Setsuko Ono has lived in Washington for almost 40 years and has exhibited her art for more than a decade. Yet the Tokyo native’s current show is her first in the District. As befits the retired World Bank executive’s global life and career, her work is on display not in a local gallery, but at the Japan Information and Culture Center.
“The World Bank is like an island,” Ono said. “It’s huge. Since we are so busy, and we are always traveling, I had not really lived in Washington. Even up till 2012, I had been traveling three times, four times a year.”
“Only from 2012, for one year, I stayed here. And I tell you, I think Washington is wonderful,” she said. “I don’t know how I chose such a wonderful city!”
In fact, she chose it because her husband, Venice-born Cuban-foreign-policy scholar Piero Gleijeses, took a job at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies near Dupont Circle. The two future PhDs met while studying at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.
An international banker, Ono’s father moved the family to New York for several years in the 1950s, beginning when his daughter was in elementary school. “He was always saying we have to do something for Japan. To reestablish Japan’s position in the international system,” Ono said.
When he became ill, Ono decided that “the best thing was to do international relations, because I already knew English pretty well.”
“And then of course I went to the World Bank,” she added. “And the bank is completely different from commercial banks.”
For many of her 28 years at the bank, Ono was a loan officer who specialized in Africa. She also traveled to a Tokyo university every summer to lecture on development issues, a task she continued for seven years after her 2003 retirement.
One reason Ono is staying home more now is the two-level studio she recently added to her house in Forest Hills. (It’s called Studio Isis, after the couple’s current cat; it’s attached to House of Sheba, named for their first cat.) The artist began taking continuing-education classes at the Corcoran in 1984 and used the art school, in part, as her studio.
“I started going to the Corcoran, which is like three blocks from the World Bank, at night,” she said. “Since childhood, I’ve painted. So I thought, ‘Let me do sculpture.’ ”
Ono notes that her mother drew well, and that two uncles were professional artists. She’s reluctant to discuss the family’s best-known artist, older sister Yoko Ono, because “that has nothing to do with my work.”
Despite some trepidation about acetylene torches, Ono moved from wood and stone to steel. She discovered that she enjoyed working with the material, in part because the Corcoran didn’t offer night or weekend classes in metal work.
“That probably made me love steel sculpture,” she said. “Because I had to learn everything myself. Everything’s totally free. There’s no regulation, you know.”
“And I came from an institution that had a lot of regulations,” she added, laughing.
A small steel sculpture is included in Ono’s JICC show, which is mostly painting. Larger ones are permanently installed in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and two sites in Japan, as well as at her Washington home.
Ono’s approach is to work from a sketch, collaborating with metal fabricators on the details as she goes. In her previous career, she noted, “leading a team is what I learned very well. That’s why I could afford to have a sculpture that is without blueprints. I decide at that moment how to weld, how to bend. So in sense, my experience at the World Bank helped me a lot.”
Before she first tried this, in Havana in 2003, she worried that the workers would be too macho to cooperate with her. “It was completely different,” she found. “They were so enthusiastic. So I thought, ‘Cubans are absolutely wonderful.’ Then I went to work at Sparrow’s Point in Baltimore, and they were wonderful. I went to two mills in Japan, and they were great.”
“I think the steelworkers are artists as well. They probably have some wish to create. My work, or our work, has really allowed them to create.”
Ono’s style ranges from abstract to figurative, with some wrenching historical subjects. Her second public sculpture in Japan was a response to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Such themes come to her intuitively, she said. “I do it almost unconsciously. When I’ve done it, I start thinking about it.”
“What I enjoy about art is that it gives me such liberty, such freedom. Art gives me dreams, which I can accomplish.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
“From Japan to the West: The Art of Setsuko Ono” is on view through June 20 at the Japan Information and Culture Center, 1150 18th St. NW; 202-238-6900; www.us.emb-japan.go.jp/