Heather Lenz Finds Great Success with Yayoi Kusama Documentary | School of Art | Kent State University

Heather Lenz Finds Great Success with Yayoi Kusama Documentary

Heather Lenz, School of Art alumna, was recently featured on WVIZ’s ideastream radio show for her documentary film, Kusama – Infinity. The film, which is about the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, was written, directed and produced by Lenz. The documentary was shown at the Sundance Film Festival and the Cleveland International Film Festival this past spring.  Kusama – Infinity was picked up by Magnolia Pictures after its premiere Sundance and will be released in September with local showings at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Wexner Center and the Akron Art Museum. The film is running concurrently with Kusama’s retrospective traveling exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors. Lenz spent over a decade working on the film which included traveling to Japan to meet Kusama who still works in her studio almost every day of the week. 

The Kusama – Infinity website states, “The film explores Kusama's fierce determination to become a world-renowned artist. Kusama was born into a conservative family in rural Japan and she made her way to America on the heels of WWII. There, without connections and speaking only broken English, she devoted herself to her one true love, making art. On her first day in New York, Kusama has stated that she climbed to the top of the Empire State Building, looked down upon the city below, and made a decision to stand out from everyone she saw below and become a star.”

Lenz’s interest in the Kusama was ignited at Kent State when she became disappointed that art history classes she had taken touched on very few female artists.  Her sculpture professor, Paul O’Keeffe introduced her to Kusama’s art and that began her fascination with the artist. Lenz holds degrees in Art History and Fine Arts with a concentration in sculpture from the School of Art and made her first experimental films during her undergraduate education.  She later went on to get her M.F.A. in Cinematic Arts from the University of Southern California.

We asked her a few questions about her time at Kent State and her film. 

Q. Do you have any fond memories about the art program or professors that inspired you?

A. I have a lot of fond of memories of my time there. College was a wonderful time for me. It was very satisfying to be able to fully immerse myself in my passions. I made terrific friends there that are still very dear to me. Two professors at Kent played a key role in the way my life unfolded. Cynthia Penter was my film professor at KSU. Her classes were fantastic because the sky was the limit. Our creativity was fully encouraged and she was also very nurturing. In Paul O’Keeffe’s sculpture class I was first introduced to Kusama’s work. Back then our Art History classes didn’t cover many women artists, and definitely not Kusama.

Q. Can you describe what led you to go to film school after getting a degree in art?

A. After briefly exhibiting my own art after graduation I felt that my life experience was too limited to continue making good art and I also felt compelled to connect with a wider audience. Film appeals to people who are young and old, rich and poor, black and white, etc. Now I’ve come full circle and I think the solitude of making art would appeal to me again and allow me to recharge my batteries. Meanwhile, I hope my film will appeal to anyone who has ever dared to dream big. 

Q. What fascinates you the most about Yayoi Kusama?

A. I think Kusama’s art is fantastic but these days it’s her tenacity that I admire most. I love that she has put her whole heart into her artmaking and that she kept going even when she wasn’t appreciated as she should have been. I also think the way Kusama presents herself is terrific. She has made the world substantially less dull with her trademark red wigs and polka dot outfits.

Q. Do you have any plans for future films that you could share with us?

A. While there are many films I would like to make, right now I am not sure what my future holds. I do hope to help other upcoming filmmakers learn from my mistakes. There is a saying, “wisdom is knowledge you acquire after you need it.” That’s unfortunate, but if what I have learned can somehow benefit others that would please me. In any event, I would never share the details of a film I hope to make someday. Unrealized ideas are like unborn children and they must be protected.

Q. Do you have advice for current art students on how to pursue a career in the arts?

A. I suggest that all art students take some business classes. If you want to make art full time, you have to figure out a way to turn your passion into something that can pay the bills.

The documentary, Kusama - Infinity, is scheduled for U.S. release September 7.

The film first screens at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gartner Auditorium on September 14 at 7 p.m. Lenz will answer audience questions after film showings on September 21 and 22 at 1:30 p.m. Multiple additional showings run at the museum from September 21- 30. 

The film also screens at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus on September 20 at 7 p.m. and at the Akron Art Museum on September 29 at 1 p.m. 

Image: Heather Lenz and Yayoi Kusama, ©Tokyo Lee Productions, Inc.