Wednesday, February 24, 2016

LIFE. is not Short!

Life is not short.  It's actually quite long.

If you live in an advanced economy, you will probably live until you are anywhere between 75 and 85 years of age.  If you keep a healthy diet, stay active and maintain close and productive relationships with family and friends, you could probably live closer to 85 years of age.  Life is not short for most of us - it's just 15 to 20 years short of a century!  That's a long time...

I just celebrated my 48th birthday on the ski slopes of Hanazono Mountain in Niseko, Japan.  Why is this a big deal for me?  I hadn’t been skiing since a ski accident in Killington, Vermont left me with a torn ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) in my left knee – which required surgical repair about 10 to 12 years ago.  It was a bit intimidating to get back on the slopes after so many years!  Thankfully, I had a great instructor at the Niseko International Ski School (Mark) who patiently “re-taught” me how to ski with improved form and great tips.  A half-day lesson from an excellent teacher and my confidence was back!  I skiied for 3 1/2 days with my husband and boys (boys snowboard, hubby skis)  And now! I can’t wait to go skiing again and am determined to stay in shape so I can (hopefully) ski into my 70s!  OK – maybe that's ambitious - but if I shoot for 70 - maybe I can make it to 65?  

An inactive volcano in Niseko - simply beautiful
I am ready!  See the bells behind me on top of my head?
Tradition is skiers and snowboarders ring the bell for good luck
on the mountain.  My hubby rang it for me to have good luck (and injury-free).
 On my last day of skiing as I finished my last run - I rang it to celebrate being BACK!

My husband tree-line skiing in the powder.
A trail on Hanazono Mountain in Niseko, Japan. Snowing every
day meant FRESH powder every morning!

It felt so good to be back on a mountain – tons of snow every day – the cold, clean air, the only sounds coming from the gentle swishing of skis and snowboards, followed by the occasional “Woooo HOOOOO” as someone would attempt a jump or conquer a slope with pure JOY. (my favorite word in the English language - JOY)

A very sunny morning looking at the ski trails of
Hirafu Mountain
It was refreshing, meditative and having an “aha” moment of “I can ski for the next 15 to 20 years if I keep fit” turned into another “aha” moment of “OMG – Life is LONG!”…. This realization became artistically therapeutic on so many levels. 

I realized I have time… I spent 20 years in my first career and am grateful that I enjoyed it every day.  I can do the same as I start my artistic career... whatever that ends up looking like.  And – because life is long – I get to enjoy it and look forward to it for at least the couple decades! 

Where life does come up short, however; are the many experiences and adventures we have.  The short time I have left with our parents, or the short time I may have in learning something, experiencing a new culture, embarking on a new adventure is something to cherish and something to look forward to.  More importantly, I have to make the most of it and simultaneously - slow down to enjoy the moments so I can savor each one later.

My Oil/Drawing Instructor is a wonderful woman in her late 60s, she is inspirational to me because she is fit, active, and doing what she loves – painting and teaching.  I have been under her tutelage for the past 3 years and love it.  Living in Tokyo has allowed me the opportunity to study under her.  My time with learning the art of Sumi-E (Japanese brush painting) is even more urgent while I am here in Tokyo.  I can’t depend that upon my return to the US I will find such excellent instruction from such talented Sumi-E artists. (see previous blog post The Art of the Japanese Brush).  

And so, not exactly sure of the time I have left here in Tokyo – I am determined to make the most of the experience and learn as much as I can from my amazing Senseis (teachers), across photography, painting and drawing.  I also want to make sure I enjoy the friends I have made here before we all move on to our next assignments...

So, what is the moral of this blog post?  Life is longer than we think.  So, have a plan.  Take your time.  You don’t have to have it all – all at once.  But! You can have it all across your lifetime.  You can have children, and work, and volunteer, and go back to school, and have a second career, and try a new hobby.  One of my dear friends worked in Corporate Finance, stayed home to raise her children, went back to school and is now in her second career as a teacher.  I have two others who have also "re-started" their careers in new and different roles.  Maria Shriver  (John F. Kennedy's niece) said it best on American TV News Magazine, The Today Show, many years ago… and it went something like this… “I can have a career in my 20s, be a mother and wife in my 30s and be an author in my 40s…” (She wrote a book in her 40s and is still working in Journalism.)

In the meantime; we have to take the time to care for ourselves – physically and mentally – so that we can take full advantage of each adventure.  For me, that means staying fit and making sure I eat well. (i.e. some chocolate – and more veggies!)

I have always had a bucket list of things I wanted to accomplish in life – I have been fortunate to be presented with unexpected opportunities where I can accomplish things that seemed so out of reach when I was a teenager.  Who knew that traveling to Vietnam and Cambodia would be possible 35 years ago! And I never thought I would live in Japan. While I was on the slopes and experiencing that "endorphin high" and "aha moment" - I added re-starting piano lessons and maybe trying out some guitar whenever we make it back to the States... hell; maybe I'll even write music again! (I used to sing, play the piano, violin and write lyrics - but that's a whole other blog post at a different time). I also figured out the theme for my first exhibition... (crossing fingers!)

For now, thanks to an excellent ski instructor and my family for encouragement I can cross off an item on my bucket list!  Getting back on the slopes to ski!

Until my next post!

(With) PEACE.  (In) ART.  (To the) SOUL.


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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Takashi Murakami: The 500 Arhats - Vision, Motivation, Teamwork, Deliverance...

A Crossover...

In my "new life" as an artist; there are occasions when I am reminded of my "old life" in the corporate world.  (For those of you who don't know me, I spent 20 years in the US healthcare industry before moving to Japan.)  It was an unexpected pleasure to find a product of leadership and teamwork in the Art World that reminded me of successful outcomes in my former career; where I was fortunate to work with some really fantastic people and teams.

Taking advantage of a snow day where my son's soccer game was cancelled, I took the opportunity to visit an exhibit at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills that I have been curious about for weeks!

Takashi Murakami (b. 1962) is a contemporary artist and is especially known for his character-based artworks. Much of the art on display was a combination of anime and manga styles.  Personally, these are not my favorite styles of Art.  Still; they are definitely amazing works if you are a fan.

What I did find amazing and inspirational is one of his latest projects that was started in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011.  The 500 Arhats (2012) is a 3-meter high, 100-meter long painting of the 500 enlightened followers (arhats) of Buddha.  "The piece highlights the power of prayer that transcends religious differences in a dynamic vision of the intersection of finite life and the infinite nature and universe." - Mori Art Museum

This piece of artwork is almost overwhelming considering its sheer size.  But, that isn't what I found to be the most inspiring part.  This artwork is the product of a year-long project the artist led with hundreds of university art student graduates in a production studio in Saitama.  

Background: The Factory

In order to complete The 500 Arhats, Takashi Murakami employed a technique he has used previously. Inspired by American artists Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons; (Wait, Andy Warhol had a factory?! - I will have to research that one for a future blog!)  Takashi Murakami made the idea of a "studio-factory" a reality in the Japanese art world.  And what better place to do it?!  A culture which prides itself in the efficient repetition of process in the pursuit of perfection.
Murakami supplies the leadership, the vision, the strategy, blueprints and the "plan"; and his students execute it operationally.  (Yes, I am still talking about the art world - not automotive, not healthcare, not toys... ART!) And, he has been known to provide pencil drawings via e-mail, which allotted him the potential significance of "the first artist to paint by email" by the New York Times.
Takashi Murakami's production studio is run in the style of a Japanese small-town workshop; it is an expression of Murakami's own operating philosophy.  
The Japanese word for such workshops, Kojo, loosely translated means "factory" in English, which has earned comparisons to Ford's River Rouge Plant and a Toyota-style manufacturing operation. Still; the character of the place is that of a handcrafted small-town workshop.

A "small-town" workshop that has a total floor area of 9,000 square meters, 3 ordinary-looking warehouse buildings with 2 of them linked together so a 50-meter long section of the 500 Arhats painting could be accommodated.

This "world's largest painting workshop" operates around the clock, in shifts.

While not uncommon for Murakami to employ students as part of his factory; he didn't always employ art university graduates because he didn't want the challenge of dealing with "egos".  He felt that students of vocational schools were more receptive to instruction.  However; the undertaking of The 500 Arhats in such a short period of time required the assistance of people who had a mastery in specific artistic skills.  Hence; Murakami recruited from Japanese Art Universities employing a "Scout Caravan" style of recruitment. (Kind of like American Idol's talent search).

The Production

In learning about the production of The 500 Arhats, I am reminded of my corporate days.  Murakami employed good business practices (with an artist twist) to reach his vision. There were morning meetings, calisthenics exercises (warm up) at the beginning of each day.  Status reports were shared across assistants, manuals for painting and silk screening, "regulation of paint colors using color ships and the use of instructions called "maps" that show the partitions and segments for all silk screens in all sizes". And then trial and error...  Practice to perfection. The result? A system and methodology that would allow "the factory" to produce works within a shorter time span that were presented on a global stage.

In an attempt to illustrate the enormity of this project, I have literally taken photos of the Program I bought at the Mori Art Museum where they highlight and illustrate (very effectively) the process of production.  Thus; the following photos and captions are not mine - and I am sourcing them as such.

Source: Takashi Murakami The 500 Arhats Mori Art Muséum Program  copyrighted.

Source: Takashi Murakami The 500 Arhats Mori Art Muséum Program  copyrighted.

Source: Takashi Murakami The 500 Arhats Mori Art Muséum Program  copyrighted.

Source: Takashi Murakami The 500 Arhats Mori Art Muséum Program  copyrighted.
Source: Takashi Murakami The 500 Arhats Mori Art Muséum Program  copyrighted.

Source: Takashi Murakami The 500 Arhats Mori Art Muséum Program  copyrighted.

THE ARTWORK:  The 500 Arhats

OK, so now you know how it was made.  Let me tell you about the absolutely amazing result!  Meter after meter of gorgeous color, vibrancy and symbolism inspired by the traditional style artworks and in particular; Kano Kazunobu's Late-Edo period Superwork titled "The Five Hundred Arhats". (Once again.. Artists Inspiring Artists Creating Art!)

Mori Art Museum's program quoted the artist "The disaster on March 11, 2011 showed me how religion and art arise in relation to one another; I saw with my own eyes how the world needed art with a religious context" (Asahi Shimbun, Jan 7, 2015). Or again, "I saw religion arising that very moment" (Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec 18, 2014).  

In Buddhism, an arhat is "one who is worthy" or a "perfected person".  Arhats attain nirvana through a practice of meditation and self-reflection. What is an arhat? 

My View

I am not an expert on Buddhism (and would never claim to be an expert on the art world)  but I do believe that Murakami's painting depicting the five hundred arhats of Buddhism was an offer to the Japanese people (and anyone else who has suffered from a natural disaster) as a way to heal, to go through the process of denial, grief, loss, anger to acceptance and beyond.  

If an arhat represents a mortal life that has achieved immortality and enlightenment - then so can a human being survive the insult of trauma and suffer through the process mourning to acceptance to forgiveness and beyond to a "new normal".  The sheer size of the painting demands that a person spend ample amounts of time staring and viewing each section, each illustration, each arhat.  The vastness of the 100 meter mural commands a person's full attention and focus to really understand its interpretation.  An expert might say the Recovery Process is similar in terms of focus, deliberation and time.  Certainly not in terms of hours or minutes - but an analogous example to days, weeks, years, decades in can take to mourn, accept and rebuild.

I, personally, have never suffered a loss or injury due to a natural disaster or major event.  There have been times when my family or friends have been in close proximity or (thankfully) barely injured, (the Gujarat Earthquake of 2001; Panam Flight 73 hijacking in 1986 in Karachi, Pakistan; Mumbai Terrorist Attacks November, 2008 and New York 9/11) but I am grateful that I have not experienced this type of loss.  

Still; viewing Murakami's painting of The 500 Arhats and knowing the motivation for its creation, it is hard to walk away without a small insight to the amount of suffering that must have been... and still is for many.

A true inspiration.  Art is used to capture many things - Takashi Murakami has captured the suffering of humanity and given an opportunity for recovery.  Lastly, I leave you with the few images I was able to capture of this wonderful work of Art...  Enjoy.

The 500 Arhats will be on exhibition at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills through March 6, 2016.  If you haven't had an opportunity to do so - I urge you to check it out if you are local to Tokyo.

(With) PEACE.  (In) ART.  (To the) SOUL.