Fancy paperwork

Times Staff Writer

Makiko Azakami says her ideas come from small details of everyday life, the label on a liquor bottle, a tube of toothpaste, a telephone or cow. Some ideas are bigger than others, of course, and one day in 1985 she had a whopper. It was the day Godzilla changed her life.

She was employed as a staff artist at Sony Creative Products and decided to make a paper Godzilla as a gift for a friend. When she was finished, it made her smile. Then it made her think.

It was that moment, the Tokyo-based artist says, that led to her current work creating miniature paper sculptures. About 60 pieces of her work are on display at Every Picture Tells a Story in Santa Monica through the end of the year. It is her first American exhibition since 1996.

She calls her creations "paper toys," reflective of their whimsical nature. There is a fire engine and a lunch box, a fish and frilly bras, pointed shoes and Western boots. There's a pickup truck loaded with watermelons, a bowl of rice and a clump of asparagus. She also creates entire scenes set in places like old-time diners or the beach.

"When you see them, they're so perfect and so fragile," says Lee Cohen, who, along with his wife, Lois Sarkisian, owns the gallery, specializing in original art, prints and illustrated books for children. "Unlike some of the fragile art you see, there's such great humor and wit to what she does."

Her tools are simple: paper, tape, scissors, tweezers and a knife -- no glue or ruler. Her work, says Cohen, also is remarkable for its detail. "She can take ordinary objects like a pair of shoes or tie and make them into works of art."

While appealing to children, says Cohen, the "paper toys" are not toys at all. They are art, miniature, fragile representations of everyday life.

As a child, Azakami says, she and her younger sister often played house. Their parents tried to make them stop, considering them too old for such childish play, so they continued in secret. It was creative, Azakami says, and it was fun to develop her own designs.

The creativity of such play continues in her current work, she says, only now she doesn't have to keep it a secret. She began learning some of the techniques while making paper models as an architecture student at Japan Women's University.

"Her work is brilliantly colored; some of it is sort of retro-Americana," says Lilla Rogers, who represents Azakami's work for use in illustrations. "I'd say her work is sort of a first cousin to origami. It's very original. I don't know of anyone here doing what she does, so she tends to get those weird requests that can't be filled through other art forms."

Azakami, 45, says her goal as an artist is simple: "It's a great pleasure for me, and I would like to make those who see my work happy as well."

Her sculptures have appeared in illustrations for Good Housekeeping, Bloomberg Magazine, Utne Reader and the Chicago Tribune and have been shown in venues throughout Japan as well as the Bristol City Museum in the United Kingdom, the American Craft Museum in New York and the Toraya Gallery in New York.

She has Godzilla to thank.

Duane Noriyuki can be contacted at


Paper Toys of Makiko Azakami

Where: Every Picture Tells a Story, 1311 Montana Ave., Santa Monica

When: Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m., through Dec. 31.

Info: (310) 451-2700

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