T: How did you know Chigiri-e?
A: We moved to Tucson, Arizona about 8 years ago. And that is when I started taking art classes. It is somewhat an art scene here. In the fall of 2017, I found a Chigiri-e class at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. I went to the class, I liked it so much that I looked up online and found Japanese Creations. When I found your Chigri-e Course, I thought this is going to be really good. I finished the course in 4 weeks. I finished the Japanese Creations’ online course and the class at the Desert Museum both at the same time. But I liked the online course better.
T: Please tell me about your experience in art.
A; When I started taking art classes in Tucson, I initially started using acrylic, but I didn’t like it. And watercolor is hard. So I didn’t know what to do. So I thought about oil. But oil is messy and stinky. So I started doing collages. When I saw Chigiri-e, I thought it was similar to my paper collages, but it was very different.
T: What do you think the difference between Chigiri-e and painting?
A: I find Chigiri-e accessible. I find Chigiri-e easy. Harder than expected but once you get into it, it’s easy. Some steps are complicated but the concept is easy. It’s not like painting. Painting is hard, you can’t solve problems. Once you make a mistake, that is it. Acrylic, because this is dry climate, the oil will dry in 5 minutes on your canvas. I have fine motor skills, so tearing was not too hard for me.
T: Once you learn the techniques, it should be easy to tear.
A: Yes, it is easy once you learn it.
T: When you received the package, what did you think?
A: When I first saw the package, I thought I didn’t need all the tools. But it turns out it’s useful to have all the tools, especially altogether. It was nice to have the original items.
T: How did you feel about the course overall?
A: I was extremely excited about it. Honestly, finishing all the six motifs, I wanted to keep on going. It’s fantastic. It’s going to be interesting how I progress. First, I didn’t expect it to be so sophisticated, and the video to be this complete. I was pretty amazed. And what I like is that you can fix your errors very quickly. If you glued a piece in the wrong place, just use water to dissolve the glue then lift the piece away. And I did that a lot. No one is perfect.
T: It is a forgiving art.
A: Yes, very forgiving.
T: How were the materials?
A: I was impressed with the quality of the materials. The vellum is high quality. The printing was clear.
One thing I love about this Chigiri-e course is the glue. I got it some on my pants and it just came off with some water and simple laundry. I put way too much glue!
T: That’s okay because it dries clear. Too much glue isn’t bad. That’s the beauty of the Yamato glue.
T: How was the online tutorial video?
A: I loved them. They were very clear.
T: How was the communication with the instructor?
A: I should’ve done more but it was nice. Being able to communicate with the instructor is great. You don’t have to do it often but it’s nice to know you can communicate with the instructor.
T: After you finished the six motifs, what is your favorite?
A: The goldfish. It has a lot of expressions. The paper works so well with the motif.
T: You finished the course in 4 weeks. You are working so fast.
A: Well I’m retired. So I can work on it anytime I want. It’s good to be focused for an hour or two, only thinking about this. It’s good to do that so I can take my mind off things.
T: Did you show your artwork to your friends?
A: My friends asked me for some of my Chigiri-e work. They wanted so many! I’m not displaying them yet but I want to get frames for them. I do want traditional frames for them
T: Do you plant to continue with Chigiri-e?
A: Yes. The motif you get once you finish the course was challenging, but fun
I’m going to want more advanced motifs.
Recently, I’ve been using color books as a template. It’s outlined so it’s a great tool for creating your own motifs. The real trick is designing my own patterns. That’s not easy. I made one and it’s not perfect but that’s okay.
T: Do you have any messages or advice to future students?
A: I would not simply get a kit. I would buy the course. I don’t think starting with the kit is easy. Because you need to build your skills. The course helps you move along. it’s worth it. The videos made it easy.
T: What brought you to try the Chirimen Course?
C: I’ve always watched my aunt, a tailor, what her make things and that made me interested in sewing.
T: Which one did you most enjoy making out of those projects?
C: I liked the bird motif. It was pretty advanced, especially where you have to scrunch up the opening, but it is challenging and fun.
C: Before the sewing, I would look at the text first then the video. The text had still images, where I can look and read, then figure out the process. The video then explain it further, and show me exactly how to do it. It helped a lot to read the instructions before the video.
T: Ok, so you said you used the textbook and the tutorial video. Was it helpful to you that we prepared both the texts and the videos?
C: Yes, it was very helpful. For me, the video was more detailed in how to make things, but the textbook was easier to get everything ready. The video would go too quickly sometimes, having to stop only to catch up. With the textbook, I just had to look at one page and get everything ready. This was helpful so I could simply skip that same step on the video.
T: [REFFERING TO THE TEXTBOOK] So there are lots of pages for each project. Were you intimidated that there were so many [steps]?
C: Not really. I actually thought it was nice that there were so many pages since it’s that much more detailed. Some materials are short and are hard to figure out certain steps, which makes you search for different websites or video streaming sites.
T: How did you like the Yamato glue?
C: The glue was very good. It dried very quickly. The video said not to use too much or it will stain, so I was worried, but it washes off easily and dries very clearly.
T: [Regarding the pins] There are pins much cheaper than these, but we chose these because they are durable, and they don’t break.
C: I was surprised at how much the needle would bend, but not break.<p">
The scissors were very sharp and easy to cut with. It was a nice surprise to know the scissors were sharp enough to cut into multiple layers of fabric. For the tail part of the bird, the fabric was folded three times and I had to cut that in half.
T: What do you think about the crepe fabric, the artificial silk? What do you think about the texture?
C: The fabric is very nice and smooth. It’s different from most fabric because it has some texture. Because of it, even if the fabric is monotone, it has depth because of its texture. The elasticity of the fabric did make the sewing a bit difficult, but the durability was reassuring. Although it was tough to sew sometimes, the elasticity of the fabric did help when I had to stuff it with cotton.
T: What other art experience have you had?
C: I have experience with “aizome,” fabric dying. I’ve taken a course and made textile with Aizome. I also like glass blowing, metal work, and carving wood.
T: What did you feel when you were making those projects?
C: It was initially frustrating only because it took me some time to get the seam to line up and cut pieces to exactly the same size, which ended up making my work lopsided. I think I was focused on getting everything perfect, but after a while, I learned to just have fun and enjoy the moment. It was nice to just move your hand, and not think about the next step or anything like that. But even when I was absentmindedly sewing, my mind concentrated on the project. I would be talking to someone but still be concentrated on making the project.
T: Any comments to future students?
C: Don’t try to do it all at once and pace yourself. Again, this is supposed to be a relaxing, fun project. You shouldn’t have to force yourself to finish in one sitting! Another thing is you don’t have to rush. You are one your own and you should be able to set your own pace. And lastly, the more you do it, the better you are going to get, so just have fun!
Kiyo: Okay, hello. Let’s start this interview with some questions about you, Alex.
Alex: All right.
Kiyo: So I’m aware that you’re a professional artist. So as a professional artist, what are your ways of expressing yourself? What art forms do you specialize in?
Alex: My most commonly used media are ink and ink wash, and for larger, more complex works, I use a combination of acrylics and gouache. Gouache is a sort of combination of watercolor media, so it’s a little bit transparent, but it also can be used in an opaque way to create varying textures. So I tend to use water-based media. I also dabble in a little bit of 3-dimensional sculpture, and I’m a glassblower as well.
Kiyo: Excellent. Interesting. So how long have you been doing this? You focus on watercolor painting and glassblowing, so those are two different things. How long have you been doing them?
Alex: I’ve been doing the watercolor-based media and ink wash for a long time, since I was probably in my mid-to-late teen years. And that’s part of why that’s the primary media for my work. Glassblowing is much newer to me. I’ve only been doing that for almost two years now. I was fortunate enough to meet a glassblower in Austin, Texas, the university there, who took me under his wing and started teaching me. So I’m learning that slowly, but it’s very fun.
Kiyo: So what inspired you to focus on those two different forms?
Alex: Well, one came very naturally to me, and the other didn’t, and I sort of wanted to seek that challenge. One of them was very much something that I grew up around, that I understood how it worked, and it was sort of intuitive. And the other was like “Oh, this is a thing I’m used to being solid, and now it’s liquid, and it’s too hot to touch.”
Alex: And, you know, it’s fun to overcome that.
Kiyo: Yeah, like manipulating a solid.
Kiyo: You said you grew up with watercolors. You said ink art, ink paint?
Alex: Ink, watercolor, and ink wash, which is basically—
Kiyo: Ink wash; that was the word I was looking for. What is that, exactly? I’ve never heard of that word.
Alex: Ink wash is a technique where you take colored inks, and you dilute them down, sort of like what you do with the gansai paints. You dilute them down until they’re very, very transparent. And rather than doing, say—if you’re trying to do black lines, you just get black ink and you do a black line. With an ink wash, you might get, say, a yellow ink and a pink ink and a blue ink, and you dilute them all down to different transparencies. Then you do a layer, and you let it dry, and you do a layer of a different color and you let it dry.
Kiyo: So it’s like a watercolor version of oil paint?
Alex: Sort of, yeah, but it’s much less expensive and not nearly as time-consuming as oil painting. That’s a good analogy; it’s very similar.
Kiyo: Interesting. Okay, so the next question is: What type of arts or craft forms have you done before?
Alex: A little bit of almost everything, to tell you the truth. As an artistic person, I’ve dabbled all over the place. I’ve done various kinds of painting; I’ve also done a little bit of acrylic painting, a little bit of oil painting. For a while, I did a bit of metal sculpture, a bit of wood sculpture. I sew somewhat frequently. I’d really like to learn embroidery; that’s kind of my next thing.
Alex: But, yeah, a little bit of everything. Lately I’ve been doing some mural painting; it’s really fun.
Kiyo: How come all this stuff? When you grew up, were you naturally interested in arts and crafts?
Alex: Yeah, I was always that kid whose elementary schoolteacher was yelling at her at the back, saying “Why the hell won’t you stop drawing?” That was me, every time. And I’d go “Okay, I’ll just do it under the table, then you won’t have to know.” As a kid, I could not be stopped; I was a voracious reader; voracious writer; voracious drawer. So now, as an adult, it gets channeled into trying a lot of creative things, just for fun.
Kiyo: Nice. I know you have your own focus as an artist. You’ve done a lot of things—do you ever do them on the side, whenever you like it?
Alex: Yeah, sometimes. Some of those things are more challenging, just from a materials perspective. It’s hard to do metalworking without a pretty extensive metalworking shop. But things like woodworking, which you can do in your garage at home, or sewing, which you only need a sewing machine and a big enough table; I do those things pretty frequently. Most often, when gift-giving opportunities come up, I often use those—weddings, baby showers, birthdays, things like that—to experiment with new media and make things for friends and family, rather than buy them.
Alex: It’s cheaper, and I think people like it, since there’s love in it.
Kiyo: Right, it’s heartfelt.
Kiyo: So would you ever try to mix two or three different art forms to create a brand-new art form, kind of thing?
Alex: Definitely. That is super-fun for me. One thing I’ve been working on lately is making ornaments that are part blown glass and part paper sculpture. So they’re almost like a little tree trunk, where I’ve attached little glass branches on it and poked holes so it’s like there’re little knots in the tree. And I’ve been making tiny paper birds to put in there. So far, the adhesion of paper to glass has been a problem. But that’s why it’s fun.
Kiyo: You can’t really weld it together.
Kiyo: How tall would these tree be?
Alex: Not very big; like a Christmas ornament.
Kiyo: Like this tall? (pointing at a 12 oz. bottle of water)
Alex: Smaller than that, even. Maybe the size of a person’s hand. Maybe this tall? And the branches maybe come out this wide.
Kiyo: And you put a bird on it? The bird has to be really, really tiny.
Alex: The birds are very small. I actually have to make them under a magnifying glass that I have rigged up to sit over, and I put my fingers under there.
Kiyo: So prior to learning a new art form, do you feel excited or sort of intimidated, because you’re making a foray into uncharted territory?
Alex: A little bit of both. As I go through the process of acquiring materials and doing research, I’m really excited and I have all these ideas. And then when I sit down to do it, I freeze up and it’s like “Oh, I’m gonna mess it up. Oh, no, the pressure’s on now.” You have to push through that one moment. And then I usually get pretty excited again once I get in there and get some momentum. I think “Well, this didn’t work; what about if I try this?” But for that first moment, you have the blank-canvas effect. You go “Where do I start; what if I ruin it?”
Kiyo: Because you’re self-studying; there’s nobody guiding you through it.
Kiyo: What kind of art form or forms will you be interested in doing in the future? You have done a whole lot of things already, but...
Alex: I mentioned embroidery. I would love to learn some embroidery techniques; I’ve seen a lot of other artists doing that online right now, and I’ve seen a lot of different takes on it that I think are super interesting. I’d love to learn that. I’d love to learn to become a better seamstress; I’m okay at sewing, but I’d love to get more proficient and be able to make more things—perhaps larger, more complicated things. I would also love to get back into woodworking, and do more with it and with some specific wood-burning techniques I’ve been reading up on lately.
Kiyo: Can you expand on that? I’ve never heard of wood burning.
Alex: Some people get this thing that looks like a screwdriver which heats up at the end, and use that to burn word and make images. Another friend of mine who works at a different lab on the University of Texas campus showed me this strange chemical operation where you create a solution, a couple different alkaline chemicals, and you spread it on wood in a particular pattern, and then you attach to a relatively high-voltage electrical current. It will ignite some of the air pockets in the grain of the wood and burn along the alkaline solution, but kind of go where it wants to go in the natural grain of the wood. I would love to do some sort of project to experiment with that and experiment with controlling that; using that to base a larger painting on, and paint over that part. So I’d really love to get in on some of that. Working in labs like that glassblowing lab in the University of Texas means that I have access to more exciting and technical things. It leads to a lot of ideas, and it also means that my threshold for danger has been skewed, in probably sort of a bad way.
Kiyo: A bit more of a basic question: What does art mean to you?
Alex: As a clarification, do you mean what would I sort of define art; what does art mean?
Kiyo: Well, what’s it mean for you personally. A lot of musicians say they can’t live without music, because it’s so ingrained in them. Is it like that to you?
Alex: It sort of is, yeah. Even in times when I haven’t been drawing a lot or I haven’t been at the studio a lot, so much of my life is creative, and so much of my everyday work and play is that creative, artistic drive. I can’t imagine living without it, I guess—it’s not that I would feel its loss, necessarily, but it’s like what if you decided to stop breathing all of a sudden?
Kiyo: Right. It feels like something’s missing in your life.
Alex: Sort of. I guess I never feel the absence, because it doesn’t really happen for me. I’m also fortunate; because I’m a working artist, I also have day jobs, and they’re also very creative. So even when I’m not doing what’s my inherent natural work, I’m blowing glass or working with flowers or designing this or that. So for me, it means my job; it means my play; it means my personal expression—it kind of means everything, I guess, which is maybe a vague answer to that question, but I guess that’s how it is.
Kiyo: You just breathe art.
Alex: Yeah, it’s just life.
Kiyo: It’s a part of your life; it comes naturally to you. So what drives you as an artist? What are the sources for your inspirations?
Alex: Play is actually kind of a big drive for me in art. A lot of my personal work is very irreverent. In some ways, it’s kind of silly. So a lot of it for me is that kind of play, or whimsy. Some of it is also processing things that are very, very serious through making a joke about it. So I think a lot of that plays into my work and drives it.
Kiyo: Do you have anything else besides art that spikes your curiosity or interest?
Alex: Yeah, a whole bunch of things. I just bought a home, so I finally have a yard after living in an apartment forever and ever, so I’m really getting interested in gardening. I’m already reading up and plotting for my first planting season. I love to cook; I’m a vegetarian, so I make a lot of my own food, and I love to make things from scratch. I love to bake bread. I’m really looking forward to growing vegetables and cooking them myself. I’m also interested in a lot of social causes. I love debating with other people; I love talking to other people about stuff. I organize a discussion group in Austin where people get together and sort of talk about difficult things. That’s a hobby and a passion of mine, is just talking to people. That sounds lame, but yeah. Discussion.
Kiyo: We don’t really do that anymore, do we? We don’t really talk to each other anymore.
Kiyo: How do you conduct your research to learn more about your favorite subjects? Just look it up on the Internet, or do you talk to your friends? You say you go to the University of Texas; maybe you talk to your lecturers or professors?
Alex: I mostly—I mean, first of all, YouTube is an amazing resource.
Kiyo: Oh, yes, I can’t agree more.
Alex: YouTube can teach you anything. So a lot on the Internet. I find that something piques my interest, so I look at a bunch of things on the Internet, on YouTube, or on WikiHow or what have you. Then once I feel that I have a basic knowledge, I reach out to other artists, or other friends or colleagues who I know might have an interest in that. I ask them what they think, or what other resources they might have. So I start at the Internet and kind of branch out to other people, back and forth. And some of that, too, ends up being experimentation. Somebody recommends “Oh, I do this,” and I decide to jump in and try it. And I do it, and maybe it worked but not that well, or it doesn’t work at all, and I’m like “Okay, back to the drawing board, back to YouTube.”
Kiyo: Yes. How do you handle the artwork you’ve created? I know you’re making a living as an artist, so you want to sell your work to do that. But do you sometimes use it to decorate your living space, or—you handmake things for your family as a gift?
Alex: Yeah, I sell a lot of my work, and I give a lot of my work as gifts. I actually don’t decorate my space with a lot of my own work, just because it feels weird and obsessive to me.
Alex: You know? I decorate my space with a lot of my friends’ work, so I’ll trade them stuff, and they’ll have things of mind hanging in their house, and I’ll have some of theirs hanging in my house. I guess those are the three main outlets.
Kiyo: Do you have a piece that you just love, that you could never get rid of?
Alex: I have a couple of pieces like that. I actually don’t put them up, because I’m afraid if I look at them too long, I won’t like them anymore.
Kiyo: Oh, I see.
Alex: So I have them stored away in my archives, and once in a while I pull them out and I’m like “Yeah, it’s still cool,” and then I put them away. Take it out in a couple years, “yeah, it’s still got it,” and put it away.
Kiyo: Like “I haven’t lost my flair yet.”
Alex: Exactly. I can still do that; cool, cool.
Kiyo: That’s funny.
Alex: Thank you.
Kiyo: Can you share some stories around your art, possibly involving your family or community—since you had that discussion group you just mentioned—or do you have any interesting stories to tell?
Alex: I guess one of the best stories might be what pushed me to decide to become a professional artist. Like I said, growing up, I was always that kid in the back of the classroom—“Put that away!” I never would; I was drawing all the time. All the time. All my notes from elementary school all the up through the end of high school are covered in doodles, covered in drawings. So as I was growing up and I was looking at colleges, everyone asked “What art school are you gonna go to?” And I was really headstrong about it; I said “I’m not going to art school, that’s for losers. I’m gonna go to real college.” And so I did. I went to Lawrence University, which is in Wisconsin. It’s a great school; it’s a small, private liberal arts college. As I mentioned before, I also really love reading and writing, so I was gonna go there and study English and philosophy. And I hated it. I did fine in school; the studies were okay. I went to a really rigorous high school, so I was pretty prepared for college-level work. But I was just miserable, just miserable. I hated the work; I didn’t have any real passion for it. I felt like I couldn’t meet people who had passions like I did; I had trouble connecting with people for the first year or school. As it is with many college freshmen, I became very depressed. A lot of people go through that; they go through that episode where they have trouble; then they pull themselves out of it and they do really well. And the way I pulled myself out of it as a young person was that I just started teaching myself to paint better at night. I’d go to the library, I’d do my homework, whatever; I would grab something to eat on the way back to my dorm. And I’d just hole up in my dorm for like a couple of days over the weekend, and all I would do was paint. And I kept doing that, and after a while it dawned on me that maybe I should go to art school. Maybe I should get over this idea I have about it being for losers, or people who can’t handle going to a real college. And I was like, yeah, this is the thing that keeps me up at night, what I’m passionate about; this is what I want to connect to other people about. So I resigned from this college I had worked so hard to get into and make such a big deal about. I dropped out and I moved back to Minneapolis, because it had the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, which was my college, my university. It had a very specific program that I wanted very badly, that’s only at two colleges in the whole country. So I moved back there and started art school, and I had this huge chip on my shoulder about it; like how I had failed at the last place and I was all self-taught, and so on. But I found that despite that, I just instantly connected with all these other artists. Just right away, it was like “Oh, what’s your work like? My work is like that too. You do that? I do this.” And everything that had happened in that previous environment was totally different in this art environment. It was where I was supposed to be, and what I probably should’ve started doing. It’s funny; I still sometimes think about that in my current work. When I hit a block, or when I feel I shouldn’t have done this, maybe I shouldn’t be a working artist—everybody doubts themselves, you know—I think back and it’s like “No, I already did this trial by fire, this has clearly been it for me.” Which is kind of cool and powerful, to have that in my back pocket to look back on. It’s also kind of why I’m so attached to watercolor, because that was what I could do in my tiny dorm room, alone at night, since oil painting takes space and time, and really harsh cleaning chemicals.
Kiyo: When I was in junior high, I tried my hand at oil painting and failed at it. I didn’t have the talent to learn the techniques and stuff.
Alex: And oil paint is great; it’s just a little less accessible.
Kiyo: Yeah, it was really messy.
Alex: It’s really messy, and a little bit dangerous. You need to be careful.
Kiyo: Because of the fumes?
Alex: Fumes, and there are some chemicals in certain pigments that can be really harmful to your health, especially if you’re exposed to them for long periods. Lots of the cleaning chemicals involved—most paint thinners aren’t turpentine-based, but when I started painting, they definitely were. So they were hard to dispose of; hard to keep yourself safe. With watercolor and gouache, which I mentioned I work in a lot—gouache is usually made with honey and food-safe pigment, so you can just wash it right down the drain.
Kiyo: If you wanted, you could eat it too?
Alex: My cats have done it.
Kiyo: Did they get sick?
Alex: No, actually, they didn’t. I came home one time; one of my cats was a tuxedo, so he had a black face and a white little mouth. And his little mouth was all gray, because he gotten into a palette and eaten some black gouache. It’s just charcoal and honey and a little bit of a binder, so she was fine, but... It was ridiculous. I looked at her and I said “Are you kidding me?” So I have that kind of connection to watercolor, which is nice because it continues to be very accessible. No matter where I’m at in life.
Kiyo: You just need water and ink.
Kiyo: I like that story.
Alex: Is that our 20-minute mark? (for the video camera)
Kiyo: Yeah, one second. I have a couple more questions, and then we’ll move on to the Etegami part.
Alex: Sounds good.
Kiyo: Probably should set things up here.
Alex: I have to say, Kiyo, I was impressed with how nice all the materials were.
Kiyo: You do keep things neat, though.
Alex: I do. I like to stay organized. It saves time; when you’re trying to keep enough freelance gigs straight, it really pays off, putting a little time into keeping things neat and organized, when you can. If you take care of your stuff, it’ll take care of you.
Kiyo: Just like your house.
Kiyo: So I’m aware that you recently visited Africa.
Alex: I did.
Kiyo: Was it stimulating? Or a stimulating trip as an artist? You went there for vacation?
Alex: Yes, I went there to visit one of my very good friends, who was in the Peace Corps for about two years. Her tour finished, but she’s starting work with another unaffiliated non-profit, and she had about a three-week gap. So myself and another old friend of the three of us; we went down there and decided to go see Rwanda, because talk about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you know?
Alex: It was definitely very culturally stimulating. It’s a very, very different culture from most of the Western cultures I’ve been exposed to; very different culture and language. Just a very different pace of life. We spent a lot of time in the village where my friend was a Peace Corps volunteer and neighboring villages, talking to people there. She’s now gonna work at a refugee camp, so we were talking to some of the women she’ll be working with and hearing their perspective; what their life has been like. All that was really cool. We also spent a lot of time in the market there, looking at this traditional fabric; it’s called kitenge, which has this very specific sort of African look about it. As an artist, that part was very inspiring; the color combinations are really bold, really bright. A lot of the patterns are sort of narrative-based, so it was fun to see that and hear more about how the fabric was made, learn the different patterns and what certain ones signify in the culture.
Kiyo: Let me ask you if you’re familiar with Japanese culture at all.
Alex: I am a little bit. I’ve been to Tokyo and some of the surrounding suburbs a handful of times. I also taught at a Japanese language immersion camp in the United States, where parents pay to have their kids come stay for two to four weeks, depending on the age of the kid. All the counselors speak only Japanese all the time, and do language and culture lessons, as well as general summer-campy things. Craft lessons are kind of my thing, so through that I had to learn a lot of the culture and language to speak it, obviously. Unfortunately I haven’t used the language in a long time, so my comprehension is okay, but I speak it terribly. Just not good at all.
Kiyo: So is there anything that interests you, or you may want to learn more about?
Alex: I’m really—this may be overly niche, but I have a really strong interest in Japanese filmmaking, especially. I’ve read a lot about the role of monsters and horror in, especially, contemporary postwar Japanese media. I think that’s very interesting from a social point of view, to look at how things like world wars—and especially, Japan suffered the most at the end of the Second World War—and how that’s reflected in popular culture and media. So I love contemporary Japanese media studies; I think it’s just super fascinating.
Kiyo: Interesting. So kind of like Godzilla.
Alex: Right? I mean, Godzilla, or even the remake of, like, Pacific Rim had a lot of ties to old kaiju movies and stuff. I think the creative psychology there is so interesting. Interesting, and super valuable.
Kiyo: So let’s move on to the second segment of this interview, about Etegami and the Etegami course you just went through. So what motivated you to try out Etegami, apart from how a friend of yours asked you to? You could say no, but you decided to say yes to that. What was the exciting factor for you?
Alex: I like it. I think it looks cute and fun. I really like how the characteristic look of Etegami is very heartfelt without being too serious. I think that’s really great, and I wanted the chance to explore that more.
Kiyo: That’s like you, right? Because you’re playful.
Alex: Yeah, exactly. It kind of fits together.
Kiyo: What did you think of Etegami? I suppose you enjoyed it, because you’re here, but how did you enjoy it?
Alex: One thing I really enjoyed while making it was, for me, that sort of unusual brush posture, and what that does to the mark-making, the expressiveness of that. I particularly enjoyed that part, and kind of gamifying that—I would catch myself starting to hunch and choking the brush, and I’d go “Oh!” So I did enjoy the challenge of un-learning that bad habit of hunching like that.
Alex: And also what that did to the marks; what that did to the stuff I was making, and how I was drawing and thinking about it. I really enjoyed that.
Kiyo: I was going to mention that later; I couldn’t help but think that keeping your back straight gives you some kind of spiritual aspect. When you sit straight, it makes your mind sharper.
Alex: Yeah, sharper and clearer, I think.
Kiyo: There’s some mind clarity there, that it gives.
Alex: Yeah. Also, because art is my job, sometimes it’s stressful. And during those times, I hold on to the brush really tight; I hunch over; I’m squinting my eyes. So doing this instead, where I’m holding my arm at this right angle and drawing from the shoulder, staying very centered—it kind of put me in a different head space; almost meditative.
Kiyo: That’s a good word to use, yes.
Alex: Yeah, I really enjoyed that. I should also say that I cheated a little bit. I have a back brace that I sometimes wear when I’m working really long hours, to prevent me from doing the hunch. And I did put that on, figuring it’d help me straighten up. I did turn to that to help me establish the habit a little more.
Kiyo: Do you still have that habit?
Alex: I try. Again, when I get really stressed—you’re just frazzled and trying to get it done, so all the good habits go out the window.
Kiyo: Prior to getting exposed to Etegami, did you have any expectations at all? Did you look it up on the Internet—I know I gave you a couple different links, but did you go anywhere beyond there?
Alex: I didn’t look it up a whole lot, but I did have some prior knowledge from teaching at the Japanese language camp, and just my general interest in Japanese culture. I’ve sort of seen examples in ambient culture studies. At the camp, we also do a version of Etegami where the kids write little notes to each other or to sensei, and you can put them in little bags up in the mess hall. And maybe that contributes to how I thought of it as this sweet, heartfelt thing, because that’s very much what it is for the kids in that program; it’s a way for them to tell sensei that they admire them, or send funny notes to their friends. So I already had an idea of it as this fun, personal thing.
Kiyo: Nice. That’s exciting to hear. So after going through the whole program, what are your thoughts on it as a whole? Kind of a vague question, but your overall...
Alex: Sense of it, I guess? I felt it was very thorough. At times, I felt like it was almost too thorough, like there there are moments where the directions are so precise.
Kiyo: Like, rigidly precise?
Alex: Yeah. The directions for even—use this color, dilute it to this consistency, layer it with this exact color—I felt it was probably good guidance for someone just starting out as a professional artist, but as someone near the end of the program, I wish it had loosened up a little bit. Giving people a little more...
Kiyo: Room to play.
Alex: Yes, exactly.
Kiyo: The program was structured nicely, you think?
Alex: Yes. I thought the production value was very nice. I really appreciated that there were videos and written instructions that corresponded to the videos. I’m not a very good auditory learner; it’s part of what makes me a terrible language learner, actually. So it’s nice for me to hear the instructions, then being able to look and read at my own pace, while seeing the picture paused there in front of me. So I really enjoyed that two-part aspect of it; it made it very clear and easy to follow.
Kiyo: Right, and you can pace yourself at that. Now let’s talk about these wonderful tools you have in front of you.
Kiyo: How should we go about this? All right, so what did you think about the... Let’s start with the brushes.
Alex: Well, first of all, I love the tools. I couldn’t get over what high quality they were. As I was unboxing them, my fiancé was making fun of me, because I kept pulling things out and saying “Oh, this is nice! This is such a nice brush!” I didn’t always use the brush they told me to use.
Kiyo: You cheated?
Alex: A little bit. As a professional artist, sometimes when people tell me how to do my job, I’m like “Don’t! Don’t tell me what to do.”
Kiyo: You become defiant. I’m not gonna do...
Alex: Right. Insolent. So I did occasionally use the thin brush rather than the ink brush for small-detail things. I was like “I need a little more; don’t tell me what to do!” But the ink brush was my favorite, because it had that long handle, where I could really get to the end of it and draw from the shoulder; really do that kind of centered thing. I didn’t use the gradient brush as much as I thought I would, but the other two I definitely did.
Kiyo: The dropper; what do you think of that?
Alex: As a watercolor artist, I actually use droppers a lot.
Kiyo: Oh, so you’re familiar with the tool.
Alex: Yeah; it’s really nice and handy. Especially when you’re working with an inkstone like that, it’s really handy to be able to drop the ink in there, in a controlled way, rather than pour it. Typically, in my watercolor work, I’ll do washes, and I’ll drop—well, hello. (this is when a spider shows up and walks across the table).
Kiyo: I think he just wanted to touch it. I like spiders. I never want to kill them.
Alex: You have to eat all the harmful ones. Just put it in your pocket?
Kiyo: Oh, any moving object...
Alex: Yeah, I got a text last night: “Gecko 0, cat 1.” So I guess one of my cats ate a lizard. Great.
Kiyo: Extra protein.
Alex: Yeah, I’m sure it’ll be fine. But yeah, in my watercolor work I usually use droppers where I have a wide swath of color. I put in little drops of water, and when it expands, it does kind of a cool effect. I like how this one expands...
Kiyo: Is that different from the kind you usually use?
Alex: I’m used to ones that are—I usually recycle them from essential-oil bottles.
Alex: So I just wash them and—reduce, reuse. So I’m used to—rather than an entire plastic situation, I’m used to a glass stopper and a rubber pinchy one rather than a squishy one. I kind of like the accordion, though. I’m a little worried about cleaning it, but. Some bleach maybe. I’m good at cleaning things, so.
Kiyo: What’s the next tool? The palette. That’s so cute, right?
Alex: These are so cute.
Kiyo: You could use those like actual plates, almost.
Alex: Fun fact: I am sort of a Scrooge cheapo, so I never buy myself palettes. I recycle the lids off of to-go Chinese food containers.
Alex: So when I got this, I was like “Oh my God, a real palette!”
Kiyo: Washable, too.
Alex: And it’s ceramic! Usually with the plastic ones, they kind of stain and they’re not as nice. These little things, I pulled them out and was like “This is nice! Look at that!” It even has little rough spots on the bottom so it doesn’t slide. I just love it. Ceramic is so nice, because it’ll never stain, it’s non-porous. It’s got deep enough wells that you can dilute things, but not so deep that you have to dilute them forever and waste all your paint. I really loved the little palette.
Kiyo: Yeah, it’ll last forever as long as you take care of it.
Kiyo: Unless you drop it.
Alex: Yeah, exactly. Just drop it on the carpet, and you’ll be fine.
Kiyo: Let’s move on to the ink.
Alex: The inkstone... I’ve read about inkstones, but I’ve never used one before. And I really enjoyed it. That was another part that I felt was kind of meditative, that grinding of the inkstone to get it to the right consistency. I really enjoyed that a lot. It did spill some, and I ruined a towel.
Kiyo: That happens.
Kiyo: So what do you think about the color ink?
Alex: I liked the gansai paints a lot, too. They reminded me very strongly of gouache paint, which I’m used to using; they both start out pretty vibrant and intense, and you have to dilute them down. So as a watercolor artist, the gansai paints came very naturally. I do have a little trouble telling—I’m used to tubes that are labeled, so I had trouble remembering which one was which. Which is why this is in pretty good shape, because I had to keep it right there.
Kiyo: Oh, there? I didn’t notice. ...Oh, Japanese.
Alex: Mm-hmm. Which I should probably read as practice, but.
Kiyo: Are you familiar with these colors, though? Do you have these colors in the US, or do you use them?
Alex: I have sort of the same assortment of colors, more or less. This is sort of a typical artist’s palette, I feel.
Kiyo: Okay. So the thin brush... We talked about that already... The pad.
Alex: Is that next? This little felt thing?
Kiyo: What did you think? It helps if you spilled some of the ink.
Alex: That’s true. I guess I probably spilled all over this and no one can tell. Yeah, I guess I don’t have a strong opinion about the pad. I sort put it down as a... It’s why I didn’t have to spill the ink good.
Kiyo: You did use it, though.
Alex: I did, just so I could say I did, almost. It did make me think about other media, and how it’s soft and cushioned, and how that could affect mark-making with other media, but I’m not sure how much it affected a water-based medium like this. Just a little cushion.
Kiyo: Yeah. It’s soft, but when you put paper on it, it’s a bit different from a hard surface. It’s soft and cushioned. Did it affect, when you’re drawing things like outlines, do you think the pad affected the way that the line would come out? Because you were drawing on a kind of soft surface?
Alex: I’m not sure it did. I think it would if I were doing something like a pen-and-ink or graphite piece, where you’re pushing down a little harder. But so much of water-based media, like the ink or the gansai paint—you’re just sort of touching the surface of the paper and letting hydrodynamics do the rest. So I’m not sure it did a whole lot. It was nice to kind of feel I had a staging area.
Kiyo: Like a yoga mat.
Alex: Exactly. Certainly! So it’s nice in that way, but I’m not sure it affected the outcome, necessarily.
Kiyo: Okay. The cards, as a... Do we have these in America?
Alex: We do if you buy art paper regularly, but if you’re just a regular person buying regular paper, not really.
Kiyo: So what do you think quality-wise, or...
Alex: I liked them a lot. They’re very clearly high rag content, which is a high-cotton-content paper, so it can hold up to a lot of water in it; it won’t crinkle up and get nasty like a magazine or printer paper will. The other thing I like a lot about cotton paper is the way that the fibers soak up water-based media. Sometimes it’ll feather an edge, and sometimes it won’t, and I really like that unpredictability. So I really liked what that did for the mark-making in Etegami.
Kiyo: I didn’t think about that part; that’s true.
Alex: I wanted to conserve the cards, so on some of my things, you can see that I practiced on both sides.
Kiyo: Speaking of which, the practice paper—oh, didn’t you bring...
Alex: I did.
Kiyo: Oh, okay. Oh, you didn’t use it?
Alex: I used a little bit of it. There was the practice page that had the radishes you could trace, and lines you could trace. The primary thing I used the practice paper for was anytime I used any kind of ink, I do arm exercises first to get warmed up, so I don’t get—it’s so silly...
Alex: When I took an ink-based class in art school, I had a professor that insisted you had to do the specific arm exercises. It was a whole room of people sitting at a table doing, like...this for a while. It was so silly.
Kiyo: Did it work, though?
Alex: It did. I still do it to this day. So I would do a lot of that, and trace out the curly Q’s, so I just sort of moved along the paper, taking up the whole thing. Getting warmed up; getting loose. Making sure I didn’t feel tense or stiff. You know, you get nervous, so you don’t want to shake or anything.
Kiyo: So your right shoulder’s looser than the left one?
Alex: Probably. It’s probably stronger, too.
Kiyo: Was there anything else? We talked about the tracing sheets. The water...
Alex: Oh, the little wells? It’s really convenient to have three separate containers, sort of tied together. I think most watercolor artists are notoriously bad at keeping their water clean, so having three spaces helped me do that a little more effectively.
Kiyo: How did you use them?
Kiyo: Like, darker colors to lighter ones, or...
Alex: Typically, ink in the middle. A huge part of color composition for me is that I pick a primary warm color and a primary cool color, so I did warm-color rinse in one and cool-color rinse in the other. Whether that’s red and blue, or yellow and blue, or light green and dark green... Either way, just keeping your lighter lights and darker darks on either side. Artists are notorious for doing things like accidentally dipping our paintbrush in our tea and accidentally drinking our paint water, so this is nice to have it sort of compartmentalized a little bit, to prevent accidents.
Kiyo: Do you ever spill that water?
Alex: Oh, so much. I’ve spilled water; I’ve had my cats knock over the water.
Kiyo: Oh, yeah, of course.
Alex: Every artist—every professional artist—has a story where they just finished a piece, and then they knocked their water over it. I have that story; everybody has that story. It’s the worst thing that could happen. But you always make it faster the second time, so... We never learn, I don’t know.
Kiyo: I just felt like you should put it in a special case or something, so you’ll never...
Alex: Let me think... It’s always like, you finish it, and then you lean back, and as you do you’re like “Well done, me,” and then something happens. I guess... The only thing I didn’t love about this is that it’s a little bit wobbly, but if you’re just being responsible about it...
Kiyo: Kind of neat how it all packs away.
Alex: Yeah, it’s neat how it stacks up and packs together really conveniently. I liked that.
Kiyo: Like little baskets.
Kiyo: So do you have your own favorite Etegami work?
Alex: Hmm... I really did like the first one with the bananas; I really enjoyed how the yellow inks played together. I did also have fun...I never quite finished this one, because I got self-conscious about it, but I did a drawing of the new home that we bought, and so that was really fun to boil down the architecture of the house into a cute little drawing.
Kiyo: Do you want to color it?
Alex: I kind of do want to color it. Also, I wanna repaint our house, and maybe I’ll color it with our choice for it.
Kiyo: How long did it take you to complete each assignment? There’s three submissions; do you roughly remember how long it took?
Alex: Probably about an hour for each one, including... Maybe a little more, maybe an hour and 15 minutes. Loosening up and doing the arm movements and the swirls on the paper. Getting into it. Then, also, doing some practice ones—I feel like I blew through a couple of practice rounds. I’d do one and it’s like “Hmm” and...
Kiyo: Not feeling it.
Alex: Exactly. “Ah, this banana looks weird.” So doing a couple of them, and giving the ink a chance to dry before I moved in with the paint, too. So probably an hour, maybe a little more.
Kiyo: Did you find the instructional video and text easy to understand?
Alex: Yes. Very.
Kiyo: Did you like the “How to Etegami” video that you saw in the beginning?
Alex: The very first one?
Kiyo: Yeah, the 17-minute one, I think it was?
Alex: I liked most of it. The sort of panel of women they had on there...
Kiyo: Yeah, the three ladies.
Alex: They were trying it with you. They were a little hard for me to watch, to be honest. They were very scripted in a way that I was just like... “Okay, guys, you know...”
Kiyo: They didn’t look natural.
Alex: Yeah, they looked a little awkward to me. I almost would’ve preferred if it was just—there was the instructor for the whole course, and I almost would’ve preferred if it was just her, I guess. She didn’t give me the sort of awkward feeling that I got a little bit from the panel of women.
Kiyo: Okay. Did you notice the feature that would let you ask the instructor questions?
Alex: I did see that.
Kiyo: Did you use it?
Alex: I didn’t use it. I saw it and I thought “How great if I have a question,” and then I didn’t, I guess.
Kiyo: But did you think about using it, though, or...
Alex: I thought about it. I guess I thought about asking for clarification on the third assignment, that was much freer and open-ended. I thought about asking for guidance on that, and then I wondered if maybe part of the point was not to get guidance from the instructor. So I second-guessed myself, and I just worked it out personally. But I did think about it; I thought “Maybe I should ask about this.”
Kiyo: What do you think of the feedback from the instructor?
Alex: I really liked it. I felt like it was very well thought out. I really liked... One of my pet peeves as a working artist and going through art school is, sometimes, when you ask for a critique, the best you get back from people is “I like it, it’s nice.” And that’s not helpful, right? So I really appreciated that the instructor said “This part worked really well, but next time maybe you should try this part to achieve this goal.” I felt like it was really constructive feedback.
Alex: So I really liked that. Like I said, it was well thought out and well considered.
Kiyo: I was going to ask... You probably answered it already, but getting your work assessed like that is one of the main features of this course, so I was going to ask what you thought of it, but we already covered that.
Alex: Yeah. I almost could’ve done with, like, one more assessment.
Alex: Yeah, one closer to the beginning where you haven’t gone through much of the material yet. Kind of starting out, when you don’t really know what’s happening. Just sort of get that guidance and direction from a person, out of the gate. Then, as they work through it, the instructor can see the student grow a little more. So I could’ve done with one more.
Kiyo: You made three submissions; what would you like to do with the work you made during the course? Are you gonna frame them?
Alex: I dunno; they’ll probably... Artists are also notorious for the disorderly hoarding and collecting of things. So they’ll probably get put in that file with, like, work that I pull out once in a while and look at, and I’m like “Yeah, cool” and put it away. They’ll probably get relegated to that. I am looking forward to using the rest of the materials and some more of the cards to do Etegami, or cards for friends or friendly. I’m hoping to make more for other people, so they can be enjoyed outside of my house. Just put ‘em out there and clear it out!
Kiyo: It sounds like you’ll continue making Etegami, then?
Kiyo: Great. So now that you learned this new art form, do you think that’ll affect your future work in any way?
Alex: It might. One of the things I enjoyed about Etegami and, again, that brush posture, is that it’s much looser and more gesture-ful and playful than the work that I do professionally. I think I might enjoy bringing those two things together and making my professional work a bit more loose and playful in that way.
Kiyo: What do you think are the differences between Etegami and the watercolor techniques that you do?
Alex: I definitely—I don’t want this to sound bad; I feel like I take the Etegami less seriously. I’m less focused on having it look this way, or I’m doing an experiment hoping to reach this goal. It’s kind of more that meditative thing; I’m going to do this, and it kind of looks however it looks; then I’ll respond to that and do the next one like this. It’s very low-stress. I’m less exacting and precious about it than I am about watercolor, where sometimes I get very bogged down, wanting my colors to look exactly right or the ink to have the perfect tone. With Etegami, it’s much more reactive—“Well, that’s nice. I’ll do this next.”
Kiyo: Playing it by ear.
Alex: Yeah, a little more improvisational.
Kiyo: So if you recommend this art form to someone else, how would you introduce it?
Alex: Well, a lot of friends have asked me what I was doing with this program, and the way I introduced it to them was “Oh, it’s basically these hand-drawn postcards.” And they were all like “Oh yeah?” and I said “Yeah.” To me, it’s the difference between—when you go to the store and buy a birthday card for someone? And it says “Happy birthday,” and it’s like you couldn’t have thought of that for yourself? So it’s kind of like, if you go somewhere and you buy a postcard that says “Wish you were here,” you couldn’t have thought of that? You couldn’t have drawn that for someone? And so Etegami is a good way to sort of take those sentiments and actually have them come from you, in a fun, heartfelt way.
Kiyo: Do you have any suggestions regarding the course as a whole? Do you see improvements that could be made?
Alex: We did talk a bit about the structure of it, especially close to the end. I feel like it went straight from very rigid to no instruction, to just some freehand examples. It would have been nice to have an intermediary there, to have something that said—instead of “Do some yellow green and some emerald green,” that just said “Mix some greens to find something fresh.” That’d allow people to think critically, and think creatively, a little bit more before they’re tossed out to do the whole thing themselves. That’s my only critique, is that sort of intermediary step in guidance.
Kiyo: So last question: Can you please offer some advice to those who are thinking about trying Etegami?
Alex: They should do it—that’s my advice to anybody who wants to try any sort of creative thing. I hear that all the time from artists; people tell them “Oh, I’d love to do that, but I’m not creative. I’d say if you want to do it, then you are creative. If you have the interest in it, then you already have the creative ideas. So don’t be self-conscious; just try something. And even if you draw something and it’s not exactly how you wanted it to look—if you’re sending it to somebody, or if you’re trying to communicate something... If you feel it, you probably communicated it. So just go for it, and don’t be afraid to mess things up. If it is messed up, flip it over and do another one on the back.
Kiyo: It’s not the end of the world.
Kiyo: So we have plenty of time left, so [Nishimura-san] asked if you could draw something.
Alex: Okay, I can do that.
Kiyo: That’s so cool, I get to see this...
(Nihsimira-san went to get some water)
Alex: I have to stand up so straight.
Kiyo: Arm exercises!
Alex: Yeah, I actually do have to do that a bit. Slept on my couch last night, so it’s a bit stiff. It was just so ridiculous; it was a comics class, too, so it’s the nerdiest people you’ve ever seen. And we were all sitting at tables going... Looking at each other, like “Are you doing this too?” And the professor was the most “dad.” He wore Hawaiian shirts every day; his name was Paul. He was the best; I loved him. So he was very “Come on guys, get into it.” He had no self-consciousness at all.
Kiyo: That’s wonderful
Alex: He’s a dad of teenage girls, and boy, could you tell.
Kiyo: Do you still stay in touch with him?
Alex: A little bit. For a while, I was making... For the last semester of art school, I was living with my grandfather, who’s kind of a character, so it was sort of an experience. So I was making little comics about it and sending them to this comics professor, just for fun. So we talked for a while. We haven’t in a minute, since I moved out of Minnesota. But he was good; he was one of the forerunners of modern indie comic printing in the US. So he knows all the primary inkers on Batman.
Kiyo: Oh, wow.
Alex: Right. Who is he? The guy who does Hellboy; he’s so famous.
Kiyo: That’s okay; I don’t know him, so.
Alex: Well, the guy who makes Hellboy, who is super famous because he does things in a really weird way... He and that guy are buds. Once per semester, he calls that guy, and he...
Kiyo: “Why don’t you give a lecture?”
Alex: Yeah. He comes in to talk. He didn’t come in my semester because he got in a car accident on the way—or a fender-bender, he was fine—but it was January in Minnesota, so he was sitting in a snowbank getting insurance information, so he couldn’t make it. I was bummed about it, because his work was really cool. But it was weird, because he’s just this pudgy dad guy who works at the local college, but it’s like, oh wow, he is hugely famous in the industry.
Kiyo: Yeah. And weird.
Alex: Yeah. He’s weirdly famous, but he’s also still insistent on the dumb arm thing.
Kiyo: He’s such character. Sounds lovable.
Alex: All freaky. I took it as an elective...
Kiyo: Which would you like to draw? Both!
Alex: Snacks... Otherwise I was just gonna draw the cat, so... It was also funny because it was an intro course, and I took it my last semester of school, or my second-to-last semester. So I was a senior, and I reached that senioritis point where you do not care about things. I was just sort of weirdly unflappable, but everyone else in the class is a freshman comics major. So they were all nerdy, and nineteen and living away from their parents for the first time. So this guy recognized that he had to be nice to everybody but me. He spent a lot of time in class just being like “What are you doing back there?”
Kiyo: You got special treatment.
Alex: Yeah. He was like “Are you working?” I said “Yeah” and he was like “No way.” He did let me make a comic about Mr. T, though; that was pretty cool.
Kiyo: Have you decided what you’re going to put on as a message?
Alex: I haven’t decided yet. Something very short.
Kiyo: Yeah, I was thinking about that, since you didn’t leave much room.