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Track Light Interview #11—> Natsuki Otani (Japan)

“Land of the Rising Zine” cover art by Natsuki Otani from the charity zine for the Japan tsunami appeal by Illustration Rally blog.

 

The “Track Light” series serves to briefly introduce a number of individuals involved
with the One World Artist Gallery from their various places around the globe.

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Today, I talk with Japanese born/Sweden-based illustrator Natsuki Otani.

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Journey to the West

 

John: Kon’nichiwa and Hej! Let’s start with your growing up in Japan and eventually ending up in Sweden.

Natsuki: Sure. I was born in Tokyo and was living with my parents and brother when I was very young. Unfortunately my father passed away when I was fourteen and I guess that event shaped me to be a bit more independent than other girls my age.

When I was twenty-one, I enrolled in Norwich University of the Arts (in England) to study graphic design, and that’s where I met my husband. He’s a game designer, and people in the games industry seem to work everywhere in Europe. So the same happened with him. After getting married in England we moved to Portugal, Germany, and then finally Sweden because of his work. And all during that time, I was freelancing as an artist.

 

“Ryo” collaboration with La Mode Outré.

 

John: When did you begin drawing?

Natsuki: No one in my family was the artsy type, so I’m not sure where my interest in art came from! But I remember drawing some anime characters for friends when I was a kindergartner, and getting some nice praise! That definitely encouraged me to like drawing more.

Most of the prefectures in Japan have some high schools that focus solely on music or art courses. So when I was in my teens, I decided to go to an art high school in Tokyo. My first formal art training would have actually been in preparation for this school’s entrance exam. It involved pencil drawing and still life watercolor painting.

In my art high school we studied all kinds of art, including sculpture, oil painting, and traditional Japanese painting. I originally intended to go to a Japanese art university upon graduation, so again I focused hard on drawing for several years. I would need to pass yet another entrance exam for university! It was common back then for Japanese art student wannabes to spend years training before they actually got into an art uni. But at that point I had had enough of it, so I decided to study in England instead.

By the way, I really liked the first year of the graphic design course at Norwich back then. It allowed students to experience graphic design, editorial design, photography, animation, and illustration before choosing one to continue further in our second and third years.

 

Natsuki’s hand-painted Classic DrawBag.

Style & Influences

 

John: Your work interweaves floral patterns, figures, and animals using a dreamy mix of vibrant, yet muted colors. How did those technical elements come about for you?

Natsuki: I think I always try to create something that can exist only in a piece of artwork. I try to draw visions that I can’t see in the real world but I wish I could see.

John: And you seem to combine elements of the real with the surreal… or beauty with the sinister. What’s the motivation for these sharp contrasts?

Natsuki: The contrast is intended to give viewers something that is familiar amidst the unrecognizable. I think familiarity is very important for illustration and design. That isn’t always the case for fine art. But for design I always like to embed something “real” no matter how surreal my drawings can appear.

 

“My Sweet Boy” illustration for Saji Magazine.

 

“Secret” illustration for the group exhibition, ‘Stephen Chan and Friends Presents’.

 

John: What other artists have influenced you in your journey?

Natsuki: There are countless artistic influences over time, but I try to avoid looking at others’ drawing when searching for inspiration. Instead, I look to things like the photography of Wolfgang Tillmans, the films of Quentin Tarantino, or the music of Perfume Genius. They give me so many ideas without limiting my thinking about how to express myself.

John: Several generations of westerners were impacted growing up with Nintendo, Akira, and Studio Ghibli films. Can you comment on the fertility of these unique Japanese creators and innovators?

 

Akira promotional image
Cover of 1988’s animated film Akira, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo.

 

Natsuki: I think Japanese creators are quite fortunate. They have an accepting environment in which to enjoy anime, manga, or even computer games without being discriminated against. They’re also able to use these subcultures to express their artistic creativity.

Playing Nintendo never categorized me as a geek girl. Hiyao Miyazaki’s films were on TV regularly. And Takashi Murakami started collaborating with luxury fashion brands, causing his anime/manga influenced art to enter the mainstream just like Andy Warhol. It’s all quite in sync with the overall culture, rather than against it.

Engineering a Lunchbox

 

John: You and I began brainstorming months ago about a print for the LunchKraft lunchbox. We talked back and forth through various ideas, and you sketched about a dozen possible designs over three rounds of development. The final design will be released in early September 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

John: Ultimately, you settled on one that incorporated a fantastical taiyaki fish bearing a boy and a girl aloft. How did you navigate through that process of development?

 

 

 

Natsuki: Originally you and I had discussed creating a design with a theme like “girl power”. But this then shifted to a more inclusive design for both boys and girls.

John. Yeah. I liked the idea of encouraging boys and girls to really partner together in adventures to make the world a more beautiful place.

Natsuki: Right. But I still wanted to draw something to say that girls can be leaders or heroes in a subtle way. It’s great to have a story that has a clear strong female character such as Wonder Woman but I think it’s also nice to see a more natural representation of girls in leadership roles. Hopefully in time this will simply become the norm.

So I simply drew the girl in the front of their taiyaki airship, to show that she is the one who leads this food adventure they are on! It’s a really simple bit of visual language, but I’d prefer to leave the space for people to read or think about what the design could mean.

I also knew you liked the idea of something a bit like Howl’s Moving Castle so that was one of the visual inspirations. My idea was to draw something to encourage children (and adults) to enjoy lunch or any mealtime, so I drew the boy and the girl in this taiyaki airship as explorers and… evangelists of food in some way to represent that.

Getting Off-Topic

 

John: You know, my interest in portraying boys and girls this way comes in part out of a sense that the sexes don’t seem to get along very well these days. The expectations on one another have grown more and more unrealistic, while the satisfaction in what is delivered has diminished. Things like social media, pop music, Hollywood, and mass media advertising could be blamed for this. But I think these are just the outward expressions of something that has gone wrong inwardly.

A few years ago, I read an article where a number of Japanese young men were expressing great anticipation for better AI and sex-bots. They hoped new advances would produce female companions indistinguishable from their human counterparts (except for being more compliant). This feel a part of movement in recent decades away from flesh-and-blood relationship through on-demand internet pornography, virtual reality, and simulation in things like Gatebox’s “virtual girlfriend” Azuma Hikari. 

 

John: And I know this is not just an issue in Japan, with its decline in romantic relationships and birthrates. We seem to be wrestling at this moment with a tension between the virtual (or imagined) and the real. The former entices us with the promise of engineered perfection to replace the challenges and natural “shortcomings” of our everyday experience.

Our minds have always been able to imagine a more perfect partner when engaged in a dualistic kind of overthinking. But now technology is poised to realize those imaginings through physical forms. But I think that will only lead to more disappointment in the end, rather than satisfaction. I believe that deep satisfaction in life comes from letting go completely of expectations and enjoying the journey, rather than trying to guarantee outcomes we imagine will bring us pleasure.

In short… adventures are what make life meaningful and satisfying! And adventures must have significantly difficult challenges along the way.

Attempting to Define One’s Culture

 

Getting back on track, haha… you’ve travelled to, lived in, and interacted with a number of other cultures. How much do you feel a part of, or not of, Japanese culture?

Natsuki: It may be that I didn’t know how to appreciate my cultural background in my artwork until I started living overseas. For some time I avoiding drawing things that were overtly Japanese in my work unless I was specifically asked to include them. This was because I felt I was taking advantage of something I hadn’t earned myself.

However, now I think Japanese culture is a part of me whether I intend it to be or not. And that culture is something to both cherish as well as experiment with. My artwork is ultimately more an expression of myself than of my country or nationality. But I wouldn’t have learnt this without traveling outside of my own country.

John: And how does that specifically play out in your work?

Natsuki: That’s such a hard question, and I honestly don’t know if it has changed anything in terms of my visual style. It’s definitely influenced my way of thinking and seeing things, though. I think only viewers of my artwork could comment on this, and it would all depend on their personal perspectives of me.

People often find something they would call “Japanese” in my work even though I’ve had no intention of doing this. I left Japan thirteen years ago and rarely speak Japanese these days. It seems to me that my real life journey is lost in translation. But it’s fine to me when this kind of interpretation happens. I like people to interpret my work in their own ways.

 

“Zashiki Warashi” illustration.

 

John: As creative people, do you and your husband want to get all kinds of fantastic art  into your daughter’s life? So she can say she did have an “artsy” family?

Natsuki: Of course we do, but we also want her to experience everything else! As a kid I used to learn about and enjoy Math, English, calligraphy, piano, tennis, kendo, and softball outside of regular school time… some of them I was pretty bad at, but it was still awesome to get to experience so many different things. I’d actually be more than happy if she ends up being sporty instead of artsy!

John: Do you think having a daughter will affect the substance of your art-making in any way?

Natsuki: It’s only been two months since my daughter arrived in our life so it’s a little hard to say what impact she has made to my creativity. I think I’m purely focused on making sure she’s alright at the moment! I never thought about my work being seen by my own children before her, obviously. I’m guessing I’ll be more conscious about creating work that she can be proud of or inspired by.

The design for LunchKraft is the first job I’ve finished since her birth, and I have some wishes for her future within that. I do want her to be a strong girl who can stand on her own two legs, lead her own life, and be able to enjoy and appreciate what she eats. To my husband and me, cooking and sharing a meal together is very important. I believe it’s a celebration of our life so I really can’t wait for her to join us and start using her lunchbox!

Following Up!

 

You can find (and buy) more of Natsuki’s work by checking out her Portfolio,Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook.

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Track Light Interview #9—> Maria Uve (Spain)

The “Track Light” series serves to briefly introduce a number of individuals involved
with the One World Artist Gallery (OWAG) from their various places around the globe.

<- – – – – 

Today, I talk with Spanish illustrator and photographer María Uve.

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John: Hi Maria! I was excited when you first contacted me through Instagram about collaborating on a DrawBag.

María: John! Sorry for the delay in finishing everything.

John: No, no, you weren’t late. Everything is in it’s right time. I’m just happy to have connected with you.

John: I’ve recently made more contact with artists in Spain as there is quite a wealth of talent there. Elena Pancorbo had just finished an original design on a DrawBag before you and I first spoke, and Jesuso Ortiz was also a collaborator early on.  What is the artistic community like where you are in Vigo?

María: Well… the truth is that I live in a part of my country with a very small artistic community. The larger groups of artists in Spain are really in the capital, but thanks to online social networks I have met artists of many nationalities and that has enriched me a lot.

John: The idea of community is continually being redefined in terms of its borders through technology, isn’t it?

María: Yes, and I think we should really support one other instead of competing because if our related community wins… really, we all win.

John: Where did you get your training as an artist and with what different media do you work?

María: I studied illustration, photography, and graphic design at EASD Antonio Faílde (School of Art & Design) in Ourense, Spain and have spent the past year and a half dedicating myself professionally to my profession– illustrating book covers, being exhibited in galleries, publishing my own book, and collaborating with various magazines.

John: Your style is quite recognizable. Were there other artists whose work influenced you in your own development of this style?

María: I think we are all influenced by everything. By other artists for their music, by the cinema, etc… I could not tell you specific names, though, because I try to escape the similarities. 

John: I’ve been really inspired by a handful of female artists who I’ve discovered this past year primarily through Instagram… #zipcy and #littlethunder being two others beside yourself.

Illustration by #zipcy.
Illustration by #littlethunder

 

Illustration by #maria_uve_

You are all quite different in expression, but seem to be similar in that your artwork embraces love, sexuality, the body, and emotional intimacy in ways that are neither prudish nor porn. Your work celebrates a genuine and nuanced eroticism that I think has otherwise been cheapened over time by happy endings to romantic comedies, free streaming porn, and the convenience store of online dating. Truly falling in love with oneself or others is not something we click to purchase, but must engage in with our whole being to experience both its heights and depths. But that’s my perspective, of course, haha. What is it that you are doing when you create your artwork? What are you communicating through it?

María: Obviously, artists expose themselves to having a free interpretation on the part of the receiver and that is inevitable. But yes… I am communicating precisely that which you just expressed: the importance of feeling good about oneself, experiencing love in healthy ways, de-objectifying the body as only a sexual object, making relationship a natural part of our conversation, respecting all kinds of people and all types of relationships, and breaking conventions and traditional values.

Illustration by #maria_uve_

John: There are quite a few symbols and motifs you return to in your work, including what I assume to be the red thread of fate from Chinese folklore, creeping yellow vines, tiny phrases in blue on the body, the serpent, skeletons, and various images of the galaxy.

Can you share a bit about your wider perspective on life and why we are here? Where we are going? And how that is reflected in your current stage of art making?

Illustration by #maria_uve_

María: Well, I wish I knew why we are here! I guess my perspective is as simple as finding happiness and satisfaction within myself, without hurting anyone or anything else.

John: Fair enough. I think a lot of young artists would be very jealous of the 300K followers you currently have on Instagram. How did you gather that global following? Did it take long for people to find your work on Instagram?

María: I think there are no jealous artists. We are all non-conformists. Perhaps we can get too focused on how things are going with others, but I always encourage artists to support one another and help share one another’s work with the world. I think everyone deserves to have the same possibilities for success.

And the truth is that I do not know how all my followers came about… but it was fast. In just over a year I suddenly went from having 150 “friends” to 300,000.

John: There can be fine line between genuine expression of oneself and finding a strong following in that… and then monetizing that expression into a product for sale which loses its original intent. How have you kept your artistic journey genuine and connected to its source?

María: I didn’t monetize my work until recently, when my first book was published. I always have some prints available for sale in case someone wanted them but I never advertised until now, because it has been important to grow my work first.

John: And how many new pieces of work do you make… say, per week?

María: One or two.

John: Tell me more about the book Nosotros which you recently published.

 

María: It’s about self-improvement after failed relationships. At the moment I do not have a version in English… only in Spanish. Everything in time, though.

John: What else fills your life besides from art making?

María: I love animals and nature in general… music, movies, reading, and traveling. Too many things and only one life!

John: You can see more of Maria’s illustration or photography via Instagram or Facebook, follow her on Twitter, or purchase her work here. Her recently published book Nosotros is also available in Spanish. Updates when available in English!

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Reflections on the Mental Image

“The digitized picture has broken the relationship between the picture and reality once and for all. We are entering an era when no one will be able to say whether a picture is true or false. They are all becoming beautiful and extraordinary, and with each passing day they belong increasingly to the world of advertising. Their beauty, like their truth, is slipping away from us. Soon they will really end up making us blind.”

– Wim Wenders, director of Until the End of the World

 

As a studio art major in an American college, I had a professor of photography and film who told me there was a time when Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa existed in only one place, and you had to travel a great distance to view it. 

That one place was The Louvre in Paris.

Now, he said, the Mona Lisa exists everywhere, and all at once.

(Well, actually “now” was back then in 1998. He was referring to photographs and printed versions of the Mona Lisa at the time, when the internet was still just emerging, public content-wise. But I think his statement is only more true today.)

 

 

What is the difference between looking at an image of the Mona Lisa and traveling to the Louvre to see the real thing?

It’s not that one is wrong and the other is right.

But what is the difference?

 

And what are the possibilities or consequences of technology advancing further and further into the virtual?

 

What is the difference between pornography and a flesh-and-blood human relationship?

What is the difference between buying into a brand and creating your own?

What is the difference between accepting what you were taught and questioning the nature of reality?

 

Worthy questions to ask in one’s lifetime!