Art Talk with Makoto Fujimura

By Cate Alspaugh
a Japanese-American man with medium length salt and pepper hair and glasses
Makoto Fujimura. Photo by Andrew H. Kim
For Makoto Fujimura, creating is not a choice—he believes it is what he is on earth to do. To participate in national conversations about the arts and culture, he must first be connected to his well of creativity and his artistic practice of painting. Fujimura’s art practice blends abstract expressionism and Nihonga—a style of Japanese painting dating back to medieval Japan. While Fujimura has achieved success as a painter, he is also steadfastly committed to promoting the arts as a catalyst for “culture care,” which he describes as a way “to see culture as an ecosystem.” Fujimura served as a member of the National Council on the Arts from 2003- 2009. He is also the founder of the International Arts Movement, and the current director of Fuller Theological Seminary’s Brehm Center. To find out more about his journey, we talked with him about art’s generativity, the relationship between his religious faith and his art practice, and why he thinks art is a mystery. NEA: What was your journey to becoming a professional artist? MAKOTO FUJIMURA: Growing up I always knew that I was an artist, but I didn’t know what that meant. I felt every time I was creating something that there was something coming through me that was not mine. It was a gift of some kind. I didn’t understand it really. I thought it was standard and that everyone had this experience until I went to middle school and found out that’s a pretty, pretty unique thing. I think it was in college that I realized that [artmaking] was a part of me that was very important and unique, and I had the responsibility to cultivate that in some way. That’s when I really thought about trying to make it as an artist full time. I didn’t know what that meant; I didn’t know if that was possible. People told me not to do it. My parents were very encouraging. My father is a research scientist, a very creative person, and my mother is an educator. So both of them really encourage me to pursue anything, but particularly in the arts they recognized that I had some talent. They tried to cultivate that so I’m grateful for that as well. NEA: When and how did you discover Nihonga and your connection with that form? FUJIMURA: I was an undergrad, and I painted these images, and my professors would ask me, “You seem to be very influenced by Japanese culture.” And I’m like, “Oh, that’s not even something I think about. But I recognize that I am.” So I went to the Boston Museum [of Fine Art] and I just felt that these works, these masterpieces from the 17th-century had a deep, deep impact. I began to look at some possibilities of going to Japan. The professors at Bucknell said, “You know, you should look into becoming a National Scholar.” The Japanese government gives out these stipends and opportunities to study in Japan for particular interests like 17th-century art. I applied, and I got the scholarship, and I was able to attend the best art school in Japan. They have this Lineage Program in Nihonga that is very hard to get into.  Because I was a foreign student I was able to spend a year and a half as a research student there, and, at the end of my time, they invited me to apply for their masters-level program, which was a real, real honor. I was also invited to be one of the few Lineage doctorate-level students, and no one outside the system—people who didn’t go to undergrad—were ever invited to this. It was quite an honor to do that so I ended up being there for six and a half years, and I learned from the best masters in Nihonga, and that became, obviously, part of my journey and part of my theme and my aesthetic. NEA: What is your mission statement as an artist and is that different than your mission statement as an administrator? FUJIMURA: For me, everything flows out of the studio, and if I’m not painting, painting I’m very much not effective. I can’t do anything. My flow of creativity comes out of my studio time. Even as a [National Council on the Arts] member, I kept on thinking if I am here as a council member, and I lose touch with what I do best—which is to be in the studio and create—and if I don’t in some way bring that to the decision-making [process], then I might as well not do it. There are plenty of people out there who can do managing and who can do that well. [What] I bring is that because I am in constant touch with the essence of creativity and because I am actually doing it, that intuitive knowledge of being an artist is far more important than any kind of experience I have. That’s where I can help be a leader in an organization, to constantly remind people that we’re here so that an artist in Idaho can stay in the studio for six months. We’re here so that the modern dancer doesn’t have to pay for her own rehearsals, and those tangible examples of why we are doing things are actually very important for management to help remind people…. I know that every artist is not able to lead this way, and they don’t need to. I think a few of us are called to stand in the gap and help build bridges and just make it possible so that artists can lead simply by being a dancer or simply by being an artist or a poet. That can be a legitimate way of re-shaping future knowledge and a future course of understanding the world. We are doing the work so they can be free to do that. NEA: One of the themes in your work is your religious faith. Can you please talk about the relationship between your religious faith and your art practice? FUJIMURA: I always like to talk about it in terms of art requiring faith. Every artist is painting or creating a building in faith. You’re creating a future that doesn’t exist. You’re painting a blank canvas. You’re writing on a blank page. Without faith it’s impossible to create anything. But obviously, I understood that there is this creator-God behind beauty…. When I talk about culture care, that’s the principle behind it. If we are fighting for limited resources or are in a zero-sum game environment, we have to become Darwinian, and we have to win at the expense of others. But I believe that the arts and imagination are in a realm where nature is not strictly a limited resources environment, that there is generativity embedded in creation. And when human beings exercise the imagination, and we act upon it with love, we create something into the world that is so expansive that typical bottom-line thinking can’t explain it. There are miracles happening all around us regardless of whether you’re a religious person or persuasion. That’s something that everyone can tap into, and that’s something that artists really can begin to dream about, a culture that brings renewal and generativity to the conversation rather than the typical culture wars stance which is very limiting and damaging. At the NEA, this is the work that everybody’s involved in, and you are doing the important work of culture care and diffusing the culture wars. Because you have to do that in Washington, especially as we look to the future. It’s so critical that you have a common ground place that people can share deeply human experiences with each other and accept that everybody may disagree on issues, but they can still come together. You can do a Shakespearian reading with senators from both sides, and they will come together because it’s Macbeth. Those experiences are really important because, when you think about it, the discourse of politics has been so tainted and poisoned by polarity and divisiveness that we don’t even know each other anymore. We just see the other as a caricature of disfigured ideology, and we shoot darts at each other. But the arts bring together even those people into the audience and create a common tongue that people can learn to speak. That’s why the NEA is so important. NEA: As you’ve touched on, your book Culture Care discusses art’s role in maintaining health for our culture. How do you define “culture care,” and what is art’s social role? FUJIMURA: What I suggest is to see culture as an ecosystem—a fantastic estuary, where salt water mixes with fresh water, the most diverse ecosystem in the world, and the most delicate. I see the NEA as a cultural estuary. You have all sorts of influences, even some conflicting elements, and when you study the estuary—like the Hudson or the Chesapeake Bay—it is very delicate. It has all of these components that are heterogeneous and complex relationships, but the more diversity, the more healthy the entire ecosystem is. That’s the model that we want to see the entire culture become in general. So, a catalytic agency like the NEA needs to be truly a preserved estuary where all these creatures can come, and they may not like each other, but they can coexist. And actually, not only coexist but be nurtured by each other and go upstream and spawn and give birth to beautiful things. It’s a simple metaphorical change, but it’s something I learned to do at the NEA…. Programs like NEA Big Read and programs that are really just wonderful examples of what can happen when you actually care for culture and steward that responsibility well. NEA: As you’ve said, you were a member on the National Council on the Arts, and now you are the Director of the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary. I know this took place over many years, but can you describe your transition from working mostly as a professional visual artist to becoming a national leader in the arts? FUJIMURA: The National Council thing came out of left field. I had no desire to be involved in Washington at all. After 9/11, I did some projects downtown because I was a Ground Zero resident, and I had my studio in the Red Zone. Somebody took note of that, and I guess talked to somebody interviewing for the position for NEA chair, which was left vacant after Michael Hammond passed away. I knew that Dana [Gioia] was being interviewed so I kept on telling them, “Hire him. He’s a poet with an MBA. It doesn’t get any better than that.” I ended up being interviewed for the Chair position, and I didn’t want to do it, and I kept on telling them that. They said, finally, “Would you like to be a council member? Just a volunteer position.” I said, “I think I could do that.” I’m pretty good at helping with vision and setting strategy. The same thing happened with the Brehm Center. I had no desire to be in a seminary context. I am a believer, and I do write on theology, but I love being an artist. I have a studio. I’ve made it; I don’t need to teach. They made it very hard for me [to say no]. They provided a studio, and the position actually is to just simply be an artist within the context of seminary education. Now they know that the way I am, I’m always creating non-profits, helping start-ups, and mentoring a lot of people in the process of making art and involving the community. So they know that about me, and even though I’m splitting my time between Pasadena and Princeton, even in a short time, we were able to accomplish a lot there this year. I’m excited about what we can do to start integrating what is now divided between theological formation and spiritual formation and cultural formation. It’s a very unique opportunity to help younger people. NEA: Finish this sentence. Art is… FUJIMURA: I would say art is mystery, and I don’t mean that art is just something that we can’t understand. I mean that in the deepest, even historic, use of that term, which is that the essence of humanity is the deep mystery that flows out of us. I ask people this all the time: what is the most important memory that you have about your life? People talk about, “That time I was talking to my daughter at the beach, and she said that thing that I can’t forget.” These things that happen when you’re doing one thing, and all of a sudden music comes on, and it evokes something that you never thought you would feel. Those things are not marketable. They’re not something you can capture and sell or reduce into words. Most people have trouble talking about those experiences, and that’s what I mean by mystery of life. That’s what the arts taps into and invoke in a person. You could be an audience sitting in a theater or listening to music, and something happens inside of us that opens up our hearts to see that there’s something more. There’s longing for deeper connection. When that’s happening, you’re tapping into that mystery of life.