Do you have a budding artist at home, but are unsure how to encourage them? World-renowned artist Makoto Fujimura learned the beautiful Japanese-style painting called nihonga, and he now practices that form with a contemporary approach. Join host Mike Farris as he talks with the artist today, on Home School Heartbeat.
Mike Farris: Our guest today is Makoto Fujimura, who’s an internationally renowned contemporary artist, author, and founder of the International Arts Movement. Makoto, welcome to the program.
Makoto Fujimura: Thank you! It’s great to be here.
Mike: Would you please share with us how you decided to become an artist?
Makoto: I was an artist before I knew I was an artist, but it wasn’t until college that I was really feeling called to the arts. Even though I didn’t know who was calling me to do that.
Mike: Makoto, it sounds like you have eventually learned who was calling you. Tell us about that.
Makoto: It was after college. My wife and I got married, and we ended up going back to my roots. As far as my culture, I was born in Boston but brought up biculturally between Japan and the U.S. And we were back in Japan to study this very prestigious lineage program in the art form of nihonga, which is Japanese-style painting.
And it was at that time that I had the time and my own search had gotten to the point where I really needed to find a paradigm that allowed me to explore beauty. And so I found myself creating beauty, and I had trouble justifying it in my own heart.
And that’s when I began my search for a paradigm that integrated beauty into who I was and even dealt with my brokenness. And so it was around that time that I became a Christian.
Mike: History tells us that the role of the church in promoting art, both visual and musical, has been much greater in the past. How do you think the church and the arts intersect today?
Makoto: Today it’s very much disjointed. The church has become very much program-based and utilitarian-based. So artists who tend to dwell on the non-utilitarian realm of souls, we often don’t fit. So we may be even leaders or pastors involved in a congregation. But culturally we feel exiled from the context we worship in.
And that’s an unfortunate thing, because God is an artist. And we have this rich history of patronage from the church which gave birth to many great—not only great artworks, but I would say great civilizations—that give thriving to the whole person and the whole community regardless of your faith background. So I think today there’s a huge fragmentation.
Mike: Makoto, you started something that you called the International Arts Movement. Can you share with us what this is and how it addresses the need for interaction between the church and good art?
Makoto: Yes. International Arts Movement began as my career grew and I realized that I was isolated from both the church and the art world. In the church, I am an artist, and people find that hard to grasp. And in the art world, I’m a Christian, and that is hard to grasp for many artists. So I found myself doubly exiled, as it were. And I began this organization. There were other organizations like Christians in Visual Arts and other organizations at the time that really helped to bridge this gap.
So what I began to do was to look for people who were very successful at the highest levels of different types of arts. So that means music, that means dance, that means writing. And eventually we invited entrepreneurs whose business practices were creative. And so we began to have those conversations about culture, and how to bridge that gap between the church and the art world.
Mike: Makoto, you have a project that arose from your reaction to the World Trade Center disaster. Can you tell us about that?
Makoto: Sure. My family—I have three children, young children at the time, living about three blocks away from the towers. My studio is about ten blocks away. And I knew many artists in the area. Of course we were very traumatized and devastated. We were barely able to get back home after 2 months, and the ensuing reconstruction of downtown was right in front of us. (We were Ground Zero residents.)
And so I began to think about how art can play any role in this. We felt very powerless and unable to contribute much of anything. But in that fog, I decided to just simply gather local artists and have a place, a safe place, to talk about what we experienced. And that became the TriBeCa Temporary project, which ran for about 6 months. It was an International Arts Movement project, supported by actually many churches, although many of the artists involved were not Christians. And people could simply be themselves, express their fears and concerns.
And yet, because we were artists and musicians and writers, we began to collaborate. Many of the examples that you see online at TriBeCaTemporary.com is very much from that time. And you’ll see examples of artists collaborating, happenings, and so forth.
Mike: Makoto, in a recent commencement speech, you stated that “death spreads over all our lives,” but that “beauty is a harbinger of hope.” As we look at the results of sin in the world around us, how can artists remind us to hope in Christ for the future?
Makoto: Yeah, artists have a great role in helping the culture lament and look toward the future. What we tend to do in this American culture in particular is that we basically move on, without really deeply dealing with issues that we struggle with. So we end up with a kind of superficial culture in which many people out there are wounded and hurt from past experiences and traumas. But we don’t have a place to go to talk about that. And so art becomes a way to mediate that experience.
So if you’re listening to a radio and hear this song, and then this song speaks about your experience but at a deeper level, you resonate with that song. The same way with art, or theater, or poetry. So artists have a responsibility to care for culture, and to produce things that are true and authentic that can help people to see through the darkness. And oftentimes we find that when we do that, because of how God made the world, we end up in a place of hope rather than despair—in a place where you can start to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
Mike: Makoto, you’re a prolific artist, but I’d like you to focus on your project called The Four Holy Gospels. Can you share with us how you approach the commission to illuminate Scripture?
Makoto: Crossway Publishing, who publishes the ESV (English Standard Version) of the Bible, approached me about four years ago to consider being a commissioned artist to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.
And when they approached me at first, I was astounded to find out that no single artists has been asked to do this—to illumine the four holy Gospels—in 400 years. And I couldn’t believe that! So I did my own research. But it is true. The fragmentation between the church and the arts, particularly the visual arts, has been so profound that there hasn’t been an effort like this in a long, long time.
So I began from scratch. I look at all the medieval manuscripts, way before the Renaissance, right up to the Renaissance time, up to contemporary times—so William Blake, and Mary Mosier, and St. John’s Project (which is in Minneapolis; it’s a collaborative project).
So I had to somehow synthesize that into the language of today, contemporary language, visual language—and then illumine the Gospels, which was a profound honor. I learned a lot from that time.
Mike: Where do people see the work?
Makoto: You can certainly go to Crossway’s website or my website. There’s a video on my website on many of the major projects that I’ve done recently. Golden C was my current show in New York City, as well as the Four Holy Gospels project. And the book is available as well.
Mike: For the budding artist, fear of failure may prevent them from developing their talent. What advice do you have for a young artist and their parents as they consider whether to pursue a career in art?
Makoto: First of all, a lot of us begin as artists. If you ask a kindergarten class, “How many of you are artists?” most hands will go up. And something happens in 3rd grade, I’m convinced—somebody tells you, “You’re not.” And what happens is that those who are called to be an artist, they get into this specialized track, and they lose sight of the whole.
And so what I encourage young, budding artists to do is to experience life, to read a lot, travel, and find their voice in the very traditions that they are raised in. Oftentimes we take those things for granted. We are like the storytellers at the campfires, sitting around and talking about the tribal history and the glories that we once possessed, or the vision for the future.
And that’s the role of an artist. Whether you’re a musician or a theater person, we have a profoundly important role to play for our own communities. So don’t lose touch with your own community! Spend a lot of time studying its history. And it basically comes down to your love: love for people, your neighbors, love for God, Who made us creative, Who is an artist Himself.
And I always encourage young ones to explore, and take a lot of different classes—not just in art, because art itself is changing and it is multi-faceted. And with the technology that we have, it’s going to require a lot of synthesis.
Mike: Makoto, thank you so much for giving this inspiring work, and I fully agree with you: God is the greatest artist of all. I’m Mike Farris.