Kazu Saito, who pursues beauty and freedom through Nihonga (Japanese painting), was born in 1960 in Kyotango City, Kyoto Prefecture. His beautiful and elegant works are so fascinating that they can even make you forget the passage of time. He was drawn into that world and majored in Nihonga at “Kyoto Prefectural Private Art University”. After graduating, he won the Shinwa Art Exhibition Gold Award and the Kyoto Arts and Crafts Exhibition Grand Prize, and has been attracting attention far and wide. We asked Saito, currently based in Kyoto, about his thoughts on Nihonga.
Captivated by Japanese painting
Saito starts by telling us how he enjoyed drawing shapes, and spent time in the garden or schoolyard drawing with sticks. It was during his third year of high school (year 10) when Nihonga first stole Saito's heart. A portrait that Saito drew of a teacher caught the eye of another teacher from an art prep school which he ended up joining. “It was the first time I met a ‘Nihonga artist’, and instantly I became captivated by Nihonga and Japanese paints.” says Saito, vividly recalling how he could feel his very soul stir.
Despite having never thought about pursuing art, and not knowing the first thing about Nihonga, for Saito, the world of art called to him. “Seeing Nihonga and Japanese paints come to life showed me a world that I had never seen in art textbooks. I was fascinated by the freedom of the unbound expression and its profound depth.” Saito says that he became inseparable from Nihonga.
I was instantly drawn into the world of Japanese painting
A fountain of inspiration: Nature and the ordinary
“Since I was little, I’ve kept in my pocket all the times I’ve thought ‘I want to draw that’.” Saito's “pocket” seems to be full of inspiration from his childhood. “There are many things that I haven't realised yet, and so my pocket is overflowing with inspiration." he says, loosening up.
Saito, who lives in Kyoto, says the mixture of deep-rooted craftsmanship in the area, combined with being right next to such exquisite nature makes him feel like he is always walking in a “mysterious world”. “I think where you can go back and forth between both worlds is the perfect environment for drawing pictures. I see people drawing while I'm walking and even those people blend into everyday life and seem to fit in somehow.”
Saito's warm and gentle works seem to be born every day out of ordinary things around us, as well as out of the emotions that we feel when surrounded by nature.
All the inspiration he gets from nature is exciting to Saito. “Sometimes I get so excited and I can't contain myself. It is difficult to put those impressions and emotions into words...” But part of the charm of Nihonga is that he can express such emotions as he wishes, and it goes without saying that Saito finds excitement in that.
However, in the last few decades, he has felt a shift in himself, as it is less common for him to take the raw excitement that he felt from nature and “sketch as is”. “Rather than drawing it as it is, I often try to portray the ‘feeling’ of the moment when I interact with nature.” Saito says that the freedom to embody the beauty and space that you feel without being bound by expression is another great thing about Nihonga.
Adding the essence of indescribable beauty to Nihonga
What Saito wants is for the audience of his artwork to experience the same emotions he felt. The Nihonga pieces drawn by Saito make you slowly feel the power, fragility, and fragrance of life... The indescribable beauty that is found in everyday life, yet somehow feels extraordinary, gently envelops people's hearts.
The feelings of “peace”, “healing”, and “sense of security” that are created through Saito's work are just some of the emotions that Saito continues to tackle. “This way I can connect with those who see my work.” says Saito.
“Now, I feel that the things that come to me naturally are comforting to others.” He added.
Thoughts floating away on a dandelion puff
“I made and donated art collections to elementary, junior high, and high schools in Kyoto, where people lived in lockdown due to the Coronavirus. Like the dandelion fluff that floats into the distance, I started to feel the desire to spread the word of Nihonga to everyone.”
Through the Tanpopo Project, Saito's work not only provides healing and relaxation to the hearts of many more people, but it is also a valuable opportunity for young people to encounter Nihonga.
In addition, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Saito's work can also be found on a sake label from a high school sake brewing, adding a gentle flare to the sake label. “I think it would be great to have Nihonga in everyday life. It's nice to be able to hold art in your hands.” Saito wants Nihonga to become more familiar, beyond conventional framing... As a big step towards this vision, he told us that he has something in the works. What could it be?
I’m making a promotional image for the game called ‘Overbook Trade’ by a Swedish company “Longhand Electric”. It will be launched in spring 2023. The unique combination of a game and Nihonga is quite a surprise. Regarding this, Saito said, “I am very happy to see Nihonga included in cutting-edge European technology, and I am happy that I can take a leap forward that will lead to the future.”
“I love the word ‘Nihonga’. I always make a conscious effort to use traditional words such as ‘Washi’ (Japanese paper), ‘Fude’ (brush), and ‘Iwa-enogu’ (mineral paint) when I talk to people from overseas during my solo exhibitions.” Saito wants people to learn about Japanese traditional crafts through himself and his works, and to preserve this wonderful tradition. Each of Saito's efforts will spread gently yet powerfully, and take root, just like the dandelion.
Saito says that he is still in the process of searching for ways to express what he holds in his pocket - those “I want to draw that” thoughts - so that they can be shared with the world. “If I can uncover that, I can go even further.” Even with just the movement of the wind, there is a wide variety of forms of expression. Through his relationships with nature and people, Saito's journey of Japanese painting continues forwards.