Springtime in Vancouver is a procession of natural wonders. As the snowpack begins its slow retreat up the North Shore mountains, tulips break through the ground, forrest creatures begin to stir and wild berries ripen in the thickets. The grass — not yet charred by summer sunshine — is greener and fresher than it will ever be, and the air is weighted with anticipation.
But my favorite part of spring, by far, is the cherry blossom, with its clouds of blush-pink petals that remind me of cotton candy. On the street of the house I now occupy with my wife and American cocker spaniel, the season's first sakura have already come and gone, the evidence of their short-lived splendor visible only in photographs on Instagram or Facebook.
And yet, we continue to celebrate them, just as they are, recognizing in their transience — in their annual blooming and withering — something perfect, something precious, something universal. The acceptance of life's impermanence and our own flaws, after all, makes us whole; it bequeaths immeasurable value to our brief time on this planet and there is beauty to be found in embracing the natural order of things.
I hadn't thought of the subject of imperfection — either in nature of in people — for some time until my recent exchange with Satsuki Shibuya, the Japanese-American painter, artist and spiritual thinker who lives and works in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. In recent years, Shibuya has devoted herself to the art of ethereal watercolor paintings — abstract symphonies of muted, monochromatic shades driven by an elusive mix of "intuition, energy and spirit." They focus on themes such as the natural world, energies and the aspects of everyday life, and visualize lofty concepts like "universal metaphysics" while also imparting a joyful appreciation of the mundane.
The artists's "Gaia" series, in particular, is characteristic of her otherworldly style. Distinguished by minimalist brushstrokes and a restrained use of color, each painting resembles a transfer of energy, or the physical imprint left by something ephemeral that — just for an instant — became visible before fading again from view. There are the frothy splashes of blue that make up "Seaspirit," the bird-like shapes and opaque clouds of "cumulonimbus" and the embryo-like form that comprises "Gift of Life." Equally evident throughout her work is a delicate, transient quality that perfectly embodies the essence of wabi sabi, the Japanese tradition that finds beauty in things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.
Shibuya's watercolor aesthetic is so effortless and fully-formed, in fact, that it's hard to believe she only took up painting a few years back. Instead, her introduction to the arts took place at the potter's wheel, at an age when most children are still learning to color between the lines. "My earliest experience with art was my mother enrolling me in a ceramics class around the age of 6 as a way to explore my creativity," she tells me. "And because I loved it, by the time I was eight or so, I ended up taking classes with adults and creating pieces to sell at local ceramic markets."
The joy of making and then selling her handiwork proved addictive, and following her studies in music at the University of Southern California and graphic design at Otis College of Art and Design, Shibuya embarked upon a career as a singer/songwriter before returning to the world of product design in 2010. Partially out of necessity, but mostly due to a desire to express herself, she began designing and handcrafting everything from small art objects to printed cushion covers from her airy, well-kit home studio in California. "The fear of not expressing myself for who I am outweighed any thoughts of doing something else," she explains of her decision to become a full-time creative." As I explain to people who ask me why I do what I do, to me, it is as part of me as I am a woman or Japanese American. It is just who I am."
Shibuya's Midas touch also extended to the art of visual curation. While looking at ways to furnish their new home, she launched her first Pinterest board, 'Nouvelle Maison,' as an exercise in cataloguing and sharing interior decor ideas with her husband. The impeccably edited image board would go on to attract several hundred thousand followers — many of them seemingly overnight — and has since amassed a massive audience of nearly one million "Pinners."
Still, it's Shibuya's start in watercolor painting that I find most intriguing, as well as her long-standing bout with illness and the momentous spiritual experience that first prompted her to put brush to canvas. And so, I ask her if we can start at the beginning, with the first inkling that she needed to paint.
One day, I received a message from the universe to paint. I didn't know why, I didn't know how, but it just told me that I needed to — that it would change my life. But to expand a bit of this, my main purpose of painting is, in my own way, to be a catalyst for world peace, harmony and unconditional love in hopes of awakening the hearts and souls of others, and getting them to remember their life purpose.
After hearing the message of needing to paint, I began experimenting with different mediums to see if this message was, in fact, real. It was fun trying out different mediums, but nothing was clicking inside until one day I decided to try watercolors and BAM! It was as if I were hit by lightning! I never could quite explain the feeling I got that day, but I do remember feeling a sense of excitement — blood rushing, peace, serenity, all in that one moment. I've equated it to the feeling of falling in love for the first time. It's not quite the same, but it's the closest analogy that I could come up with. It felt like the watercolor was speaking to me, that it was sharing with me its beauty, its thoughts and that it could do no wrong. It was breathtaking and even to this day, I'm in awe of what it shares with me.
It's not entirely surprising then, that the most commonly used adjectives for Shibuya's painting — otherworldly, ethereal, abstract — evince the almost mystical origins of her craft. The artist's unmistakable style, when I ask her about it, has a similarly inevitable quality to it, as if each brushstroke was simply bestowed upon her by a higher power.
I wish I could share more concrete answer for how my aesthetic came about, but it truly just happened. One day, there was an urge to paint what I was feeling energetically inside versus trying to paint something concrete — like an apple — and this 'style' emerged. As I mentioned to you, I feel like I'm just the puppet, that something else is fueling this energy to paint and I"m just there witnessing it happen on paper. Sometimes I feel like it's me, but more often than not, it feels like things are just 'happening.' To me, it truly is a simple but spiritual process.
And yet, Shibuya never comes across as aloof or fanciful, with her head in the clouds, in the way some are. In reality, she's remarkably grounded and cognizant of the work of creatives around her, citing modern day visionaries like COMME des GARÇONS mastermind Rei Kawakubo as influences, along with the pared-down aesthetic tradition of her Japanese heritage.
I tend to be influenced more by the thoughts and concepts of others versus what they actually create. For example, I am inspired by artist Yayoi Kusama and how through her art, she is able to work through her own mental struggles, or Rei Kawakubo of COMME des GARÇONS and her approach towards design. Although I've never consciously thought of including such influences into my art, many have shared that they feel there is a Japanese-Scandinavian influence in how my work aesthetically looks and my approach to it. Perhaps this is subconscious, as I feel a deep connection with both cultures.
The fact that Shibuya seems so connected and so self-assured, so in tune with the workings of the universe and her place within it, is something of a wonder in itself. The daughter of a French chef father and adventure-loving mother, Shibuya was born in May — her name, Satsuki, means "five moons" in Japanese and is also, incidentally, the name of a flower that blooms in the same month — and was raised amongst the sunbathed, tree-lined foothills of Los Angeles.
But her idyllic surroundings masked a growing sense of displacement, and for years Shibuya struggled with poor health and anxiety. I ask if she's willing to recount those hardships, as well as the physical and emotional effects they had on her growing up. The story Shibuya shares, I later discover, is as compelling and inspiring as any one of her paintings.
Ever since I was young, I've felt 'different.' I've never quite felt like I belonged, and many times I would be told by other people that I was 'beyond my age.' I have referred to the term 'lone wolf' sometimes, but it was as if I could never quite be myself and had to revert to being a character in order to fit in. I was bullied and a loner when trying to be truly who I was on the inside. Whether it is when we are younger or even when we're adults, I feel that it is difficult being who we truly are. Those who are 'different' tend to be alienated by others. If you don't say and do the things others deem as 'normal,' you are marked and treated differently. Ever since I was younger and through my twenties, this was something that I struggled with tremendously. I believe it was also the source of my illness.
When one holds back, detains and represses one's true self, it creates pressure, tension and tremendous stress on the body, which in turn begins to break down the actual processes that the body goes through when trying to heal. When I was younger, I traded being 'myself' with a character that would 'fit in.' As such, I created an unhealthy internal environment that broke down the actual mechanisms of my physical body. Without realizing it, I chose to sacrifice my own well-being to allow others to feel safe around me. I chose to become sick in order to fulfill the views that others had of me. But as a child, how would one be able to understand all this, let alone explain it to someone? Being where I am now, I'm finally able to express my true self and to explain what was happening then. Truly grateful.
Anxiety was certainly the toughest inner struggle to confront. Illness, at least at that time, was something that was physical, and with some medical help — although I now realize it was just putting a band-aid on the situation — I could start to recover. Anxiety, because it was something internal, was very difficult to even understand.
Even after being diagnosed, questions swirled around Shibuya's mysterious ailment. Both doctors and psychologists alike were unable to concoct a suitable explanation for her anxiety, speculating that it was simply a medical issue and prescribing an endless rotation of pills. Things had hit rock bottom, or somewhere close to it. That is, until Shibuya started seeing a psychologist who threw conventional wisdom out of the window.
I was sent to different psychologist because traditional medical doctors couldn't find the problem. But these psychologists couldn't understand what was causing my anxiety either. Instead, they would just tell me that I needed to take a pill. I refused to take such medication because something inside me told me that there wasn't really anything wrong, that there was something else going on.
I'm not sure if it was a confrontation, but the moment when I heard from the last psychologist I saw that he knew nothing was wrong with me — that it was a spiritual disconnect causing my issues. Something inside me knew that this was the answer I had been looking for, and that's when I was able to embrace the parts of me that I had been avoiding.
The road to recovery, I find out, has been arduous, but ultimately rewarding. Shibuya's priorities and perspective have changed since confronting the things that plagued her since childhood, and becoming a painter and spiritual thinker has been an exercise in finding wholeness and embracing imperfection. On the Internet, you can see evidence of her transformation; in photos, she smiles, surrounded by her work and bathed in the Californian sunlight that streams through her studio windows. She looks genuinely happy and there is little, if any, trace of her past.
It has definitely been a gradual process. First it was coming to terms with the fact that I had been avoiding and ignoring a part of myself that had been rejected by everyone around me, but was the key component in becoming holistically well again. Then, after the connection was made - to figure out what it was that I had been trying to figure out what it was that I had been trying to figure out all this time - it was coming to terms with the feeling of being ' different.' From there, it was one step after another, one thing leading to another. Reading books, meditating, meeting people, messages from the universe and finally coming out and sharing with others the things that I had been experiencing internally — the connections that I had been sensing all this time since I was young, but wasn't able to freely talk about. Once I was able to share with others openly, my health truly started to heal exponentially.
Ultimately, I learned to love myself for who I am and where I am currently, no matter what anyone else might say. I learned not to give power to others to define what I should be thinking of doing. To trust my internal compass, my soul, to lead the way. To know that I was made the way I was for a reason, and that any imperfections are there for a reason.
While on the subject of imperfections — and the dangers of trying to disguise them — I take the chance to ask Shibuya about her work and the way it has been affected by her personal journey towards wholeness, and if what she's learned has intrinsically changed her thoughts on perfection in the context of her art.
Through watercolor painting, I've learned that there is no such thing as imperfection of perfection. Whether it is people, nature, life or my own work. The closest I get to this thought is looking at my work and seeing if I feel connected to it or not, and depending on this, deciding whether to release it publicly. But then again, I've also learned that even though I might not connect with it aesthetically or in some other way, if there is another who appreciates it or desires to have it be a part of their life, then it's the 'perfect' piece for them. Another lesson I've learned is to stay open and allow for any and all types of creativity to flow through, and to share each with love.
I believe all types of art is perfection in the sense that it is perfectly sharing the soul of the creator. Actually, all things are perfect as they are, whether or not another might think them imperfect. The concept of imperfection in itself, I believe, is a man-made belief, whereas if you were to look at things from a different perspective, there is no such thing as perfect or imperfect. It is just as it is.
Curious, I ask her about the way she evaluates a painting and if, given her philosophy, there is ever a sense of completion or finality to her work. The pursuit of perfection, after all, remains the lifeblood of a great many artists, despite evidence that suggests it's as destructive to the creative process as it is inspiring. Amused, Shibuya replies, "I get a feeling. Or I get hungry and I must stop and eat."
As our conversation draws to an end, we finish by discussing her worldview and why the things we've talked about have real-world implications, and aren't simply unattainable ideals to be applauded, but ultimately ignored.
Some could feel that I'm being an idealist if they were to hear my spiritual thoughts, but I think anything is possible. There's a quotation that I love by John Updike: "Dreams come true; without that possibility, nature would not incite us to have them." So to some, my thoughts may sound like a dream and not reality, but in truth, I believe that it is within all of us to create a world of peace, of respect for one another. I think that by embracing what is in front of us, by embracing the moment, we are actually striving for this "ideal" world, By tapping into the way things are, we are accepting the natural flow of life and by being a part of this flow, it begins to unravel the truth of how things truly are.
After the interview, I mull over Satsuki Shibuya's story for a moment and consider my own childhood battles. I survey a life similarly spent in the hyphen (in my case, as a Chinese Canadian who grew up feeling neither very Chinese nor very Canadian) and under the magnifying glass of a small, primarily Caucasian suburban town. As a shy, bookish kid, there was always something to prove — to bullies, teachers, my parents — and I have often wondered what it would have been like to live as someone else, someplace different, at another time. A life that was somehow more perfect.
But, thinking back on our conversation, it occurs to me that there is a lesson to be learned from Shibuya's approach to art, nature and people — the way she's learned to embrace things as they "truly are," and as part of a much bigger whole.
In the natural world, it strikes me, we are compelled to reserve criticism. We do not devalue the cherry blossom for its fleeting lifespan, nor do we condemn rainy days, blustering winds or uneven rock faces. We cannot add even an ounce of value to these wonders, nor can we subtract from them. Instead, we learn to accept our universe — celebrate it even — because it is mysterious and sublime, because it is wonderfully made, and what it is makes us who we are. If we could only apply the same objectivity — the same unbiased eye — to our fellow human beings, we'd create a vastly different world, one without feelings of displacement or anxiety.
Suddenly, I am reminded of the ancient African word, ubuntu — the Nguni Bantu term that roughly translates "human kindness" or more specifically, "I am what I am because of who we all are" — and something Shibuya told me at one point during our exchange.
I feel that as a whole, we are one. 'We' meaning all things that exist in this universe and therefore, all that we do, all that we believe, affects and integrates with everything. I once listened to a talk by philosopher Alan Watts about how the universe is within, that we are made of the same particles as the stars above. The expression of us having answers to our own questions comes from this concept, I believe. If we truly could understand that we are here, together, as one, then I believe there would be no man-made destruction, hurt, hate, war, murder, depletion of environmental resources, the need to be on top in the expense of another, the need to boast, the need to be better than another, judgement... the list goes on forever. If we truly believe that we all come from one source, that we are interconnected, it would also naturally occur to us that doing something harmful and hurtful to another is, in fact, hurting ourselves.
Hong Kong, Spring/Summer 2015