Iwate sculptors seek to shape cultural ties

by Victoria James

IWATE, Iwate Pref. — Iwate Prefecture is probably not the first place people would expect to stumble on artists of international renown.

Yet the spacious fields in the Ukishima district of the town of Iwate, with Mount Iwate providing a stunning backdrop, are both the home and inspiration of two outstanding sculptors: Hironori Katagiri and his Scottish wife, Kate Thomson.

The couple met in Europe, with Katagiri having worked for the Lindabrunn International Sculpture Symposium in Austria.

“He had just bought a ticket for his first trip home for eight years when he met me,” Thomson recalled.

Her work has also been exhibited widely, with Katagiri describing their exhausting early years as a time when the pair “lived out of suitcases, expending enormous amounts of energy to promote opportunities for artists on different sides of the globe.”

When the couple decided to settle down in order to devote more time to their own projects and to each other, Japan seemed a natural choice.

Katagiri, a native of Sendai, organized a sculpture symposium in Miyagi Prefecture in 1989 aimed at “interpreting what I had experienced in Europe at the same time as reintroducing myself to my home city.”

The main factors that drew the couple to Ukishima were the expertise of local stone supplier Hiroshi Kanezawa and the sheer beauty of the Iwate landscape.

In 1991, they established the Ukishima Sculpture Studio.

With artistic concerns taking priority over comfort, the couple’s first move was to build a workshop. They lived in a “shedlike metal prefab” building for seven years until the arrival of daughter Emily, now 8, and son, Sean, 5, necessitated a move to a house.

The grassy area around the studio, which is littered with huge off-cuts of stone, provides the children with a unique playground.

“Daddy’s making a sculpture,” Emily said, hearing the buzz of Katagiri’s stone-polisher. “Mummy did this,” Sean declared, proudly pointing at a granite block that has been cut clean in two.

One of Katagiri’s works stands at the entrance to Emily’s school, and both he and Thomson have other pieces at a municipal sports ground.

Indeed, one thing people do tend to notice about the town of Iwate is that there seems to be an unusual number of sculptures around the place.

This is because the town is home to the annual Iwate International Stone Carving Symposium. It also boasts the open-air Ishigami-no-Oka sculpture museum.

“Many people assume this was why we moved here,” Thomson remarked.

“But in fact, it could be a reason not to, as it was obvious that there were already so many sculptures in the area we would never get any local commissions!”

Yet a shortage of commissions has hardly been a problem for Thomson and Katagiri during their years in Iwate, and Thomson is full of praise for the widespread appreciation of the arts in Japan.

“Although there is no funding body to support individual artists, companies and public authorities hold art in high esteem, and consider it an important, even vital part of many developments to include artworks,” she said.

She and Katagiri have produced pieces for a diverse array of clients. These include the Xex restaurant complex in the Daikanyama district in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, and prefectural and municipal offices around Japan.

But the two have remained equally committed to international work, and in recent years have focused, in particular, on exchanges between their two native countries.

Having been given advance notice of the UK98 festival, a Japanwide celebration of British culture, Thomson began looking for an opportunity to introduce the work of several interesting artists in Scotland to the north of Japan.

This modest goal inspired the Iwate Art Festival, which occupied eight major museums and galleries, along with Koiwai Farm, a farm recognized around the country for its quality products. More than 250 works were on display by 85 artists, six of whom came to Japan for residencies.

The resulting benefits were more than just artistic ones.

“In the process of organizing a major festival of art from my own country,” Thomson explained, “I fell in love with Iwate, which is full of generous people who really work to realize shared dreams and good international relationships.”

During the reciprocal Japan 2001 festival, which began in the U.K. earlier this month, it is Katagiri’s turn to promote Japanese achievements in Britain.

He begins with a solo exhibition at Churchill College, Cambridge University, in June. He then moves north to be the artist in residence at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop in Aberdeenshire in July, and will hold a final exhibition at the Peacock Gallery in Aberdeen in August. Thomson will also be in Scotland, attending the Edinburgh Printmakers Workshop.

Three exhibitions featuring the couple’s work are scheduled to be held in Tokyo, Sendai and Iwate, while their commercially and publicly commissioned sculptures can be seen at locations across Japan.

One of Thomson’s recent pieces occupies the entrance to the main residence at the British Embassy. It is a fitting location, with Thomson and Katagiri having become international ambassadors for their countries and for sculpture itself.