In a lilac-colored room in Canada, Hiné Mizushima makes delightfully quirky needle-felted sculptures, often inspired by biology, anatomy and the animal kingdom. The cheery pop of color paired with the precisely arranged souvenirs and art that hang on her wall make her studio feel like a real-life version of one of her dioramas. Originally from Japan, she has lived in Tokyo, Rome, Paris, Brooklyn and, currently, Vancouver, British Columbia. She works in a 13-foot-by-10-foot room in the house she shares with her Canadian husband and their 19-year-old son, who attends a nearby college. Their house, which is more than 100 years old, is situated in a creative neighborhood near many shops and restaurants, a big park and a weekly farmers market.
Before she learned to needle felt, Hiné worked as an illustrator, often using cut-out colored paper to make illustrations — a process she still employs. But in 2007, a rock band made a giant — and unexpected — change to the course of her art career. While researching how to create simple GIFs, she found a tutorial for making stop-motion video using a digital camera and iMovie. She made an animated music video in tribute to one of her favorite bands, They Might Be Giants, to try out the technique. She sent the band a Myspace message with the finished video link, and much to her surprise, they responded a few days later and asked her to work with them on a new video for a song called "With the Dark."
After the success of the first video, the band asked her to make another video for a song called "Secret Life of Six." For the second video, she needed to make 3-D characters and props, so she began experimenting with felting wool fibers for the first time and fell in love with the process. Later that year, she opened Hiné, her eponymous Etsy shop, as an outlet for her new-found felt skills and has since made more than 800 sales. “If I hadn't gotten that video job, I probably wouldn't have started needle felting — and wouldn't have opened my shop,” she says.
Hiné wakes up at 9:30 a.m. each day. First thing in the morning, she turns on her computer and checks her emails, social media sites and Etsy shop, while eating a simple breakfast of corn flakes or toast with a strong cup of tea with milk. “I am a zombie in the morning,” she says. "I only eat breakfast to wake myself up." Around 11 a.m. she starts working in earnest, creating sculptures, collages, prints, stop-motion videos and other illustration work. Each new design starts as a drawing or a note in the spiral-bound sketchbook she keeps on her desk. She makes paper patterns and felt prototypes for hand-sewn felt items, like camera cases. When making her felt sculptures, she doesn’t use any prototypes or patterns; after doodling, she simply starts sculpting.
Hiné's cat, Lilli, keeps her company in the studio. “Her presence makes me feel pretty good mentally,” she says. However, she has to make sure the cat doesn’t sneak into her wool stash or steal a half-finished felt sculpture to play with. Her husband also works from a small office in their home as a Japanese-English translator. "It's a kind of like being in different sections of a tiny company," Hiné says. "At lunch time, we eat together like colleagues."
Hiné keeps track of her work schedule, including her Etsy orders, in a weekly planner. When she's working on stop-motion videos, she uses a large wall calendar to chart her workflow. If she has a lot of impending deadlines, she'll also write down the following day’s tasks on a Post-It note before bed, so her morning mind doesn’t forget. “My brain works better late at night,” she says. “But I always wish I was an early bird.” To wind down, she reads a Japanese book until she is sleepy, usually around 2:30 a.m.
Although felt sculptures have become a signature of Hiné’s visual style, the intensive handwork has taken a toll on her body. Six months ago, she began experiencing pain and constricted range of motion in her right arm and shoulder. It is so severe that she has to abstain from needle felting and other repetitive work — and pass up opportunities, including gallery show invitations and custom work. Seeking relief, she goes to physical therapy, massage therapy and acupuncture appointments every week.
In July, the same week she regretfully cancelled her first solo show in Japan, a new opportunity arose: A well-known Japanese publisher asked her to design a book cover. To complete the assignment, Hiné collected and composed tiny props atop a bright pop of solid colored paper, a style she calls “miniature collage.” She first used this style in "Insect Hospital," a music video she made for They Might Be Giants in 2013. After completing the book cover assignment, she has continued to make more miniature collages for her Etsy shop and online portfolio. The collages are an enjoyable and low-impact way to keep creating despite her current condition, says Hiné, who has received several commissions for projects based on the style.
After seven years of selling on Etsy, Hiné continues to expand the realm of artistic styles and possibilities in her artwork, despite her physical challenges. She says the kind words she receives from customers and fellow shop owners around the world make her days happier and motivate her to keep going. Her advice for keeping your shop fresh? “Make things other people haven't made yet,” she says. “Make what you really love, because you are the boss of your shop!”
How have you found ways to keep creating despite challenges? Share your story in the comments.