Art as a Haven for Happiness Pt. 1


I was lucky enough to participate in Blogger Night at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (nicknamed Tobikan in Japanese) after applying online. (In Tokyo, you have to apply for just about anything related to art, such as lectures, receptions, special events, and so on.) Blogger Night began later than the ill-fortuned event that they held in the late afternoon for foreign residents and tourists when the Balthus show was on, and this time I did not have to worry about tortured translations. I might have been the only blogger there who was not Japanese and I might be the only person to write about it in English. When the curator asked me at the end of the event what language I was going to write in, I admitted that I could write my post in Japanese if I had to but it was much easier for me to write in English of course.

IMG_4508The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum has been having many such special events recently. To be honest, I had not planned on going to either the Balthus show or this one but I love going to these events. Do you remember the books and movies that talk about spending the night at the museum? It was almost like that but in a limited area. For those who don’t know, Tokyo galleries and museums are always crowded regardless of time or day. These events provide the luxury of being able to move freely throughout the exhibition instead of plodding along a set path with people blocking your view or poking you with an elbow, and you can easily go back to a piece and mentally compare and contrast it with others. You can linger; you can crouch down for a different perspective; you can see things from all angles.

Freedom of movement was not the only perk. For IMG_4568Blogger Night, we were encouraged to take photos with the condition that we not take photos of individual pieces. I understand that they are concerned with copyrights and selling the beautiful, bilingual catalog that they gave us bloggers, but I doubt that the lighting in the gallery would have been sufficient for high quality reproductions. No problem. Take a photo with several pieces in it and crop it later, right? The curators are also at these events and can provide valuable insight, especially when answering questions from the crowd. Curators are much more knowledgeable than gallery docents or poorly trained but eager interpreters. Language skills enrich the experience at these events. Sometimes presents are given; sometimes not. This posting, however, is not supposed to be about the organization of these events; it is supposed to be about the art. The people and peeks behind the scenes are interesting though, so I will include those as well. The museum might have provided a free ticket and goodies, but I am not a remotely controlled machine for public relations. And nothing is for free. You know that somebody will ask me what country I am from. It was a small price to pay.

Art Bloggers at Night
Capturing the Moment


In 2012 when the museum reopened after renovations to its physical structures, the administration also changed the museum’s mission and roles to encompass a more proactive role in the community and perhaps one that is similar to those of public museums and galleries in Western countries.

            Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum aspires to be a doorway to art…—a place where children can visit, budding artists can debut their works, and people with disabilities
            can… enjoy art without hesitation. The Museum will strive to build an art community as a place for creativity and coaction, where people can encounter new values,
            re-examine themselves, and deepen their bonds with the world. It will seek to be a place where people engage in art as nourishment for [the soul].
          (Source: 2010 partially amended “Designated Administrator Proposal Document [Business Plan]” of Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture)

DSC00485That’s right! The museum would act as a gateway for all people to enter and experience the world of art. The museum would be a place where children were encouraged to come and not shushed, both emerging and experienced artists could hold shows, and people with disabilities could enjoy art without mental or physical barriers. Those are quite radical concepts for a museum in Japan where the status quo is strongly enforced.

To prove that they meant business, the museum outlined eleven initiatives that would help it achieve its goals. Like most museums, they planned on having themed exhibitions as well as splashy, special exhibitions. These themes were divided into three categories:  Arts & Life to show how people could integrate art into their lifestyles, Contemporary Arts to introduce Japanese artists who are currently working in the field, and Arts & Care to feature work by people with disabilities. (I have slightly changed the museum’s English terms, so the terms are more parallel in style. Some of the original awkwardness remains, however, because the original text used phonetic variations of English instead of Chinese characters that I think would better show the intended meaning.)


With Art as a Haven for Happiness, the museum is obviously following up on somebody’s plan to specifically feature work by people with disabilities. In Japan this is a big deal. They could have just opened a space and displayed work in the same way that community centres do, but they did not. The curators and museum staff worked on this show for three to four years and travelled throughout the country. They decided to focus on work created by people with Down syndrome or other developmental disabilities at the Atelier Element Present and at Shobu Gakuen.

Atelier Element Present was founded in Mie in 1991 by a husband-and-wife team of artists, Hajime and Keiko Sato, and later added a branch in Tokyo.  They hoped that the studio would play an active role in contemporary society rather than a passive, administrative role like many groups do. In fact, they are now collaborating with the Institute for Art Anthropology of Tama Art University to establish a village called Down’s Town to provide support for people with Down syndrome, their art, and their “culture” or way of life. Aside from the life skills taught by working in a cafeteria, this group focuses on painting and drawing.

Atelier Element Present
(R-L) When I was Changing Clothes a Dog Came Along and Skytree by Shinji Okada
Various Patchwork Items by Haruko Kuramata
Lighthouse by Haruko Karumata
Bookshelf by Haruko Kuramata
Refrigerator by Haruko Karumata

The staff at these locations must be very easy-going, forgiving, and judgemental. Why do I think so? Haruko Kuramata, one of the artists, preferred patches of fabric to painting and one day started glueing patches to the cases and the covers of books that happened to belong to one of the aides. Don’t worry! The contents inside the books are okay. The aide can still read the books when they are not displayed in art museums. Kuramata did not stop there. She slowly and methodically glued patches all over a working refrigerator. As a result, they no longer use the refrigerator and keep it in pristine condition. Now that’s patience! Refrigerators are not cheap! They cannot be stacked against the wall or rolled up and ticked into corners like paintings. Can you imagine how angry a parent would be if that happened at home? She also covered cardboard boxes, chairs, and bottles. She is very productive and she is not the only one.


The museum brought in four of the artists to do a demonstration. The museum staff prepared the paint and approximately 40 panels per person. It was not unusual for each person to finish more than half a dozen paintings in one session. They were allowed to be as messy as they wished. All they had to was paint.

Can you imagine that? The museum staff did all the preparation to the panels, including the primer. Just the cost of buying those panels would make any other artist hesitant to do so many at one time. And then to be told to just play with the paint and do whatever we liked without thinking of the end product? I have to admit that I am a bit jealous of the generosity of the museum and the freedom in which everybody could paint. How about you? Wouldn’t you like to just muck about for a week on somebody else’s dime? It would be fabulous!

Shobu Gakuen
Untitled by Mikio Hamada

Shobu Gakuen was founded in Kagoshima in 1973 as a municipal facility where people with developmental disabilities made simple bamboo or textile products that were sold to provide income. In the mid Eighties, Shin and Noriko Fukumori, the current facility directors, dramatically changed how the facility was run and encouraged individual expression rather than financial productivity. People can now express themselves in fabric, wood, Japanese washi paper, ceramics, painting, and even music. In fact, a clothing brand used the music of their percussion band Otto and their vocal group Orabu in a TV commercial featuring actress Ryoko Hirosue.

Untitled by Mikio Hamada
Shobu Gakuen

I admit that I admire this group’s use of methods and materials. They preserve traditional materials but also try to reduce the exposure of already physically and mentally sensitive individuals to chemicals if possible. Even in the cafeteria, they try to use organic vegetables. Instead of artificial dyes, Hamada used kakshibui on the uchiwa fans. It is made from the fermented juice of unripe persimmons. I do not know if the facility makes their own kakushibui or not, but they might. When typhoons hit southern Japan, a lot of green persimmons will be tossed to the ground and otherwise wasted. Waste not, want not.

Untitled by Yukari Mizuguchi
Untitled by Keisuke Nomaguchi

To be honest, I heard of this group’s textile art last year and I would have been much more interested in this show had I known that their work was being  featured. A friend of mine had some books with beautiful photos featuring the  group’s Nui Project for textiles. Two are available outside of Japan for exorbitant prices from Nui Project 1 and Nui Project 2.  Books and DVDs are available directly from Shobu Gakuen for about half those prices.  The Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum’s bilingual catalogue also has beautiful photos of work from both groups.

Untitled by Tomomi Shimokawa

When I saw the photos in the book, both my friend and I viewed them as textile art. She might have been aware that the artists had disabilities but she might not have read the introduction in the book. I didn’t; I just looked at the fabulous pictures. Being friends with many textile artists, she and I both viewed the pieces as art. I could easily imagine some of the textile pieces in an artist-run gallery. For example, the pieces by Tomomi Shimokawa where she embroiders small pieces of fabric with frayed edges and collects them in a tin or glass jar. Even individually these tiny, delicate pieces of embroidery were beautiful and filled with bright colour.

Untitled by Atsushi Yoshimoto
Untitled by Atsushi Yoshimoto

Atsushi Yoshimoto’s work could easily be mistaken as an installation piece in any gallery. He cuts fabric into small pieces of similar size and then adds delicate stitching. As you can imagine, this is a long, slow process. It took him around a year to do the work seen here.

Shobu Gakuen

Although most of the pieces in the exhibition are not for sale, the museum’s gift shop is selling some pottery, woodwork, and other items from Shobu Gakuen. Catalogues, postcards, and other knick-knacks are also available.



To be continued…




Made some changes to this drawing. I should let it sit for a while so I can decide later if it is finished or not. If so, I can varnish it. Title? I have been thinking that Warm Fuzzies might be a good idea.

Gamori Prints



What are Gamori prints? I tried looking it up in the dictionary without any success. Takeshi Ishikawa made up this word eighteen years ago for his digital prints. Wait! Eighteen years ago? High schools in Japan were just starting to use computers instead of word processors then. I never realized that he had been digital for that long! When I met him about five years ago, I thought he had just started doing digital prints. I really have to start asking more questions.

Let me explain how I know him. When four other artists and I had a show in Chiba several years ago, Ishikawa visited Space Galeria to show the owner samples of some textiles that used his artwork. The owner is a big fan of his work and encouraged him to try textile design. A hotel in Okinawa commissioned him to do some work for the linens and other pieces if I recall correctly, and he shared some of the sample terrycloth washcloths with us. By coincidence, the community centre where our group held meetings also used some of his beautiful prints on their posters and catalogues.

Space Galeria asked Joei Lau, me, and more than 30 other artists to use the artist proofs of Ishikawa’s Gamori prints and create more artwork. The show’s name, by coincidence, is “Gamori Print de Asobu” (Fun with Gamori Prints). This is not as easy as it sounds! Many of the proofs have lots of strong colours mixed with large black areas. How do you draw on that? How do you make a piece that reflects you as an artist but also pays homage to Ishikawa? Masako Otani, the curator, said we could put pieces of his prints in a blender and chop them up into small pieces like hamburger, but I do not think I would like the results if I did that. I secretly hope that somebody will take her word on that and make digital mincemeat. The sculptors in the group supposedly have it easier because they are using the paper as a medium without worrying about the surface colour or imagery. How are they going to fit all of the artwork into the gallery? All of the work will be available for sale and shown in Space Galeria from October 31 to November 10, 2013. If you want to say hello, Takeshi Ishikawa and many of the participating artists will be at the gallery on Wednesday, November 6, 2013. The results of this creative challenge could be quite interesting. We take no responsibility for the final results.

Yes, I Colour It, but It’s All Natural.

Textile artist Warabi, Saitama, Japan

Friends in Kitakyushu often talked about Ms Nakahara’s younger sister, Hitoko Fujisaki. She, too, is a textile artist like her sister, but they said she does more experimental work, such as collecting soil samples from all over Japan to make pill bugs or dango mushi in Japanese.  I had no idea what they looked like and I pictured balls of clay with large pieces of fibre  sticking out. I still do not know what those particular pieces look like but I now understand how the soil samples were probably used since I had the pleasure of meeting her the other day.

She was busy preparing for a joint show in October but kindly made some time in her busy schedule for me. Although she has lived in the Kanto area near Tokyo for most of her adult life, she does occasionally return to Kyushu to do some work. In fact, she has to do some of her work because she does not have enough space to do the dye work in Saitama. Wait! I am getting ahead of myself here. Perhaps I should first explain what kind of art she does and how she got started.

Teshigoto: Exhibition
Teshigoto (Handwork)

She is a textile artist who uses only natural, organic materials. (One of her woven button covers is shown on the left in the photograph above.) She uses the minerals in different soils to colour her fibres. For example, soils from Okinawa create orange, soils from Kagoshima in southern Japan where there are many hot springs or onsen result in orangey yellow, and the soil similar to that used to make the black walls in Kawagoe, Saitama makes grey. This makes sense if you think how paints and chalks were traditionally made centuries ago. This kind of dyeing is not that common, so she searched for someone who makes his own pastels using clays and soils. She said she went to his house and basically camped out on his yard until he agreed to teach her. (I do not know if she literally did that or not but she might have done exactly that!)

Although art-supply stores in Japan sell powdered pigments made from natural sources such as shells and minerals for painting, you cannot go to these stores and buy a jar of sulphur-rich dirt. You also cannot use the topsoil in your garden. If you added water to regular dirt to create a dye bath, you would end up with…mud. To get soil rich in minerals, you have to dig a hole that is deep enough to erect a tall building. This is not something that you can do yourself. Fujisaki goes to shops that specialize in dirt. Can you imagine going to Kyoto and going to buy soil? She does. She does not go to the gardening section of a local hardware store; she goes to places such as those that use local clays and soils to make walls in traditional Japanese houses. The methods are similar to those that use wattle and daub to make walls in Europe. She collects soils during her travels and saves them for later use.

When she is ready, she usually returns to the family house or occasionally goes somewhere else that has a yard or a garden because she dumps the used soil in the garden afterwards. Don’t worry! The garden is not harmed! She only uses the soil to colour the fibres. No inorganic matter is added to fix the colours; everything is 100% natural. She returns the soil back to the land in a way that will benefit the land. Isn’t she amazing?

Teshigoto at Masuii RDR Gallery & Shop
Teshigoto at Masuii RDR Gallery & Shop

The show in October features small objects using cloth made by Hitoko Fujisaki and ceramics made by Misako Akimoto, and it is held at the Masuii RDR Gallery & Shop in Kawaguchi, Saitama just north of Tokyo on the JR Keihin line. If you have any free time between October 8 and 13, please go and see the show. She is a fascinating woman with many stories.

Soon after the show in Kawaguchi ends, she will be in Kimono ni Supaisu (Spice in Kimono), another group show at  Gallery T.H.M. The concept is very simple: kimono and the accessories that go with it, such as an obi, a decorative brooch to pin on the obi, and so on.

Kimono ni Spaisu (Spice in Kimonos)
Kimono ni Supaisu (Spice in Kimonos)

She acts as a mentor to younger artists and invites them to take part in shows such as this throughout Japan. The show will be held from October 18 to 29 in Kitakyushu. Instructions on how to get to the gallery are shown here in Japanese. Even if you do not have a car, you can easily travel to the gallery by bus from Tobata station.

Kimono ni Spaisu (Spice in Kimono) at Gallery THM
Kimono ni Supaisu (Spice in Kimono) at Gallery THM

Gallery T.H.M. is not well known and not well publicized but has shows of a surprisingly high calibre. If this gallery were in any major city in North America, it would surely be a popular spot for locals and tourists. It has a quiet presence in an old house on a quiet street beside a ramen shop. Mr. Nakahara, one of the owners, does metal work and made the display stands and tables; sometimes some of his pieces are on sale in the gallery. Mrs. Nakahara (shown in the photograph with one of her pieces featuring marine life), Ms Fujisaki’s older sister, is also a textile artist, so many of the gallery shows have a textile theme to them. She also regularly acts as a mentor to younger artists and encourages them to take part in group shows.


Both of these shows offer chances to support small galleries and lesser known artists. Any support you give them will surely be multiplied and given by them to a younger generation of artists.