Kenichi Takanaka was only nineteen years old when one of his oil paintings was selected for the Nikikai art group’s prestigious Nikiten exhibition. His dishware and paintings grace the interiors of some of Japan’s finest traditional restaurants. Takanaka currently resides in the peaceful mountain town of Otaki-cho in Chiba Prefecture. Here, surrounded by nature, he enjoys taking care of his cats, dogs, and poultry. He lives with his family in a home heated by a wood-burning stove he built with his own hands. It is in this rural idyll that Takanaka also weaves his creative magic. He is a prolific artist whose works are characterised by classic East Asian colour palettes. He intensifies these traditional colours, painting in a strong, bold style that is entirely his own. His works possess an irresistibly charm. We spoke to Takanaka about his art.
Bonds Forged Through Art
My first encounters with real art came through my high school art teacher. He was an oil painter and a member of the Nikikai art group. I’d always liked painting, and I started oil painting under his guidance. However, at the time I felt like I was just imitating Western artworks. I’ve always had a strong sense of my Japanese identity, and so it was from that time that I began to take a serious interest in Japanese paintings too.
I met my wife in my third year of high school. We often visited Kyoto, where I learned a great deal about traditional Japanese painting techniques and the origins of Japanese art. I was inspired to express works like the “Records of Ancient Matters and Kunio Yanagita's view of the world” through oil painting.
When I was twenty-three, I met with the owner of a shop in Shirokane, Minato Ward, who dealt in antique folk art. I was lucky enough to receive a large amount of fine quality washi paper from him that had been found in an old storehouse in Niigata, wrapped up in bamboo sheaths. He urged me to try painting on it, even if only for fun. That led to my first forays into ink wash painting.
A Style Shaped by Lessons from Rihaku
There used to be a café in Jinbōchō called Rihaku. It was filled with Joseon dynasty ceramics and paintings of rural life. The owner had a wonderful sense for interior design; it made a huge impression on me the first time I visited. I actually first visited the café when I was twenty, but I didn’t have the courage to speak to the owner. It wasn’t until I was twenty-three that I decided to show him my paintings. He was delighted, and I was able to learn a lot from him after that.
Rather than skills and techniques, what I learned from the owner of Rihaku was about the artistic spirit. I began creating ceramics at age twenty-nine. I would bring what I’d made to Rihaku, and the owner would place my pieces beside his collection of 500-year-old Joseon tea bowls. The difference in quality was painfully obvious. However, it was a good learning experience, and it got me thinking about the old Joseon kingdom. I decided to try taking some lessons from the way of life in that Confucian society. When I was thirty, I moved into a house up in the mountains and built a traditional azumaya arbour. Every day, I went there to read classical Chinese poetry and literature aloud, and followed this with zazen meditation. Through these practices, I formed the foundation of my creative style. I realised the importance of taking joy in the creative process. That’s not to say it should be easy; there are always difficulties and disappointments along the road. Even so, I felt that I’d created a world for myself that was true, honest, and free from artifice. That’s the essence of my style.
New Directions Inspired by Life Close to Nature
I didn’t notice it so much in the beginning, but living in the mountains has had a significant impact on my work. I live here with my wife, my children, and lots of animals. Ever since we started living here, I’ve felt compelled to express this simple, rustic lifestyle in my art. Zen Buddhism has taught me how to treasure everyday things. When I tried expressing that philosophy through art, I discovered something wonderful. I realised that there was a purity and authenticity in all the ordinary things that filled my days, and that they were worthy subjects for art. I found that very freeing, and it added a lot of enjoyment to my work.
Daily Sparks of Inspiration
I’m inspired by all aspects of my daily life, not just by the time I spend in the mountains. There’s an admonition in Zen Buddhism that reminds followers that they do not lack anything—that they should find peace in their lives and not feel the need to seek for more. Those words resonated with me strongly. I could snip out any little piece of my day-to-day life and be inspired to create a work of art from it. On a trip to Tokyo, for example, I might catch a glimpse of Tokyo Tower and find it very beautiful. I’d try to incorporate it into my next work. I can draw inspiration from absolutely anywhere, not just the natural scenery of the mountains.
That said, there are times when the ideas won’t flow. Sometimes I have an idea in my head that I struggle to express the way I want to. At those times, I don’t try to force something out. You should never do that. It can also be very difficult when you have a work that’s almost complete, and just needs a few finishing touches. There’s always the fear that you might completely ruin the work, but you need to have the courage to do what’s necessary. That’s how life is as well. Leaps of faith can be frightening, but we mustn’t shy away from them. Mustering the courage to take risks now and then and change our lives is how we grow and mature as people.
Creating Art in the Depths of the Mountains
My life in the mountains sometimes provides me with materials as well as ideas for my work. When creating ceramics, for example, I coat the surfaces with glazes. One of the raw materials needed to create these glazes is ash—ash produced from burning wood. In my house, we use a large amount of firewood for cooking, and I use the resulting ash to make my glazes. I enjoy the sense of my mountain lifestyle merging into my artworks.
Gracing the Famous Restaurants of Kagurazaka—Ishikawa and Kohaku
I’ve been acquainted with Mr Ishikawa ever since he opened his first restaurant. He visited a solo exhibition of mine about a year before the opening. The following year, he purchased hanging scrolls and a variety of other artworks from me to decorate the interior of his restaurant, Ishikawa.
Before the opening of Kohaku, he commissioned me to create a large number of works for the restaurant, including ten hunting scenes, the restaurant’s sign, and a hanging scroll depicting a tiger. I was barely accepting any orders at the time, but when Mr Ishikawa approached me with this commission, I was so excited that I just had to take it. I used this opportunity to develop several new works based on those Mr Ishikawa had previously bought from my solo exhibition.
I just happened to be in the process of creating a stone guardian when the request to create one for the entrance of Kohaku came in. I thought a guardian in the shape of a white tiger would be very appropriate, so that’s the design I settled on (the characters used to write Kohaku spell “white tiger” when reversed).
I’m extremely grateful to Mr Ishikawa for allowing me my creative freedom and displaying my works in his restaurants. It’s wonderful to hear how well they’ve been received by the customers.
Looking to the Future
I’ve been creating lots of oil paintings of monsters lately. It’s great fun. I used to draw them all the time when I was child, not caring what other people thought. It’s very gratifying seeing my monsters as I go about my daily life; I’m even putting them on ceramics. I’ve amassed quite a collection of these monster works now, and I’m preparing to self-publish them in a book. The title will be Takanaka Kaijū Zukan (“The Takanaka Illustrated Book of Monsters”). It’ll be filled with works that I’ve had a huge amount of fun creating; I’m hoping to share that enjoyment with as many people as possible.