Hometown: Winnipeg, Canada
In Japan: 21 years
Identity: Artist and working at Yaskawa Electric
Michelle Zacharias is a Canadian artist and has lived in Japan for over 20 years. She works mainly in colored pencil. Although Michelle has often found her intricate and colorful style too conservative for some and too artsy for others, she was awarded a prize last year at the International Exhibition of Art and Design in Kyoto. Michelle maintains that her art has never been commercial or conceptual – for her, art is about enjoying the work you do. Having grown up in Winnipeg, a real “incubator” for artistic communities, Michelle often thinks about how to encourage artists in Fukuoka to talk and share ideas. She hopes that her upcoming exhibition with Elida Maria Matsumoto at Konya Gallery will contribute towards this dialogue. Konya’s flexible space is the perfect place to display colorful art to stave off the winter blues. The exhibition will take place from 2/11~2/17. Make sure to check the webpage for details of an artists talk: http://konya2023.travelers-project.info/.
Mary-Rose Shand and Matt Perkins met up with Michelle Zacharias to discuss art, growing up in Canada, living as a foreign wife of a Japanese man in Fukuoka and more. Read the full interview below…
Why did you choose to work in Japan?
Growing up in Winnipeg, I was in the middle of nowhere. After suffering from mononucleosis (glandular fever) for two years, I just wanted an adventure. I had no money, I’d been a fine arts student after all and being a woman I couldn’t travel alone so I enrolled in the JET program. I was not a Japanophile. Unlike everyone else, I stayed for romance. My husband hit on me in the cafeteria and I couldn’t get rid of him!
What made you want to study art?
To me Science and Maths are easy. If you can do it you can get the answer. With Fine Arts there is no answer. You have to work at it. I started out taking English and Fine Arts as a double major. But I got tired of the faculty of Education and their ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitude. Fine Arts was liberating.
Do you think growing up in Canada influenced your art?
Winnipeg is in the middle of nowhere but it’s like an incubator for its own artistic community. There is a good music scene. Neil Young, the Guess Who, The Watchmen, Crash-test Dummies, they all came from Winnipeg. And there are a lot of contemporary artists mixing different influences.
How has your work been influenced by your residence in Japan?
People annoy me when they say I’m working in a ‘Japanese palate’. I have noticed that streets in Beijing look like my etchings. But I’ve never been there. Some of my friends say the patterns in my work remind them of kimono. I can’t see it. I suppose it all goes in and you can’t really control how it comes out. But influence? It’s not a conscious thing.
How does the art scene in Fukuoka compare to other areas that you’ve lived in?
There is no scene! Japanese artists would say the same thing. One of my friends disagrees with me. She says Kitakyushu has an arts scene. They’re into more video art, the newer trends. But no one really goes in for gallery hopping. I often find that only people you know will come to your exhibitions. Japanese people do not usually check the paper to see what’s showing, pop in, and do the circuit. I don’t know if there’s any sign of that changing. It’s more focused on the community centre. The older people I talk to definitely wish there was more communication among artists.
What is it like being a female artist in Japan?
Being a woman artist is no different than being any other kind of artist. When you’re with another artist there’s a synergy in the air, you can feel it. But the art world is one of the few worlds in Japan where I have not encountered much sexism. I am part of the AFWJ, Associate for Foreign Wives of Japanese. They give me quite a bit of artistic support too. We have a convention once a year, which is really one big pyjama party.
Many of your pieces seem very personal. Who do you regard as your audience?
I never really thought about an audience. I really just started doing them for myself more than for anybody else. But this time round part of another reason for this show is to connect people. Elida will be inviting a lot of her students. I want to bring some Japanese younger artists and some older artists who maybe haven’t even been to Daimyo. I’d like to get some kind of dialogue between the other artists. In Japan they often work in isolation. With me, because I’m a foreigner, they feel much more open and maybe they’ll start talking.
Could you explain the process of intaglio (etching and printing)?
I haven’t done it for a while. In Japan, woodblock printing is popular. You make valleys then you put the ink on top of the mountains. Etching is the reverse. You are still making those valleys and they are the lines you end up printing. You push damp paper into those valleys to take out the ink.
You appear to work in different styles – do you feel like you’re still “experimenting” or moving towards one over others?
I was in printmaking for ten years. Once you’re a print-maker that mentality stays with you. With etching you’re doing all these little details. I’m still doing that but with pencil crayon. I also do layering. I like pentimento. It’s still my favourite word and I learned it in my first year of art school. You draw a line then you erase it, but part of it liners to create a richer sense of the drawing. That’s pentimento. I’m still experimenting every time I take a pencil to the page.
Do you enjoy talking about your art?
No. I don’t. I’m not good at talking about my art. I just do it for myself. They’re not commercial pieces. I don’t like talking about it in deep intellectual ways. I work in color because I got tired of blue, grey and navy. The physical process of art just feels good. I didn’t want to give it up. Ink smells good. There’s no use in getting pseudo-intellectual about it. The doing is more important. And the enjoying after.
For you, where are the boundaries between your work as an artist and your personal life?
Frustrated artists will start making fancy dinners, or letting their creativity come out in the clothes they put on in the morning. But no, those dinners are not necessarily art. To me creativity and art are still two different things. People don’t like that differentiation these days, because everybody has to be an artist.
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming exhibition in the Konya gallery? Has it been an exciting space to work in?
I love the concept of the building. The landlord has agreed not to knock it down until 2023 so artists can rent a studio for dirt-cheap. Having seen the space again, it’s smaller than I thought but I think my pieces and Elida’s pieces will both look really good there.
What advice do you have for other foreigners aspiring to contribute to the art scene in Fukuoka?
There are great art galleries. And I’ve heard rumors that there are figure-drawing classes. And for what there is of a scene there’s a teeny-tiny little gallery with a little bar called Art Space Baku that is well respected. But I love Konya and the vibe there.
What are the best and the worst comments you’ve ever received about your work?
A friend’s husband said, after looking at my work: ‘Oh so you’ve filled in the lines of a coloring book’. On the other hand, the head of my drawing class says things like: ‘your lines are running across the page’ or ‘she’s going to be famous one day’. That’s nice, I’ll take that.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn169, Jan. 2013)