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Art exhibition surpasses language and tradition
As a young aspiring artist in Japan, Keiko Hara was told she didn’t stand a chance in a world dominated by men.
Times certainly have changed.
This month, Hara is featured as part of the Bainbridge Arts & Crafts’ special exhibition celebrating Japanese-American artists in honor of the Civil Liberties Act’s 25th anniversary.
“My need to develop as an artist took me from my home in Japan to the U.S.,” Hara said. “I had to separate myself from the traditional and the familiar surroundings of Japan in order for me to grow as an artist.”
Hara traveled to the U.S. 42 years ago in pursuit of her art.
In Japan in the 1960s, Hara faced a traditional society who believed in her work but would not accept her as a female artist.
In fact, one of her Japanese art professors told her she would never make it as an artist.
“This man was really supportive of me and really liked my work, but the same man told me that I had no chance to be an artist,” Hara said.
He told her she was a beautiful girl and any man would be happy to support her.
Japan has changed since she was there, but at that time, marriage was the common life for women.
“I just didn’t accept that at all,” Hara said.
In an effort to do something without giving it up, she began teaching at a school for students with disabilities. She taught art therapy for five years there and started to think of it as a career.
It was a combination of her desire to develop her own art form and to work in art therapy that stirred ideas of traveling to the U.S.
Therapy was a way of taking her studies and turning it into a useful trade that could not be denied by her femininity.
At the same time, making art was her underlying inspiration. Art had defined her since she was a child chalking on her neighborhood sidewalk with scavenged rocks.
“I did want to establish my own style and my own language,” Hara said. “I wanted to be in a place that I could really decide what kind of artist I wanted to become.”
So she quit her teachings and decided to come to the U.S. to research art therapy.
After 10 months studying therapy in California, the time came for her to go home and open a facility in Japan. But she couldn’t leave.
She realized that to follow therapy as a career in Japan meant she would have to fundraise, educate the public and go through the process of opening and running her own institution. She would have no time to focus on her art.
Yet, art was her reason for everything. It was what got her interested in therapy, and it was what essentially brought her to the U.S.
In making the decision to stay or to return home and devote her life to therapy, she remembered something one of her professors in Japan said before she left.
“He said, ‘I want you to remember one thing. Therapy is a very important thing, but therapy is something someone else can do. Your art is something only you can do,’” Hara said.
That professor was the first person to purchase her art when she was studying in Japan. He believed in her and so did several of her other instructors.
She took his advice.
As a promise to herself, she would not leave the U.S. without first developing her art.
She enrolled in the art program at Mississippi State University for Women. The same professor who told her she had no chance of being an artist in Japan offered to pay her entrance fee into the school.
She has gone on to become well-known in the art world, and today teaches art at Whitman College in Walla Walla.
Over the years her art has grown along with the artist.
In Japan, Hara was trained in painting realism.
Since then she has broken from this traditional track, and she has taken abstract and printmaking to a new level of color, mood, shape and stroke.
“I was walking in the rain one day; imagery, the sound, all kinds of things I felt inside me,” Hara explained.
“It was something I could not represent through the imagery of realism.”
At that instinctive moment, she hurried back to her home and painted her first abstraction.
In abstract, she said, she attempts to create an image that is more reality than realism.
“It’s a universal thing,” Hara said. “I wanted to really find the vocabulary so I could reach all kinds of different people.”
In her exhibition at Bainbridge Arts & Crafts, Hara displays more than 30 years of works from her partnered series “Topophilia” and “Verse.”
“‘Topophilia’ is the given title because it conveys a sense of the place inside each human being where an exceptional inner power exists,” Hara noted in her artist statement.
The moods that Hara creates in her prints fill the space between people and place.
Hara pulls on the idea of interconnectivity.
“It is our individual topophilia that connects us while at the same time cultural and political boundaries separate us,” her artist statement continues. “As an artist, I want to transform this topophilia into my artwork.”
In this interconnectivity, she goes beyond the surface of traditional language while at the same time, by incorporating Japanese calligraphy, she maintains the voice of the life she left behind.
Hara said she no longer considers herself Japanese, though she knows she can never be considered American.
“I identify with a middle ground that I created for myself,” Hara said.
Her art is the middle ground.