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One of artist Keiko Hara’s happy places is her Walla Walla art studio. That’s where she does her painting and printmaking that reflect a “strong love of place,” otherwise known as topophilia. The concept is familiar to fans of Spokane artist Ben Joyce’s map-based paintings, but also Georgia O’Keefe’s New Mexico abstractions and Claude Monet’s gauzily painted haystacks from turn-of-the-century France.
Topophilia is not merely landscape, however. As Hara’s current exhibition at Washington State University’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art shows, on display through March 2023, a sense of place can include cerebral scapes, including memories.
For example, the oldest piece in the exhibition is a mixed media painting titled “Image – Space” from 1977-78. Using opaque watercolor called gouache and assorted drawing media, “Image – Space” reflects the spontaneous mark making — a kind of scribbling — Hara produced as a child growing up in Japan.
“[Keiko] believes we all universally hold particular places of personal meaning close to our hearts,” says Ryan Hardesty, the museum’s executive director and curator of exhibitions and collections. “These bonds to ‘place’ may center us in the present or tug achingly at us from the past.”
Another piece, “Verse from Sea,” refers to Hara’s youthful discoveries during frequent explorations of the nearby ocean.
In the book WSU produced to accompany the exhibit, Keiko Hara: Four Decades of Painting and Prints, contributing essayist Linda Tesner explains the piece.
“Verse from Sea” is “a lyrical, visual prose poem,” writes Tesner, “condensing innumerable impressions and sensations of being at the beach — the tumble of rocks in the waves, the water-on-water of a cloudburst over the sea, the patterns humans and animals make on the wet sand.”
“The poet in [Keiko] is quick to remind us that conceptions of place exist in our minds as sets of ephemeral memories, shifting and changing, malleable to new sensory experiences,” Hardesty adds. “At the core of her enterprise is an exploration of environment and human consciousness, a fundamental recipe for a sense of self.”
“Verse from Sea” consists of 12 images, which Hara created using mokuhanga, a Japanese woodblock printing technique dating to the early 1600s and made world-famous in such works as Katsushika Hokusai’s 1831 “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” (sometimes referred to as “Hokusai’s Wave”).
T ranslating a painting into a print but also printmaking itself has historically appealed to artists and collectors alike. A single artwork can be reproduced in multiples, for example, increasing access to the image and potential sales.
But for Hara, who started and ended her career in education, first as an art therapist with disabled children and later as an art professor at Whitman College, her priority is the work itself.
“I am not interested in repeating the works to be a so-called successful artist,” says Hara, who has been successful nonetheless. Her works are included in such permanent collections as the Art Institute of Chicago, Tacoma Art Museum and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and she is a sought-after expert on mokuhanga.
Like many Japanese children, Hara was exposed to printmaking in school. After high school, she attended art colleges in Tokyo, and later in Oita on Kyushu island, paying off her college loans by working at a school for disabled children.
She recalls several students specifically, like the nonverbal, nonmobile young boy who literally opened up as he began to draw. Another student drew a tulip from a real flower, including the stem. Hara asked what the stem signified, recalling the child’s answer: “It’s pain.” This and other memories stuck with Hara, who considered becoming an art therapist.
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Realizing that she’d need to leave Japan to pursue more education, and to pay off her debt for college art supplies, Hara plucked up the courage to sell paintings she’d been doing of nearby Sakurajima volcano. Hara approached several places, including a large department store that had an art gallery inside. No one was interested in her work.
Another artist Hara sought advice from suggested she paint the volcano “like a postcard.”
“I really had to think what kind of artist I wanted to be,” Hara says of this time in her young adult life. She decided she wanted to forge her own path.
She met with an art critic who was drawn to her contemporary style and her story. He wrote a large article and, perhaps coincidentally, the department store called her to show her work when another artist was unable to fill a spot.
“I was so lucky,” Hara says, laughing now at the memory. She was so inexperienced, she says, she had to ask people at the art store to help her price her work. Hara not only sold enough to pay her art supply debts, she had enough to travel to America.
“I am a big dreamer, and I challenge myself,” she says.
And at 80, Hara is still going strong, producing both large volumes of work and very large work.
One such piece is “Space – Kirameku,” a diptych with two 7-by-9-foot rectangular canvases. Sitting in front of its total 18-foot length envelops your vision. The darker of the two panels is a galaxy-like field of soothing deep blue values punctuated by countless white spots that might be stars — kirameku loosely translates to glimmer — or could symbolize anything that repeats itself infinitely. The white-on-white panel, meanwhile, conveys subtle variations of white and an underlying pattern of vertical lines that reminds of a snowy forest.
Moving closer to “Space – Kirameku,” you become lost in the texture and variations of color, while moving further back shifts your relationship to the painting as your eye is naturally pulled towards the darker panel.
As she does with her other work, Hara deftly employs the language of art — color, scale, shape, pattern — to create a sense of place that can be familiar one moment and, when considered differently, offer an entirely new journey for the viewer. ♦
Keiko Hara: Four Decades of Painting and Prints • Through March 4, 2023, Tue-Sat from 10 am-4 pm; book signing event Wed, Nov. 16 from 4-6 pm • Free • Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art WSU • 1535 N.E. Wilson Rd., Pullman • museum.wsu.edu • 509-335-1910
The original print version of this article was headlined “Beyond the Horizon”
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