Historically, Christians were the ones who lead in the creative arts. Painting and writing were both pioneered by Christians. Makoto Fujimura is someone who discovered Christ through the practice of Nihonga, a Japanese technique of watercolor incorporating layered pigment and metallic leaf. He recognized the process of art-making as a connection to the Divine, which he describes as ‘sublime grace’. In this episode of the Creative Spotlight we discuss his iconic project as he created a new vision of the Four Gospels.
Makoto, tell us a bit about yourself and how you began cultivating interest in the arts?
Makoto: I was born in Boston, and was brought up bi-culturally between Japan and US. My father is a research scientist (Osamu Fujimura, a professor at Tokyo University, Bell Labs, and later at Ohio State), and my mother is an educator. Both of my parents cultivated in my brother and I the centrality of creativity, art and science.
You were one of the first artists to develop a website. Almost 20 years later, how do view the importance of social media, and the internet, as a tool to expand your network and share your work?
Makoto: I do believe you are right. Hai Nyuen, who developed the first website for Christie’s Auction came to me and wanted to experiment on an artist’s website. I did not know what that would entail, but it seemed exciting to me, as I have known a few scientists experimenting with an early adaptation of web design. I believe I am one of the first artists to do an open sourced digital image as well, making high-resolution images available on line for free, and allowing people to collaborate. If you print one of these images on your printer, the work becomes an original.
Social media is an opportunity to re-shape the word “media,” as we live in an age in which the media really does not mediate. Mediation requires deeper thinking than flashy sound bites; mediation is needed in the divided, ideological age we live in today.
A lot of your art, seems to be gravitated towards the Abstract. What exactly draws you to that modern abstract field?
Makoto: My art does borrow from the language of the abstract expressionists, but my art also do not fit into any of the categories. My works hover between east and west, abstraction and representation, contemporary and traditional. My interest in abstraction is in essentiation of reality (if “essentiation” is really a word). It is to get at the essence of an object, place, or reality. Abstract artists of early 20th century felt a necessity to develop a new language to capture what film and photos could not. They were also influenced by eastern paintings that distilled reality into simple brush strokes. My interest lies in both the abstract works, but also Zen works of 16th century.
What has been your greatest difficulty and how did you overcome it?
Makoto: Accepting the fact that I do not fit in. Even as an artist, I developed my own language, my own way of working, my own sense of how to make a “living” out of art. The fact that I have been able to do what I do full time, feed my family, send my children (3) off to college is a miracle.
You were the first artist to illumine the four Gospels in 500 years, were you nervous approaching this project?
Makoto: I was indeed very nervous, and overwhelmed at first. But then, as I started, I realized I have been prepared my whole life time to do this task.
Did you have to disconnect your religious views to complete this project, or did you put them into account to help fuel your creativity and to better relate to the subject matter?
Makoto: My relationship with God is something very intimate and miraculous; I struggle with the word “religious” because if it means a ritualized formal path, I am not sure I am a good example. I am a fairly orthodox in theology, and do not shy away from identifying myself as a “follower of Christ” but as far as being “religious,” I believe everyone is “religious” (relies on some ideology, or even ritual) and art exposes these beliefs. So it was not so much my “religion” as much as my being made alive in Christ, and how I feel this deep sense of sorrow and shame, while at the same time absolutely joy-filled and in awe of God. It’s the same sense that made John Coltrane write “It Is With God…His Way Is in Love, Through Which We All are. It Is Truly – A Love Supreme.” I SAW things while working on the Four Holy Gospels both corrupt and Holy; I had dreams and nightmares. But as soon as my brushes began to move, I had this sense of “perfect peace” and freedom of being a precious child of God. I wanted this sense of joy and child-like devotion in the embellishments.
So, is this a Christian companion piece, or do you feel a non-religious person can take interest in this book from an art appreciation perspective?
Makoto: I hope my work, including the Four Holy Gospels, will communicate beyond the religious boundaries, and cultures. To tell you the truth, I identify more with a “non-religious” person, more than people who are proudly “religious.”
You have given lectures to various communities and Universities over the years. What unique challenges and rewards come from speaking to people who want to listen and learn from what you have to tell them?
Makoto: We live in a pragmatic, utilitarian culture in which the arts are pushed aside as luxury for the elites. I want to contribute to a greater conversation, a re-humanized conversation, in which the arts play a central role in our lives and education. Without the arts, we are impoverished, and will not be able to make decisions that meet the challenges of our days, and for the sake of our children. I also have noticed that “universities” are “multi-versities” in which the departments no longer talk to each other. The arts can play an important role in bringing synthesis to the modernist fragmentation.
Even with your International Arts Movement, what is the one ‘golden rule’ that you hope to instill in aspiring artists that travel to meet you?
Makoto: I tell artists to be generous, and not to have this “entitlement” mindset. Artists, too, have responsibilities to society. I believe artists can lead in creating a community that is generative and integrated. “An Artist is never poor,” as Babette said (Babette’s Feast).
How do you view art in relation to one’s humanity and/or faith?
Makoto: Art and imagination plays a key role in creating our futures, to have empathy with the “other” of our society. Great transformative ideas often come out of the margins, in-between liminal spaces in culture. I love exploring in those margins, just as my art embellish the borders of the Bible project, I, too, dwell in the borders enriched by imagination. Your question is a good one in that there IS a strong link between “humanity” and “faith.” Faith, to me, is given as grace, to empower us to act courageously in spite of the “ground zero” conditions we face. To create generatively today, standing on the ashes of the Ground Zeros of our lives, is to love. Love is creative, love is generative; and in our fear-filled times, we need to create in love.
Thank you for your time and congratulations on the upcoming 20th year of the International Arts Movement!
Thank you. My exhibit in New York City, Los Angeles and Tokyo is coming up of the Four Holy Gospels paintings, so please check out the dates on my website.