The New Newness of Japanese Painting Artist Interview with Makoto Fujimura Part II


The artist interview with Makoto Fujimura, a Contemporary Artist using Nihonga materials, living in the U.S., is divided into into Part I and Part II. And here, let's begin with the second half, which will focus on the aesthetics of the materials used in his paintings. 

I would like to find out what attracts him to the materials used in Japanese art from his perspective as a Japanese-American artist.

ーHow do you see your relationship with art materials?

Makoto Fujimura ( hereafter Fujimura / titles omitted): I regard Japanese-style painting as in a sense an ecosystem. Therefore, considering importance of Japanese-style painting materials and the history means I am supporting that ecosystem.

For example, painting involves all kinds of craftsmanship like Washi paper making, paint brush making, Sumi ink making, inkstone carving, and so on. And then we artists use those to support them. This is important.

Recently, the many art material productions have been mechanized, but I think the world should not become just a place purely in transactional terms, and not nurture of culture.

ーIn another word, if we discard things because they are unnecessary from a capitalist point of view, those cultures will disappear.

Fujimura: Yes, and at the same time, I think "things" also need people.

Even when it comes to making paper, some types of paper can only be handled by professional artists, right? That could be the potential of Japanese painting. That is what we grow plants for.

I believe that people who take over the generation in those industries are nurturing the social ecosystem.

ーWhat was the reaction when you introduced these art materials thorough your artworks in the U.S.?

Fujimura: In the 90s, I think that Hiroshi Senju and I were the only painters using Nihonga materials in the United States. Early on, we had a two-person show together. 

At that time in New York, there was a backlash against "beauty" in the art scene. Beauty was taboo since conceptual art was in the mainstream. Although, fortunately, I was allowed to talk about beauty because, for me, beauty was the Japanese culture itself.

Makoto Fujimura being interviewed in his studio

ーAfter the 1990s is when the word "slow art" began to spread, didn't it?

Fujimura: Nobody in the U.S. knew what Nihonga was, so I was explaining it as “slow art.” Then David Brooks, a writer for the New York Times, wrote an article about it, and it spread widely.

ーI see, that's how it happened.

Fujimura: Today, the United States is facing many problems. I am proposing the concept of “cultural care” in such a fissured society. This idea is a way to counter the culture wars. The relationship between artists and craftspeople which I mentioned earlier is one case of cultural care.

Although the Western world regards nature is separated from culture, in Japan, nature and culture are fused together, and that how Japanese painting is, isn't it?

And it (traditionally) takes care of culture.

I believe it is obvious that environmental protection and art are connected, and Japanese painting materials have refined with that kind of belief until now.

The relationship with nature has created our today’s Japanese culture.

ーSlow art and cultural care both sound very important concepts in the 21st century.  

Fujimura: In the '90s, mechanical modernism was in trend, but people were probably seeking something organic made by hands and found that quality in slow art.

That is how they started to bring up Kintsugi (gold joinery) and slow art.

ーHow interesting it is. Since you mentioned Kintsugi, what do you think of gold as a material in your painting, Mr. Fujimura?

Fujimura: When I was studying in Japan, I didn't have much money. Pure gold leaf was expensive, so I used various other types of metal leaves. Since I had my children with me at the time, it was very tough.

One day, Professor Yuji Tezuka walked into my studio and advised me like, "You will never know gold unless you use real gold."

ーWow, so you had children when you were studying abroad?

Fujimura: Yes. And, after all, materials are extremely important. However, I didn't have enough money back then, so I bought gold leaf without eating lunch, haha.

And when I actually tried using pure gold leaf in my painting, it was really different. As Professor Tezuka said, real gold was great. Especially, Japanese gold leaf is unique.

ーSo, you think like things give us answers?

Fujimura: That is so true. You never know until you actually apply the gold leaf yourself.

Right around that time, Professor Matazo Kayama joined the Tokyo University of the Arts, and I was his first student.

Looking back now, I was using gold leaf in a slightly unusual way, but when he saw me doing something a little different, he said, "That's interesting!”

Through my connection with Professor Kayama, I was able to appreciate more about the beauty of gold leaf. I feel his strong passion for gold leaf and silver leaf from his artworks.

His paintings in progress

ーWhat do materials mean to you, Mr. Fujimura?

Fujimura: The material itself captures something true, something pure. It is beauty, isn't it? Chemically made pigments have the same size particles, so they are even.

But with Japanese mineral pigments, when you look at them under the microscope, each grain is rough and each grain is unique. They are like prisms, each one seems to be the same but different. And when you hit a light on them, it refracts. I think these elements are very precious in my aesthetic and philosophy.

It is not a perfect world, it is an unfinished world. I feel that a crushed world captures the truth of this world.

Makoto Fujimura, holding a container of malachite mineral pigments.  

ーIs it something that imperfection teaches us?

Fujimura: In the Western way of thinking, there is a constant pursuit of perfection or the abandonment of contradictory things. But the Japanese sense of beauty is different.

It is about not throwing anything away. I think there is something purer than just valuing the material.

I think this is connected to my personal spirituality.

His studio which was renovated from a horse stable.

Makoto Fujimura has been developing his oriental sense of beauty through various experiences, one of which was studying abroad in Japan, where he spent his childhood, following the advice of an artist when he was an undergraduate.

Not only his unique background but also his passionate talks about Japanese painting materials attracted me very much.

When I asked him about his future plans, he said, "Through Japanese culture, I would like to connect underprivileged children in the darkness with the world of beauty."

The Japanese aesthetics that he could perceive because he was born and raised in the U.S. gave me a new insight and inspired me while interviewing him.

Translated by Atsumi Okano

PIGMENT TOKYO Art Materials Expert


Art Materials Expert of PIGMENT TOKYO


Born in 1989 in Tokyo. Master of Fine Art and Design at Nihon University College of Art. While working at PIGMENT TOKYO as an Art Materials Expert, he also continues his career as a visual artist.

Born in 1989 in Tokyo. Master of Fine Art and Design at Nihon University College of Art. While working at PIGMENT TOKYO as an Art Materials Expert, he also continues his career as a visual artist.