Dolling up an icon


POSTED: Sunday, November 01, 2009

Sparks of creativity abound at the University of Hawaii-Manoa each and every day, as students ready themselves to step into the future and make their mark. Nowhere is this more explicitly illustrated than in the work of graduates of the Department of Art and Art History, where the creative force is nurtured and honed. Those who haunt Hawaii art galleries can attest to the formidable contributions of local artists.

While there's no doubt as to the quality of Hawaii talent, that alone wasn't enough for UH Art Gallery director Lisa Yoshihara as she composed the roster of artists for “;Degrees of Distinction: Alumni Invitational Exhibition,”; showing through Dec. 11.

“;I was looking for folks who have accomplished careers and have given back, have connected to the community,”; she said. “;That was a major criteria.”;

Yoshihara pored through 86 years' worth of fine-arts graduates, and in the end she selected 24 alumni. The group—artists, educators, designers, researchers and museum professionals—is breathtaking for the breadth and depth of their collective contributions.

BUT OF ALL the alumni featured, the winner of the Biggest Splash honor would have to go to Junko Wong, founder of Cross World Connections International, or CWC, a firm that represents international artists and illustrators, and operates three stores.

        'Degrees of Distinction: Alumni Invitational Exhibition'
        » On exhibit: 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 11
        » Place: University of Hawaii Art Gallery
        » Call: 956-6888
        » Also: ”;Behind Blythe: Creative Direction Behind a Pop Cult Icon,”; lecture and book-signing of Blythe book “;Na Wahine 'Auli'i,”; by Junko Wong, 6 p.m. Nov. 17, UH art auditorium: free docent tours of the exhibit run 2 to 3 p.m. every Sunday

Wong, who was born in Maine and has lived in Japan since 1983, is also a major force in the designer toy culture as producer and creative director of the Blythe doll, a coveted collectible in the Asia doll-collecting community.

Blythe, which originated in the United States, embodies an aesthetic that's been depicted in Japanese pop culture over the past several decades, most notably in manga publications: the “;foreigner”; look. The dolls have large foreheads and eyes so big they take up more than half the face.


“;That image, of women with big eyes, appeals to the Japanese. They call it 'deforume,' to deform or stylize the look of foreign women, of what is admired,”; Wong said last week from her Tokyo home. “;It's not exactly Western or Japanese—it's a hapa look.”;

When Wong happened upon the Blythe doll in 1998 in New York, courtesy a doll collector, she knew immediately that the image would be well received by Japanese women in the 20- to 30-year-old age group known as “;OL,”; or office ladies.

The demographic has a “;collector mindset,”; Wong said. The heyday of “;brands—like Louis Vuitton or Chanel—are over. They want originals now, what no one else can have. Blythe dolls are CWC exclusives. We usually manufacture no more than 3,000 of one doll.”;

More exclusive Blythes come in editions of 2,000 and even 1,500.

What makes Blythe appealing to OL caused it to flounder in the American toy market when it was introduced by Kenner in 1972. The doll, sculpted by Allison Katzman, scared little girls with its big-eyed gaze, and it was pulled from shelves a year later.

Yet today the phenomenon—and Blythe is literally that—is spreading through Asia.

“;Blythe is blooming like crazy in Thailand,”; said Wong. “;In Thai culture the hapa look is considered elite and beautiful. The princesses of Thailand collect Blythe. When the king's eldest daughter comes, we have to close down, and she shops.”;

WONG INITIALLY USED the Blythe image in an animated 1999 Christmas campaign for an advertising client, Parco Department Store, a trendy, cutting-edge venue.

“;In Japan there's a really thin line between art and commerce,”; said Wong. “;In the 1980s Seibu was the top department store in Tokyo. They were so engrossed in art, they had a Seibu Museum of Art. There's a close relationship between art and using art to advertise products.”;

In the context of such framework, Wong presents Blythe as a cultural icon and an opportunity for customers to express themselves artistically.

“;Each doll is precious and unique. All of them have a different concept, look and style. And the dolls are a canvas for each owner as well, to manifest their own identity. They can go in and change it.”;

To show off their artistic chops, Blythe owners participate in tea parties and beauty contests, wherein the dolls don owner-designed outfits and wear makeup applied by owners.

“;They find satisfaction in the oohs and aahs,”; Wong said. “;Everyone becomes an expert.”;


The creme de la creme of owner-designers aspire to inclusion in CWC's anniversary show, held at one of the most fashionable venues in Japan, Omotesando Hills, referred to as the Champs-Elysees of Tokyo. The event features 10 Blythes alongside the country's top designers, artists and musicians.

IT WAS THE LURE of fashion that drew Wong to Japan when she was a college student, and working for Parco was an aspiration. The artist focused on graphic design and photography at UH, and her work behind the lens was “;always fashion-related.”;

“;I loved what they were doing in Japan. While I was at UH, I kept going back and forth, back and forth to Japan. I even skipped school for a year to live there. I was infatuated with Parco and Harajuku from the '70s. It was more exciting to me than the rest of the world.”;

After graduating, Wong hustled back to the country of her dreams, finally landing permanently in Tokyo with a work visa in 1985. She set her nose to the grindstone and, based on her astounding accomplishments, seems barely to have looked up since. But for Wong it's been a labor of love.

“;I wanted to be part of that world,”; she said, “;and my dreams came through.”;