“Brokenness” is common theme of contemporary discourse – people with scars, broken lives, broken dreams. The ancient Japanese art of kintsugi makes works of beauty out of broken pottery. My chance encounter with this technique led me to the works and ideas of the bicultural artist “Mako”, full of reflections on life, culture, and creativity.

Born in Boston, of Japanese ancestry, Makoto Fujimura lived and was educated in Japan until the age of 13. After returning to the US he went on to pursue fine arts, in particular abstract expressionism. A scholarship took him to Tokyo University of the Arts for further study, where he learned the techniques and styles of Nihonga (“Japanese-style paintings”).

Nihonga has a very pre-industrial pace, its water-based paints being in some ways the antithesis of quick-drying acrylics. Preparing each pigment to achieve the proper thickness and darkness takes an hour. Then Fujimura will apply as many as 100 layers of colour, one at a time, and “wait for [his] art to grow” in what he calls Slow Art. The painter cannot rush this process; he is contemplative, he nurtures his creation, he does not click an “enter” key in a frenetic race to the next move.  

Hidden jewels in these works go unnoticed to the impatient and superficial. He warns students: “It usually takes at least 10 minutes of sitting, quieting our hearts, and beholding the work before our eyes start to see, and our brain stops to try to categorize.” The pulverized minerals in the pigments can act as prisms that refract light below the surface, but it can take 20 minutes of peaceful gazing before one is aware of these rainbows of meaning.

Reflecting on this, the painter quotes William Blake:

To see a world in a grain of sand
and heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palms of your hand
and eternity in an hour.

Fujimura’s comments on “kintsugi” are also thought-provoking. Shards from a broken bowl are glued together with dark lacquer and then sprinkled with silver or gold. What was once an imperfection, a flaw, an ugly crack, thus becomes a gilded river; what might have been thrown away as old and useless acquires a new beauty while continuing to serve.   

Artfully “mending what is broken” is about “valuing what you have, versus disposable culture”. But Mako takes the metaphor even further, suggesting “this reality of the kintsugi bowl that is more valuable than the original really speaks to the restorative redemptive process of the gospel”. We are broken, and yet the artist’s hands can make us shine as never before.

Fujimura notices that people of many persuasions can find beauty in the same work of art, and that this can enhance dialogue in an increasingly polarized world. In an interview with the National Endowment for the Humanities, he speaks of his concept of “Culture Care”:

What I suggest is to see culture as an ecosystem—a fantastic estuary, where salt water mixes with fresh water, the most diverse ecosystem in the world, and the most delicate… You have all sorts of influences, even some conflicting elements, and when you study the estuary—like the Hudson or the Chesapeake Bay—it is very delicate. It has all of these components that are heterogeneous and complex relationships, but the more diversity, the more healthy the entire ecosystem is. That’s the model that we want to see the entire culture become in general… [These diverse creatures] may not like each other, but they can coexist. And actually, not only coexist but be nurtured by each other and go upstream and spawn and give birth to beautiful things.”

To this artist, creativity is not just about self-expression. He knows he has a gift, and was born to let God act through him, creating beautiful works. He writes about a “theology of making”, wherein homo faber contributes to making the world better though his work, and he should do this generously, with abundance.

I strongly recommend listening to his YouTube interviews (such as those linked in this article). His website shows samples of his work, but of course a computer screen cannot reproduce the full effect of the originals. Some of his paintings are permanently on display in Tokyo, Yokohama, Saint Louis, Cincinnati and Hong Kong, while others find their way into temporary exhibits at major museums.

Regrettably, I have not had the pleasure of gazing on one of them yet, but I found listening to this artist speak of his experience immensely rewarding. The concepts he relates are transferable to other fields of human endeavour.

David Kolf teaches English in Japan and is living proof that one can live there without ever touching a PS console.