Judith Kruger interviews Makoto Fujimura for Nihonga 100 blog, February 7, 2012
JK: Hi Mako, thank you for agreeing to answer some questions for the Nihonga 100 blog.
JK: You were a student at Bucknell University, I believe in another major other than art. Would you kindly tell us a little about what you were studying and why you decided to delve back into your roots and study Nihonga? Were you familiar with Nihonga as a child….how did it move to the forefront as something you chose to pursue?
MF: I studied both sciences (Animal Behavior) and the arts at Bucknell in a liberal arts tradition. Looking back, I benefitted from having a broad education, and now, some 30 years later, I am able to finally begin to synthesize all of the influences.
MF: Every painting pointed to the need for me to re-examine my roots. I did not know the contemporary Nihonga, but was drawn to many 16th century, 17th century Japanese paintings at museums in NYC, Boston, and DC.
JK: What was the program at Tokyo Geidei like? How do you compare it with what you know of the American university system?
MF: Geidai curriculum was a combination of western (particularly drawing) and Japanese Nihonga. I was at Geidai (Tokyo University of the Arts) at the same time with Takashi Murakami and Hiroshi Senju. It was, looking back, an ideal setting for me as they valued beauty and craft. Takashi and I would often discuss the need of conceptual in the education; we both realized that we had a unique setting.
JK: Tell us a little about your sensei Kayama Matazo. How often did you meet with him?
MF: Kayama sensei and I met several times a year. He would often come into the studio unannounced, and sit down to talk to me and any who were there. He also did several demonstrations of use of gold and silver, an indelible experience I have never forgotten. As it turned out, due to illness he was only at Geidai for three-four years. I was privileged to be chosen by him for the doctorate program, and he soon left the school after I when back to US.
JK: What do you think his most significant skill was? He extended his work onto cars, ceramics, kimono, etc…Does this commodify traditionalism or is it ok?
MF: Interestingly, the design interest, and the broad range of interests he had was never a problem for anyone. Commodification and the validation he had received he clearly thought he deserved and the public appreciated that as well. He had an audacious sense of confidence that re-defined contemporary Nihonga toward Rimpa design, and everything he did was in his conviction of creating beauty.
JK: Since you are my sensei, I want to share that there are two really important messages that you communicated, which I will never forget. One is “a successful painting gives birth to a new painting”. I just love that, because it keeps painting alive! Second you said “you don’t have to say it all in one painting”. This one’s a bit harder to follow but it’s a great goal: a mantra. What were your sensei’s most useful words to you? Do you still feel he is by your side today or was that a long time ago and much forgotten?
MF: Ah…that is part of “generative principles” that we are developing at International Arts Movement. The most significant message that I’ve received from Kayama sensei was his sense of conviction about the Nihonga (and Japanese) sense of beauty.
JK: Certainly much time has passed since those days and you have grown so much and accomplished even more than I am sure you could ever have imagined. What do you feel has been the most meaningful aspect of your career as an artist?
MF: The greatest memories come from personal experience of people responding to my work. Certainly, having a good critical response, exposure is exciting, but not as fulfilling as a few experiences I’ve had, often unexpectedly, from personal experiences of people encountering something new from my work.
MF: The recent Four Holy Gospels project was certainly a monumental project that I am very proud of. There are specific paintings, including the “Golden Sea” painting (will be exhibited this November) that defines my career. But in many ways, I feel I am just beginning my journey as an artist, and I am looking forward to being able to assimilate all that I have learned thus far, and creating generatively into the future.
JK: I know that your work ties directly to your journey as a devout Christian. I have heard you liken the Nihonga materials, i.e. precious minerals and fine silver and gold, to gifts from God and that as artists, we are all God’s children continuing the work of creation. Would you expand upon this concept a bit? What do you actually feel when you are painting? Is it a true encapsulation of grace? Do you ever think about tapping into your cultural lineage or is it about something even higher and deeper that is difficult to grasp?
MF: I have a creative cycle that relies heavily on Romans 7 and Romans 8 from St. Paul’s Epistles in the New Testament. It’s called a “Sonship cycle” of spiritual growth (I learned this from pastors at Redeemer movement), moving from Romans 7 admission of my “wretchedness” of trying to attain to be good, or create anything worthwhile. Romans 8 begins with a word “Therefore” – a counter-intuitive word that suggests that our admission of our wretchedness is a key in both artistic and personal growth. Romans 8 is the most glorious, hopeful message of the Bible, and our identity as a child of God, and, further, also as princes and princesses of the great Kingdom.
MF: In this cycle, we need to remind ourselves that we are not orphans, but have been given an identity to create (co-create with God) something that can endure beyond our time here. Of course, we fail daily to practice this identity, often failing miserably. But by practicing our hearts to create out of love, rather than creating out of fear, or insecurity, I believe we are able to speak beyond our self-expressions.
MF: I think that the Japanese grasped something deeply true, and mysterious about this vista in their culture a long time ago. It is to recognize that beauty leads us to a deeper mystery. I have come to appreciate this approach, even if Japan is not a “Christian.”
JK: Nihonga is a slow art form that requires much concentration, skill and deep intuition. The process of preparing to paint is not simple, like taking a trip to the art supply store, opening a tube of paint and mixing colors on a palette as is traditional practice in oils or acrylics. Please tell us a little about how the process of procurement of the materials plays into your creative process and why it may be worth the efforts.
MF: Yes, Nihonga is “slow art.” It’s also deeply collaborational as I am able to work with paper makers, brush makers, pigment shops to create something unique. Nihonga ways of making art is tied to nature, and the ecosystem affecting the quality of materials. I am convinced that true sustainability and responsible stewardship is critical in creating enduring beauty, and Nihonga points to that ideal.
JK: If you had one bit of advice for a beginning Nihonga student what would it be?
MF: I would learn Nihonga not as a genre, but a way of entry into a collaborational process of creativity. Japanese sense of aesthetics is far more important to learn than techniques of Nihonga.
JK: What do you think about in bed, just as you are ready to fall asleep?
MF: I go through the “Sonship” cycle of Romans 7 and Romans 8! I reflect on where I’ve failed, and I ask God to help me generatively, to create in, through and for Love.
JK: Thanks Mako!
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