warehouses clustered in a few blocks off the highway in Houston’s east side, greeting incoming guests as he pins in the code to the building. Upon entering the last door in a long hallway, attendees are welcomed in Japanese and English before receiving shoe coverings and a brief overview of the space. Photographs of Japanese forestry and urban scenery, paired with handwritten poems on bits of unbleached paper, grace the walls opposite a projection of clips featuring similar subjects. A zen reading and writing corner buzzes with guests perusing books and journaling opposite Fagan’s sculpture of stacked school chairs on the other end of the room, where observers pause and rock on their feet to peer around the balancing act in wonder. Finally, in an adjacent room, another film of Japanese imagery by local videographer Bryce Saucier loops while guests sift through original Arigatou Studios clothing and Cary Fagan prints.
The gallery is spacious and roomy, yet filled throughout with objects and subjects to engage with. The artist themselves speak to everybody, attentive hosts regularly greeting and well wishing the coming and going attendees while discussing their work in earnest. This is the debut pairing for the artists, but the cohesiveness of the gallery’s content and presentation shows no fingerprint from either to split the work apart. Cary Fagan, well known for his work on Solange Knowles’ album art, lets his word contextualize and bring depth to the clothing design pioneered by the fresh face Ezla and his group Palacose in a way that the two, one handwritten in fine ink Japanese on parchment and the latter featuring bold reflective typeface, feel tightly presented.
We sat down with Cary and Ezla first individually to dive into their personal journeys before bringing the pair together to fill us in on their creative process and goals for Arigatou Studios. Unique conversations in each case brought lessons in isolation and solitude, finding passion in change, and the importance of Southern hospitality.
How did your residency in Japan impact you and your work?
CF – I always tell people that a piece of myself is in Japan and I still need to go back and be with that part of myself. I went to Otaka for 3 weeks and during those weeks I found a mentor who I began studying under for meditation. I started training for sword, I got certified to use a sword and now my next objective is to join a dojo. I actually have an interview for one next week.
I went to Japan because I was too comfortable with my environment and needed to really thrive in a place where I didn’t know too much. I think that alone really influenced my art and inspired me. I obviously got a lot of new content, but I also really got to be with myself and understand a little more about me. I started writing out there for the first time and did journal entries for the 30 days that I was there. Going back to those entries and all the time I reflected out in Japan. Like I saw sound for the first time in Japan. There’s a lot of really interesting things… it’s weird to say this but I spoke to trees out in Japan. Really awesome things happened that I don’t think could happen here.
Do you feel a lot of that came from being in a very rural place? Obviously very different from a place like Houston.
CF – Yeah, I think for people that live in the city, immediate change is to be where there isn’t a lot of accessibility. The number one thing I wanted to do was put myself in that scenario because I knew that I would have a lot of time with myself, and it’s hard to have a lot of time with myself. Having time and finding something to do with it when you don’t know what to do with it is a challenge within itself. In my residency, I ultimately figured out what I wanted to do in the first week. I had that many more weeks to figure how to do what I wanted to do.
It was really interesting, like I got lonely out there. I was doing confessionals. It was really a survival type situation where “I’m just out here by myself. No one’s here with me.” That was really inspiring.
You put yourself in a challenging position in the sense of self
CF – On top of that, being a person of color in Japan was a challenge. The very first time I went I was very nervous and… not fearful but curious about what was going to happen. How are people going to look at me? What are people going to think? At the same time, that was an opportunity to alter perceptions and that’s what I carried with me as well. I never had an experience where I felt there was a racial issue, I didn’t feel any of that. I felt like I was part of Japan just based off of studying the language and really gaining knowledge about the culture. I think if you’re well prepared you can really do anything outside of this country.
Outside of the personal lessons, what are the direct ways that art in Japan or things about the culture are translating in your current work? In [the gallery space for Arigatou Studios], there is a note about minimalist spacing and other examples.
[Pause while Cary considers his response]
CF – As you say, minimalism, owning the thought of less is more. Before we finalized the layout of the space, all of those images were kind of clumped together in a collage scenario. Then I went back to the times that I went to galleries in Japan and really understood the spaces they utilized and came back and said nah, we think it should be what we have now and it makes more sense within our goal.
I was talking to someone in the gallery who said “I feel like I went on a journey from the country to the city” and that was the concept of the layout of the photos. It was really cool because we had a journal in the corner. It’s open for anyone to write in, whether it’s feedback from the show or their own thoughts. I thought it was really cool that people were activated to sit down and write in a journal because that’s what I was doing in Japan. It’s something intimate you can do with yourself.
When I was looking at the photos, I was thinking how all the subjects are treated the same, be them rural landscapes, portraits, or things in a city. How do you think about space and framing your subject in these different environments.
CF – I always think about space and starting this year, my goal was to focus more on photographing still life and still settings. The basic rule of the rule of thirds is the most remedial thing when it comes to photography, knowing where to place your subjects before you take the photo. I’ve been doing it so long it’s almost muscle memory, but it’s still the way I think about it.
Any last things before we chat again?
CF – I’m inspired by risk. That’s my definition of freedom.
How did you get started creating art? How long have you been doing it and what’s your preferred medium?
EL – I moved to Houston from Yokosuka Japan and I had always played basketball, but then I started working retail and fell in love with retail systems. I created my own brand and I learned you have to be a very creative person directing that. From there, I fell in love with creative direction for fashion design and marketing design. Photography came into play because I needed someone to take photos and I didn’t have a budget to pay someone to take them, so started taking them myself. My favorite thing to do now is take photos, and designing clothes is probably the next thing.
That’s a very non-traditional path to come into art. A lot of people jump right in but came about it through other interests. How does it feel to come upon art and its community from this perspective?
EL – I think it’s amazing, I feel like a kid in a candy store in a sense. Everything is brand new. Anything I experience is a whole new atmosphere and I appreciate it to the maximum because experience is the best teacher I’ve ever had in my life. When we started doing fashion shows, I had no idea how to do fashion shows but I knew I wanted to show people that I wanted to do fashion shows. The support has been real, and it’s been a good development for sure creatively.
How has Houston been for you in terms of space and community? What are some of you favorite things about it?
EL – It’s been amazing, the cool thing about Houston is that when people see you doing something or they see your work ethic or understand the vision that you’re trying to pursue, they’re there to help you pursue it as well. There’s so many different venues in Houston and I didn’t even know that I started looking for our events. Each organizer is always on board with young creatives and people trying to develop something and I think that’s a beautiful system that Houston has.
Once you found your creative calling, you’re in the middle of two very strong cultures, Japanese and Houston/Southern. Can you talk about the influence of where you’re from and where you came to?
EL – So my Dad is from Houston originally and my Mom is from Japan. I’ve always understood a bit about the differences between the two cultures, but then creatively they’re total opposites. Fashion is I think the easiest way to express that, even compared with my photography. My number one goal is to be able to spread positivity in everything I do and I figured that out it was easier to clash both cultures together. Even though they’re opposites, when I have one goal and I bring out the things from each that evoke that optimistic mind, it helped me a lot creatively to bring these two influences together.
In what ways do you feel that they are opposite?
EL – Houston’s not as… I don’t want to say not organized, but if you go to Japan and you see the organization in Japan, you don’t think anything in the world is organized in a sense. There are systems implemented in Japan like so deep, like whether it’s taking your shoes off in the house or that you can only be on the right side of the escalator so that people in the left can walk up. Stuff like that, you don’t have in Houston.
It’s really apparent in style, that’s the biggest thing I’ve noted. In Houston, the style is its own entity and it’s not as thought out as you would think it could be in fashion. The cool thing in Japan is that people buy fashion style books every week to see what the cool thing to wear this week is. Clothes are a lot cheaper in Japan so people can get cool things and style themselves. Being in America and Houston specifically, it’s expensive, you know, Houston doesn’t even have a fashion house at all. There’s no place for getting fashion on the low except for like Forever 21 and H&M, which isn’t the same.
So Houston’s style is maybe a bit more organic. From things that are available and cool as opposed to “I want to do fashion”
EL – Yes, exactly.
That could play to what you’re talking about systems and how things are done more purposefully in Japan.
EL – For sure, and that’s something I really wanted to implement. I’ve noticed that Houston doesn’t really have fashion houses so even if someone wanted to be in fashion, there’s no place where they could go intern to do that. I want to implement that system or bring those opportunities through our work and through fashion. It’s something interesting that I see for Houston.
Is there anything that your Dad brought into your childhood from Houston of the South while you were young?
EL – Food honestly. He didn’t cook as much but asking my Mom what kind of things he liked. Southern hospitality too was something that I’ve never understood until I got here, but when I think back on how it works with Japanese culture, I think I got a lot of that Houston/Southern respect lessons from him growing up.
What were some of the intentions you had when creating Arigatou Studios?
EL – My biggest goal was to provide a space where people could enjoy Japan in a sense they hadn’t seen before. People watch like Tokyo Drift or Japanese movies, or Google certain things, but they may have never experienced mannerisms in Japan or Japanese traditions. Like taking your shoes off or putting the covers on them, having an attendant actually speak Japanese to you and bow down. Bringing an EL – actual Japanese experience to an American native who’s never experienced that.
Was there any Houston inspiration that you wanted to bring into the space?
EL – Honestly just the people. I didn’t want to bring anything Houston into the gallery except the people from Houston. If we put something of Houston in it, that would be interesting but it’s like I could literally walk outside and be in Houston. I just wanted the people to come, and to like insulate them in this space. My favorite thing that people kept saying was how they didn’t feel the space was something they’d find in Houston. I want people to feel that.
How did you two start working together and how did the concept for this gallery come together?
CF – We started out as friends and started going back and forth where he was teaching me Japanese. After that, the idea of a Japanese gallery came up and we both knew it was a great idea. There was no premeditation to this, it was just like “Let’s do a gallery”.
EL – Yeah, it was really natural. When we first met it was because I was at his gallery and we became friends, then started teaching each other Japanese. He knew how to write and read and I mainly only knew how to speak, so we started trading off and then the gallery came up and we started working together more and more.
There’s an interesting synergy between you two. Ezla you mentioned wanting to create a space and give people a taste of Japanese customs, so I want to turn that question to you Cary and get your intentions for the space.
CF – I wanted people to come into the space and understand the experience we’re offering. We want to give people a jolt in their mind and, not even specific to Japan, trigger their ideas and let them know what’s outside of where we are right now. I think that’s the most important thing we wanted to portray, but also going to Japan for the first time and really understanding the mannerism and norms out there really resonated with me to bring that back. A lot of what I gained out there, I still have and I still show it to people.
As far as the content itself, from people to nature to urban spaces, how did you come together curating that collection? What was the joint process like?
CF – The process was very easy. We had extreme communication and both knew what we wanted. There was really no obstacle in the process, I can’t tell you a time that was challenging.
EL – There really was a great synergy like you said. We knew exactly what we wanted and communication between was really natural and easy going. From selecting the photos to layout to the little details, there was a back and forth that created this really beautiful gallery and start to something amazing.
Apart from this experience, if there was something you could bring from Japanese culture or art that you would want people to leave here with, what would it be?
CF- Paying attention to the details. Noticing the details in everything that they do and that they’re a part of. Also, living in the present. A lot of the images in the gallery were taken in moments when I was living in the present and I think that’s very important. I think that’s very important today because a lot of people can sometimes live in the future and the what-ifs and you really need to live in the now and understand what you’re capable of now. Like I said in the poem [from the gallery], “Time doesn’t exist”.
EL – My number one thing is appreciation. Arigatou means “thank you” and appreciating every aspect from, like Cary said, time and living in the present to appreciating the future also. Anything that you can appreciate from the moment to the details to the people around you. I think gratitude is the number one thing as a human to know and understand so that’s something I’d really like people to know and take away for sure.
CF – I think one thing people already took with them [from the gallery] though is inspiration. I had a lot of people come to me and feel restarted, as if they can go back into the world and do something on their own. I think outside of the Japanese experience, we provided a space that people can be vulnerable in.
On the flip side, what’s something you would like to take from Houston to Japan and be able to impart on people you meet there.
CF – One thing I’ve already taken to Japan is Southern hospitality. Holding doors open, both for women and men, you’re considered a hero out there. That’s just one small thing, also wanting to change perception as a person of color. I do think I’m still searching for what I can bring there and how to connect those bridges.
EL – Definitely the Southern hospitality. You know because I’m not from Houston I can’t really bring anything out there that I’m comfortable with claiming, but I know Southern hospitality is that one thing I could.
Anything final to add that I missed or that you want to share.
EL – Appreciate yourself.
CF – Time doesn’t exist. Fear is just an illusion.