/

American artist takes personal approach to traditional painting

Immersing himself in the shitamichi spirit of Tokyo's Yanaka, Allan West uses nihonga to express his respect for nature

by Gianni Simone

Special To The Japan Times

Finding places in Tokyo can be complicated. All too often a simple address is not enough. That’s why many people here look like treasure hunters roaming the streets armed with a map or its modern equivalent, the smartphone.

While getting lost in the business district is not particularly funny, Yanaka — not far from Ueno — is one of those rare neighborhoods that have managed to preserve the old shitamachi atmosphere and rewards the urban explorer with many pleasant surprises. One of them can be found in a glass-walled atelier-cum-gallery that looks like a Buddhist temple and quietly sits between Honmyoin Temple’s cemetery and a beautiful huge Himalayan cedar.

Here you will find American artist Allan West usually working on a new painting or taking a break to chat with his neighbors. “This is one of the things that I love about Yanaka,” West says. “Compared to other Tokyo districts, there is a greater sense of community. Maybe it’s because many people who live here have their business in this area, so there are more chances to meet and talk during the day. The guy who makes my tatami mats, for instance, has a child who is in the same class with my son.”

The 50-year-old artist has been a resident of Yanaka for the last 17 years, but his love for painting first brought him to Japan in 1982. “I have been drawing for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I began with pencils at the age of 4 or 5, and moved on to oil painting when I was 9.” By that time he had already decided that he wanted to turn his passion into a career. His first paid job came when he was 14, painting stage backdrops for a drama company.

“I found it increasingly frustrating to work with oil paints, as I couldn’t control the medium as much as I wanted, like varying the thickness of my lines. So when I was in high school I started experimenting with materials.” One of the things that gave West particular satisfaction was using rabbit skin glue mixed with pigments. “Then one day, someone mentioned that he thought that the Japanese had been using a lot of these materials,” he says. “So I decided to come here, even though I hadn’t been particularly interested in this country’s art or culture.”

Coming to Japan — first as a volunteer missionary in Shikoku — was also a way to distance himself from the kind of artistic environment he had found at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Fine Arts. “I’ve never been attracted to modernism, or conceptual art for that matter. I wanted to concentrate on a more traditional approach. For me the actual act of painting, and expressing my love for nature, were more important than any cerebral disquisitions. For me art must be experienced viscerally.”

After going back to the United States to graduate, West moved to Japan in 1987 and two years later entered Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, initially as a fellow researcher and then as a graduate student. It was there that under Matazo Kayama’s tutorship he embraced nihonga (traditional Japanese painting), following the Kano and Rinpa schools while developing a personal style.

Even now different viewers pick up different things in West’s works. “The Japanese immediately notice the American qualities of my style, starting with my choice of colors. As for me, I neither want to follow nor reject any tradition. The gallery system is based on categorization, and I can understand that, but for me, labeling works according to strict divisions of style is not really important.”

West often paints large-scale works (Evermere Cosmetics Co. in Kasukabe, Saitama Prefecture, for instance, houses a 1.5-meter by 11.5-meter canvas), but he says size is not really important, and that one can achieve the same effect even with smaller hanging scrolls and especially with byobu (folding screens), a medium that through its three-dimensionality helps him draw people into his paintings.

“Before that, I experimented with layered canvas, cutting through one surface to reveal another one behind, but I realized that people were more interested in the gimmicky side of those works, which was completely the opposite of what I wanted to achieve. Folding screens and hanging scrolls, on the contrary, manage to subtly pull the viewer’s eye toward the center of the work, and inside the natural scene I’ve depicted. Ideally, one’s eye goes beyond the surface, while the works appear to change as the angle of the viewer and the light change.”

Nature, indeed, remains the focus of West’s art. “Human beings are very solipsistic creatures. As a consequence, Western art revolves around the person. Japanese culture, on the other side, reveres mountains and streams as gods, and people are only a small part of nature. That’s why traditional Asian landscapes are painted so that one can imagine oneself inside.”

The natural character of West’s art goes beyond the subject and includes the choice of materials that brought him to Japan in the first place. “Paper, brushes, pigments, glues, gold, silver and copper leaf . . . these are all natural materials. I prefer them because of their inherently natural origins and because of their fluid responsiveness to my brush. Pigments are made from natural minerals, some quite precious, like lapis lazuli, malachite, azurite, agates, jaspers and crystals, to name a few.

“The paintings are made on handmade pH-balanced mulberry washi paper, and mounted with Nishijin silk brocade. I cut my own bamboo tools to use with gold and silver leaf. The pillow I cut the metallic leaf on is made from deer skin. The brushes are made to order using the hair from a variety of Chinese mountain-dwelling horses and sheep hair. The cups I use to mix the pigment with the glue are all shells,” he says.

“Also, when I paint I need to be aware of the wind, the temperature and humidity. And the weather of course affects the materials when I prepare them. The same consistency in the paint I prepare in summer will not work in autumn. The art of painting nihonga requires that I am always aware of nature. For me this necessity of being at one with nature is a joy.”

Working in this style certainly is a very time-consuming process and involves taking care of each and every minute detail. “It actually starts with choosing the materials,” he says. “It is true that I don’t make the paper on which I paint, but choosing the right type for each project is very important. The same thing is true for the paint. Nihonga painters use powdered rock and other pigments to produce countless colors according to the mineral types and grain sizes, and I have to check the way the maker grinds them, as each one has a very different style.”

The pigments West uses — and for which he came all the way from America 30 years ago — are increasingly difficult to find. “Now they can only be found in nine places in Japan,” he says. “Four of them are in Yanaka.”

The area has a long cultural tradition. The Yayoi Period (around 300 B.C. to around A.D. 300), in which new pottery styles first appeared, as well as techniques in metallurgy based on the use of bronze and iron, actually takes its name from a neighborhood that is very close to Yanaka. “There used to be a large community of artists and craftsmen who worked for both the shogun and the many temples in this area,” he says. “Only a few of us remain now, but the paint sellers are still here. One of them, for instance, currently stocks 1,600 colors.”

As West takes a walk around his neighborhood at the end of the interview, he pulls out a yatate (a portable brush-and-ink set) and starts sketching trees and temples in his notebook, often stopping to greet passing people. “People in Yanaka still have a strong relationship with the area,” he says. “I like it here because we respect nature, and we respect people. This is, in many respects, a very unique place.”

For more about Allan West and his works, visit www.allanwest.jp (in Japanese and English). West is showing 20 of his hanging scrolls at his atelier through Nov. 4. He will host an evening of kabuki dance and flute music at his studio on Nov. 2 (Reservations: info@allanwest.jp).