Multimedia artist finds community in Odawara nurtures her creativity

Canadian Kirsten Woest carves out room for collaboration and individual growth alike

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

Sunlight streams in through large windows that look out on a sweeping Pacific Ocean vista. Artworks stand waiting in various stages of creation, while mobiles twist and dance in the sea breeze. This space, known as Atelier Hayakawa, is where Canadian multimedia artist Kirsten Woest comes to dream, to teach and to create.

Located just a few kilometers from her home in the historic castle town of Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, Woest shares the studio with two other artists.

“I’d been outgrowing my space at home and was looking for something when a mutual friend introduced me to the two women, one of whom specializes in illustration and the other in glass and ceramics,” Woest says. “It is the perfect location and atmosphere, directly facing the ocean. I use the studio mainly for hand-dyeing and as a space to paint or make collages.”

Woest finds solace in her art. “As a foreign woman living in a traditional city, simple daily tasks can be challenging: filling out forms, reading labels, understanding neighborhood etiquette, or just being singled out for being different,” she confides.

“After years of trying to fit in to Japanese society, I understand now that I need to embrace the differences. For me, this space is important as I can share and create under my own terms. In my classes and events, I’m competent and confident. The atelier helps me to achieve balance in my life.”

Upon learning her family background, it comes as no surprise that Woest is an artist. “My father was a textile designer and painter, and my mother worked in interior design. As for my older sister, she’s a professional singer-songwriter.”

So much creative energy in one family meant life was never dull growing up. “When we were kids, our house was always the cool place to hang out. Walls were carpeted and mirror-tiled and semi-completed artwork was always piled about,” she recalls with a wry smile.

The daughter of German immigrants, Woest grew up trilingual and multicultural in Quebec and Ontario. As artists themselves, her parents strongly counseled their daughter to gain a universal education at college and ensure that she had employable skills. “That advice helped bring me to this place I am today.”

Drawing on her linguistic talents and love for adventure, she completed two degrees in languages and education at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, taking advantage of her studies to attend sister institutions in Germany and France.

After graduation, she sought a new challenge north of the Arctic Circle, taking a teaching position in one of the remotest spots on earth in the town of Inuvik in Canada’s Northwest Territories. “I worked with First Nations, Inuvialuit and a mishmash of students from everywhere else.”

Due to its location, the town experiences 24 hours of sunlight at the height of summer, followed by total darkness for weeks at a time in the middle of winter. “There was just one road into town and that’s where it ended. Life there was amazing and it altered my perspective on culture, education and politics.”

Woest was pleasantly surprised to find that the high school had very sophisticated art facilities. She was originally hired as a language teacher, but when the faculty learned about her artistic background she was asked to take on art classes, too. “Since art was always a huge part of my life, being able to teach it was extremely gratifying.”

Heading into her late 20s, she returned to university in Montreal for her own art studies. Craving a financial injection and a change of pace, Woest then headed to Japan in 1998 after being hired by a language institute in Odawara, teaching both Japanese students and training other teachers. There she met her husband, an Odawara native.

In between adjusting to Japanese life and moving next to her in-laws, Woest had two children and taught English privately. “As my husband is an only son, I knew from the outset that there would be pressure to stay close to his family.” To create a living space to meet everyone’s needs, they co-designed a thoroughly Canadian home that includes a cozy workshop space and a connected apartment for her husband’s parents.

“As an artist, I was always doing some creative project, for my own pleasure or with my children. Little by little, my language students started asking me to show them, too. A series of workshops just mushroomed from there. I was teaching activities from making soap and masks to dyeing pysanky eggs (using wax resist dye) and other traditional crafts. In the beginning, I offered any activity that the children or I were interested in, but now I have narrowed down my workshops at home to the most popular: hand-dyeing, scrapbooking, camera lessons and pysanky (ornately designed Ukrainian Easter eggs).

“My biggest weakness is also my biggest strength,” she says. “I easily jump from one thing to another. I love photography, dyeing, painting and tinkering with any resource available, and I rarely focus on one medium. I think the two main constants in my work life are teaching and creativity.”

Woest’s skills helped her find a role at the children’s kindergarten. “In those days, my Japanese skills were negligible and it was a struggle to fit in. But then I heard about the class photo albums, which are made by a committee of parents and presented to every student at the end of the year. That was a natural way for me to make a contribution. I not only took most of the photos, but also organized regular scrapbooking workshops for parents. As a result, my social circle widened and my Japanese ability also got a boost.”

Meanwhile, her artistic pursuits were slowly but steadily taking over the house. “Whenever we had guests over, there would be supplies to shove into corners and hand-dyed items soaking and hanging on the veranda and in the washrooms. It was colorful, but certainly not practical!” she says with a grin.

Although Woest continues to hold weekly workshops at her home, she realized the time had come to either restrain activities or broaden them. “And that’s when Atelier Hayakawa came along three years ago.”

She says that sharing with two other artists means learning to give and take, but since all three have a different area of interest, they all use the space in different ways. “It’s not like an open gallery, where visitors can come and go anytime. If any of us want to hold a workshop or exhibition, we discuss the schedule and work it out.”

Just like an artist’s creative energy, Woest notes that the activity level ebbs and flows. While each artist typically works alone, they also collaborate on joint events where all three women display their work. “We also make the studio available to other groups or individuals who need a creative space. We’ve had exhibitions, discussion groups, live painting events, private and open workshops, some video and photo shoots, and of course the occasional party.”

Once the space and social circle available to her expanded, Woest felt a renewed sense of purpose in Japan and began joining in local art fairs, markets and craft cooperatives. “I started to get to know other artists and crafters in the community — Odawara has many! There is a wonderful sense of camaraderie. By working together we all widen our audiences and support each other. Interaction with others regarding one’s work is an important part of growth.

“There are times where I can slip into feelings of isolation and stagnation with my limited language ability and cultural differences, but I remind myself to stay active by joining and organizing events in the community. Being involved is the best way to feel like a contributing member of Japanese society and it is important for me to know that, in some small way, I am making a difference.”

Not one to be content with the status quo, Woest is starting to branch out to other neighboring towns. She is a regular instructor at Ashigara Art Festival’s family-oriented workshop series in November. Many participants are surprised to find a foreign instructor in the lush Ashigara mountains. “Some participants can even be hesitant to join in, exclaiming that they don’t speak English.”

Lessons are in Japanese, and regardless of language, participants can easily learn the fun of dyeing without many words.

“I am sure that participants are learning a lot more than just dyeing. For many, it is their only experience spending time with a foreigner living in Japan. I think many leave the workshops with a deeper awareness of what life may be like for someone like me.”

According to Woest, one of the most rewarding aspects of working with other creative people is the chance to learn from each other. As a foreigner, she feels she brings a fresh and unique perspective, and also respects what others can offer. “For example, dyeing is extremely popular here, but the approach and techniques are quite different, as are color pairings and sensitivities. I never force my approach on participants, but I try to encourage people to be free in their ideas, avoiding a cookie-cutter approach.”

She continues to evolve and try out new activities and projects. She has just recently opened her shop on Etsy, an e-commerce site where each individual has their own shop and sells art, handmade or vintage items. Among her offerings are hand-dyed items, prints and postcards with her original photography.

She says she is looking forward to her next creative endeavors and is excited to reach new audiences in the future. “I lead a very busy and full life. Sometimes I wish I had more free time, but I realize that it is precisely the variety and the activity that make me happy. Although it is a constant challenge to keep my niche in Japanese society, I think I can only thrive when I am involved in the community.”

She pauses and then smiles. “And all this has helped my Japanese, too. So I guess that makes me trilingual . . . and a half!”

For more information on Kirsten Woest’s workshops and creations, visit www.kirwoest.smugmug.com .

  • Don

    Great article. Filled in many gaps and helped me better understand Kirsten’s wonderful creativity. Very interested in the next pysanky workshop!