Money and felines are focus of two exhibits at BAM

  • Written by Deborah Stone
“Maneki Neko: Japan’s Beckoning Cats – From Talisman to Pop Icon,” is a collection of over 150 examples of the proverbial fabricated cat.
Two unique new exhibits are currently making a splash at Bellevue Arts Museum.

The first, “Maneki Neko: Japan’s Beckoning Cats – From Talisman to Pop Icon,” is a collection of over 150 examples of the proverbial fabricated cat.

Long considered a good luck charm that brings good fortune to individuals and businesses, the beguiling cat with its upraised paw is a common sight in Japan, as well as in other parts of the world.

The collection on display at BAM was donated by Billie Moffitt to the Mingei International Museum in San Diego.

Moffitt’s passion for maneki neko began innocently enough more than 25 years ago when she received one of the figurines from her mother. Later, she encountered a group of fine porcelain maneki neko in an antique shop and it was love at first sight. She became an avid aficionado and collector and over the years amassed what is arguably the finest and most diverse collection of maneki neko outside of Japan.

The humble beckoning cat is part icon, part kitsch and part talisman. More than just a decorative sculpture, it is regarded as a special object possessing the power to fulfill wishes for prosperity, happiness, longevity and other expressions of well-being.

There are many legends about the origins of maneki neko. A popular one tells the story of a poor monk and his cat, named Tama, who lived at a small temple, where the Gotokuji Temple in Tokyo stands today. One day, a nobleman caught in a storm took shelter under a tree near the temple and spied a cat near the entrance, which appeared to be beckoning him to enter. He followed the cat and as he did, the tree he was standing under was struck by lightning. The man credited the cat with saving his life and as an expression of his gratitude, he became the temple’s patron, eventually bringing it great wealth and notoriety.

“Love Me Tender,” explores people’s obsession with money. Boggs_JSG - Affairs_Affair
When the cat died, it was buried in the temple’s cemetery and maneki neko sculptures were made in its honor. The collection on view at BAM consists of a variety of different pieces from the 19th and 20th centuries and features examples from most regions in Japan. The artful and enigmatic felines range in size and medium, from miniature to behemoth, and from simple carved stone and wood to ornately decorated porcelain figurines. Many were made by ancient kiln families in Japan; each known for its own unique style and technique.

The Hanamaki Kiln, for example, produced maneki neko with a more serious or somber appearance; a result of the deep purple coloring used by the potters and the dark shadows they created around the cats’ facial features. Those of the Shigaraki Kiln portray the cat’s face as more fox or dog-like with the ears situated far back on the head and face slightly outward.

The most iconic and recognizable version of the Japanese beckoning cat – chubby faced, large round eyes, perky ears and a rounded body – comes from the Tokoname Kiln. To celebrate the exhibition, BAM invited several contemporary Northwest artists to create their own interpretations of this Japanese folk art tradition. Working in a variety of media such as paper, clay, felt, steel and wood, the artists offer their whimsical takes on themes of cuteness, luck, cattiness and “kittyness.”

The second exhibit at BAM, “Love Me Tender,” explores people’s obsession with money –long-considered one of the most fetishized mediums in the world.

Over 25 contemporary artists from six countries use currency as an artistic form of expression to address cultural history and a variety of social issues. They exploit the physical beauty and imagery of monies from around the globe to explore such themes as social injustice, the erosion of cultural values, corporate greed and the American dream. The 90-plus pieces on display feature bills and coins that have been transformed into tapestries, paintings, photographs and sculptures. They employ imagery from history to pop culture, while utilizing an assortment of processes including painting, collage, weaving and soldering.

Featured artists include Yasumasa Morimura, Banksy, JSG Boggs, Scott Campbell, Mark Wagner, Stacey Lee Webber, Tahiti Pehrson, Oriane Stender and Daniel Carr, among others.

Though the work of these individuals is unique, the practice of embracing money as both subject and medium is not new. It’s an age-old phenomenon that dates back to at least the Renaissance times, where monetary symbols became mixed with religious iconography. In years past, a number of notable artists such as Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp explored the subject of currency in their work.

BAM’s exhibit contains many fascinating works that are approachable due to their playful quality, though at second glance, the visitor realizes they address more serious questions of value and values in society.

Tim O’Neill fashioned jewelry out of currency, silver, credit cards and USDA food stamps to create his “Financial Crisis Rings,” with labels like “Pyramid Scheme,” “Brother Can you Spare a Dime?” and “Let Them Eat Cake.”

Stacey Lee Webber honors the laborer and hard work with her “Craftsman Series,” containing items such as a saw, tape measure and full-size ladder, all made from coins.

Paper notes from around the world are stitched together on a frame to make Susan Stockwell’s “Money Dress,” which resembles an old-fashioned ball gown. In Robin Clark’s “Large Wall Group,” currency ink dust has been collected and put into glass test tubes which hang next to the remains of the scraped $1 bills that were utilized in the process. The viewer is left to contemplate a series of ghostly images and ethereal vestiges.

The artist’s “Tree 3,” also made with currency and currency dust, appears almost Impressionistic in style. “Dollar Bear,” by Johnny Swing, is exactly what it appears to be – a Teddy bear – that proverbial object of comfort and security – made entirely of stitched together dollar bills.

One of the more prolific artists in the show, Scott Campbell, draws largely from tattoo illustrations in his work. A well-known tattoo artist, Campbell spent six weeks documenting the tattoo culture within a maximum security Mexican prison. His pieces infuse images of Catholicism in the country, particularly that of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the symbol of all Catholic Mexicans.

Of special note is a piece, “Untitled,” that features a copper box containing a skull, complete with teeth, and covered with a shroud. The display is made entirely of uncut U.S. currency sheets that have been carved to resemble the aforementioned objects.

Grant Wood’s iconic, “American Gothic,” one of the most familiar (and most parodied) images in 20th century American art is depicted as a currency collage in Mark Wagner’s “Took for Granted.”

Nearby, is the artist’s mind-boggling “Liberty,” a reproduction of Frederic Auguste Bertholdi’s famous sculpture, “Liberty Enlightening the World.” Made of 81,895 pieces cut from 1,121 U.S. dollar bills, the work is astonishing in scope and detail, with elements of humor, beauty and spectacle. It addresses the pertinent issues of economics, civil liberties and American self-image.

Accompanying the collage is an archival trunk containing Wagner’s drawings, a time-lapse video, reference and organizational documents and the actual tools he used in the construction of “Liberty.”

The materials help provide insight into the artist’s unique process, serving as both educational and inspirational fodder for viewers.

It’s hard to miss the other large scale piece in the room, “Shredded Money,” by Sebastian Errazuriz and Thomas McDonell. It’s one of a series of ten sculptures that comprises the artists’ “Million Dollar Project.” Each of the pieces in the project were made from one million dollars’ worth of shredded U.S. currency, purchased by the artists from the U.S. Bureau of Printing and Engraving.

At the New York debut of the series, each piece was offered for sale at a daunting price of $100,000.

According to Errazuriz and McDonell, the proceeds from the sales were intended to allow them to “recover the hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in their art education and to palliate future unemployment.”

Both “Maneki Neko” and “Love Me Tender” are exciting new exhibits that are guaranteed to provide visitors with both visual and intellectual stimulation.

“Maneki Neko: Japan’s Beckoning Cats – From Talisman to Pop Icon” runs through August 4th and “Love Me Tender” runs through May 26 at Bellevue Arts Museum.

For more information: (425) 519-0770 or

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