For the cover of its catalog for this year’s 45th annual print show, the College Women’s Association of Japan chose a print with a musical theme. “Polonaise Fantasy” depicts miniature cyclists and runners racing over a fanciful keyboard against a back cloth of an even more fanciful musical score. “I often use musical motifs,” artist Toru Hirota said. “I love music but I don’t play any instruments. I don’t even read music. It’s pure longing. Sometimes I get inspired by the way notes are scattered on the score sheets. Sometimes I make up my own notes. For this print I used the actual score of the Chopin piece Polonaise Fantasy.”
An established, independent artist, Hirota will exhibit in this year’s CWAJ Print Show for the first time. He has two prints in the 249 selected from over 600 submitted. One of these two was singled out for the catalog cover honor. As a viewer he had gone to the show last year, and said: “I liked the atmosphere and the visitors. I thought those were the people I would like to have appreciate my works.”
Hirota was born and grew up in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture. “I still live there,” he said. “My atelier is near my parents’ home.” He attended the local Shonan High School “by a pure fluke. I immediately realized it was a mistake, as academically I was no match for my classmates. Many of them went on to the University of Tokyo. The school had a very active art club, so I began painting seriously there.” He felt that art was the only field in which he could hold his own.
Rebellious, he hated the basic lessons he had to take. He said: “Now I appreciate the high techniques and skills of other established artists. When I was younger I couldn’t care less. I even despised them.”
Still resisting formal drills, he entered the Tama Art University. “Fortunately for me, that was the time of student unrest, and hardly any regular classes were being held. I wasn’t interested in politics, so I cycled around Japan and climbed mountains. All I did in college was to find my wife. She was my classmate.”
When they married, Hirota’s wife gave up her own art, and became her husband’s critic. “She’s the one I show my work to at first. She doesn’t flatter, but doesn’t criticize severely either. Good balance, I think.”
It was 20 years ago, when they were looking around to buy a piano for their young daughter, that he was struck by the interesting forms made by notes written on scores. “Since then, some people recognize my work from my musical motifs,” he said.
After graduation, Hirota worked briefly as an assistant at Tama Art University. In the 1970s, he received a commission from Yamaha to paint in the Yaeyama Islands. He traveled and studied in Greece and Italy, and lived for two years in Paris, having his wife with him part of the time.
He held his first solo exhibition in Tokyo. Other solo exhibitions followed in the 1980s, and further commissions came his way. He produced a mural tapestry for the post office, and did some wall paintings for public facilities in Sendai and Nagano, and for a variety of private establishments. In the 1990s, he had nine major solo exhibitions.
Much of his huge mural works he achieves in oils, his original medium. “Once I painted a wall 9 meters above the ground,” he said. “I worked on the power lift used by electrical construction workers.”
When he was art teacher at a kindergarten, he used rubber plates to make birthday cards for the children. “Then I realized the possibilities.” He developed his own print-making method, which uses one large rubber plate that he engraves, colors, and with an etching press prints from.
He left his job at the kindergarten about 20 years ago, and has been a professional artist ever since. “It was difficult at first,” he said. “But meeting my customers’ needs helped my techniques and polished my skills.”
He also offers painting classes at his atelier, and teaches basic drawing at a center in Shinjuku. In teaching he is as nonconformist as he was as a student. “Most of my students are retired businessmen,” he said. “I enjoy talking with them and learn a lot from them, as I know nothing about business. I don’t force them in any particular direction. They enjoy their own art, with a little advice from me every now and then. Those who really want to learn prescribed techniques soon realize mine is not the right place for them, and leave.”