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Interview with Yuu Tsukinaga
An artist presenting the universal philosophy through her spiritual paintings

''Fujin & Raijin'' -The Deity of Wind and Thunder; © Yota Higaki

Yuu Tsukinaga, a Kyoto-based artist, calls herself a ''painter of Shinto & Buddhist art.'' From this title, some might imagine classical and austere Japanese paintings which depict Buddhist statues and Shinto figures in a calligraphic style. However, viewers will be instantly impressed by Yuu's paintings that are far different from such an image. Yuu discovered her life mission to be a painter at the age of only eleven. How has she achieved her goal and what vision of the future does she focus on through her spiritual paintings?

A path to be a painter
''When I first decided to become a painter, no one, including my own family, supported my dream. I was disappointed but never gave up. However, due to my family issues and other reasons, I deteriorated both physically and mentally around junior high school age and my condition became worse and worse. Finally, I wasn't able to get up from bed and doctors warned me that my life was at risk.''

''It was an extremely hard time in my life. Having a 'normal' life looked like a dream to me in those days. But even when I was at the depth of misery, painting was my sole hope. I started to draw Buddhist statues around this time. When I focused on drawing these statues, I felt as if I was meditating and talking to the Buddha.''

© Yota Higaki

This was the beginning of how Yuu's path unfolded and how she became a painter of Shinto & Buddhist art. The more she drew inspiration from Shinto or Buddhist motifs, the stronger her determination became to live as a painter.

''While I had no one who understood or supported me, I believed I would be content and happy if I could paint. I believe having a dream or a goal in life can bring enormous energy. Even if one is in the deep darkness of dismay, a dream can be a hope and a light in the darkness. Without my passion for painting, I couldn't have enjoyed my life at all like today.''

Yuu entered an art high school in Kyoto but found she wasn't happy there. She questioned the educational system at school and couldn't feel free. Before too long, she decided to quit the school and started to look for her own way to pursue her dream. One day, a turning point suddenly came to her.

''I was at my grandmother's house and there was a newspaper on the table. I flipped through the paper and there I discovered an ad that an art academy in Mexico was seeking students from Japan! I felt it was meant to be and called to inquire immediately. Only one week later, I was accepted by the academy to study there. Well, my family was worried a lot and strongly disagreed with the idea, but I couldn't step back. I was able to persuade my family and flew to the other side of the globe alone.''

''Two years in Mexico was just wonderful. I was impressed every minute by Mexican culture. I was able to make deep friendships and started to feel a joy for life again there. This experience in Mexico totally changed my life and helped me to expand my life as a painter after I returned to Japan.''

''Tenchi Kaibyaku''-The Beginning of Heaven and Earth

Through experiences out of Japan
In general, typical Japanese Shinto and Buddhist paintings look simple and austere, but as Yuu's paintings depict, in fact there is really no limit as to how the piece can be painted and in which color it can be shown.

''Through my experience living overseas, I found that having a concept and philosophy while we develop our work is more concrete overseas than in Japan. Two years of staying in colorful Mexico and sharing with its freeminded cheerful people made me realize a simple fact: I can live as I like, and I can express as I wish. Up until today, I have been lucky enough to have chances to travel to other countries such as France and Spain and to create my works and show the pieces. Staying overseas always gives me an opportunity to realize that we have a sense that is unique to Japan as well as the way how we express it.''

''I have learned Iai-dou, Sa-dou (tea ceremony) and Ka-dou (flower arrangement). We have a variety of traditional 'dou' (a way of mastering a manner or technique) in Japan but no matter how many 'ways to master' we have and how different they are externally, I feel all 'ways' try to reach the single same point.''

Offering paintings to Shinto shrines
Curiously enough, Yuu had the chance to offer her paintings to two Shinto shrines in Nara (Niu Kawakami Shrine and Tomi Shrine) during the past few years. What is more, these incidents brought about even a greater experience in April this year. She was allowed to dedicate two large pieces of her paintings to Kashihara Jingu Shrine in Nara.

Yuu performing on the large calligraphy works writing ''Reiwa'' at the dedication ceremony at Kashihara Jingu Shrine in Nara © Kazuo Yamashita

''Since Kashihara Jingu Shrine is the special shrine where the mythical first emperor of Japan, Jinmu, is enshrined, I decided to use two imaginary birds as motifs for the special paintings. One is the Yatagarasu and the other is Kinshi, both of which are said to have led Emperor Jinmu to reach the land of Kashihara and establish his court.''

''What made this event even more exceptional was that I not only presented my paintings to the deity but also I performed the creation of a large calligraphy writing ''Reiwa (the name of the new era)'' in front of the deity together with other performers. It was such an extraordinary experience that I was able to offer my paintings to the deity at Kashihara Jingu Shrine. It gave me such a deep feeling of being assimilated into the sacred space.''

''It was also exceptional timing that Japan was welcoming in the new Reiwa era shortly after my event. Just one week before, the previous Emperor and Empress visited the shrine, too. I am thrilled that I could offer my paintings to such an important Shinto shrine, right in front of the sacred area where ordinary people are usually never allowed to enter.''

Her mission: to live as a painter of Shinto & Buddhist art
It sounds like Yuu is not solely a painter whose main motif features Shinto and Buddhism. What is behind her purpose of creation?

''To me, motifs inspired by the Shinto and Buddhism have no preordained form. When I create my work, I feel I transfer an image or a symbol that enters into my mind onto a canvas. Therefore, I really have no sense that I actually 'create' the work as an expression of my own will but I am just a medium with no sense of self who delivers the image or the message from somewhere. Curiously, I am not satisfied with my finished work when I try to create a work with my own strong and preconceived intention.''

''Although I call myself a 'painter of Shinto and Buddhist art,' I'm not intending to present any particular religious symbols and figures. What I feel through my art work is more primitive and fundamental, such as the sky, universe, my inner self and universal love which covers all existence in this world. A magnificent presence which is invisible but certainly exists around us all.''

''One expression I encountered in Mexico when I was 18 years old still strikes my heart today -More than a thousand of words, a single painting can change the world for the better. I have always wished to be a painter who can create art works like that. This is the driving force for me as an artist. Not violence or conflict, but harmony and peace can make us lead a happy life. Every day in my studio, I face m y canvas and focus on my works. I wish of telling of my hope through my paintings, across the entire world, transcending borders and countries.''

Yuu Tsukinaga Solo Exhibition
July 2-31 at SHU YU RAKU Sakatani
(10:00-18:00; Closed Mon.)
Some of Yuu's paintings featuring sacred dragons will be exhibited.