“Calligraphy isn’t merely about drawing lines but also about the space between lines.”
Yuna Okanishi has been drawn to the monochrome world of ink and paper since her youth. By the age of 7, she began formally studying calligraphy, which developed into a deeper understanding of the art form. For her, calligraphy isn’t merely about drawing lines but also about the space between lines — a dichotomy of emptiness and fullness.
Black represents emptiness: what you observe may not actually be there, while white represents fullness: reality may be found dwelling within a place of nothingness. Ms. Okanishi thinks that we must strive to figure out what is truly important in a world where one can’t tell what is real and what is not.
In this interview, we talk with Ms. Okanishi about her artistic origins, what her work means to her, and the influence that Zen philosophy has on her creative process. (This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Drawing upon the Realms of Reality and Imagination
How did your career progress to become an ink painting artist?
I have been practicing calligraphy since I was 7 years old, and I held my first solo exhibition in 2010. It was in 2012 when I decided to study ink painting from Gyokusei Sekizawa. Mr. Sekizawa was taught by Kawai Gyokudo, a famous master of Japanese painting and ink painting, and his skill in the art form was truly exceptional.
I felt it was important to learn ink painting from Mr. Sekizawa, so I found a way to contact him and was soon under his guidance. At that time, I devoted my full energy into learning the art of “bokusho-ga” ink painting and was fortunate to have been taught many lessons.
What was the most important lesson you learned from Mr. Sekizawa?
I remember him repeatedly asking me during lessons, “Are you having fun?”
I studied alongside fellow students, some international, so oftentimes we candidly replied, “Yeah, it’s fun!” He always seemed pleased with this answer, replying “Good, good!”
Mr. Sekizawa frequently shared with us that having fun is the best way to draw. Since calligraphy is a mirror of your mental state, the viewer can tell whether or not you were having fun while drawing. Also, he said that enjoying the creative process itself is key to continuing your pursuit of art, which I always remind myself of while working on each piece. This enjoyment is not contained to just the art but spreads to who I am, so I really feel joyful during the process of creating.
“Every line I draw represents how I am and who I am.”
You’ve been studying calligraphy since the age of 7. How has that affected your life?
I think that every line I draw represents how I am and who I am. For example, if I fail to draw a simple, straight line, it could mean that I am somewhat unsure of myself, or have self-doubt.
If your heart isn’t in the right place, it will show through in the lines; the straight stroke will start to meander as you continue. But if your heart is set — when you are sure of yourself from the deepest part of your heart — your drawing will reflect this.
For me, I think calligraphy is very much like life itself as it represents your heart and spirit. As my calligraphy becomes more and more sophisticated, so do I, growing more mature and having a clearer understanding of my life. In a way, calligraphy is like a barometer of one’s life.
The Dichotomy of “Emptiness and Fullness”
How was the concept of your art series “Emptiness and Fullness” born into being?
I’ve been thinking about this idea since childhood, so it was not “born.” What is truth and what is a lie? Is the world I see real? Is the world I am seeing with my eyes the same as the world I see through the eyes of my soul? These are the kinds of questions that have always been present in my mind.
For example, when I was little, I believed that since the canvas can be broken down into particles, it’s possible that a world exists upon each small particle, and that something is actually living on that particle. What if this world that we live in, the universe we live in, is just another “particle” for someone else? Maybe we are being played with as if we’re Barbie Dolls.
What is the truth? This is a question that I still have yet to answer.
Even after growing up, these questions remained with me. The light that I see may be created hundreds of millions of light years ago. Then what is the light that I see now? What is truth and what is a lie?
“I always care deeply about how I leave the blank, white space as if I am drawing the emptiness itself.”
Even when I meet people, I keep asking myself these questions. Maybe I can find the truth in people who don’t get along with me, for there could be something I need to learn through them. Truth lies in places most unexpected, or vice versa. I think that I live searching for an answer in the world of “emptiness and fullness.”
I believe that before we are born, we know everything and willfully choose to be born and raised by parents we were meant to be with. I think the memory of the first few years in this life is very precious and important, since you are not suppressed by anything. When I work on my art, I always try to remember the memories from these early stages of life.
Which aspect of your work sets you apart from other calligraphy artists?
Oftentimes I am told by the viewer that my calligraphy has quite a distinctive style, but honestly, I am yet to discover that for myself. But what I always care deeply about is how I leave the blank, white space as if I am drawing the emptiness itself. My focus is not only on the calligraphy but the space around the characters and how it should be displayed.
From Calligraphy to Japanese Ink Art
What is the difference between standard calligraphy and Bokusho-ga ink art?
Calligraphy reflects my mind and mental state very well. For example, the line becomes blurred when my heart is unstable. It mirrors my heart.
Bokusho-ga ink art is drawn using a technique found in ink painting. Of course, it still does reflect one’s mental state like calligraphy does, but bokusho-ga is not about drawing something as explicit as characters; rather, it’s about drawing more abstract imagery and concepts.
On the technical side, performing the same stroke twice is prohibited in calligraphy, while bokusho-ga is about layering — heavier strokes placed upon lighter ones, enjoying the natural flow of the ink mixing with each layer. In that sense, it’s very much like an ink painting.
I think Bokusho-ga is an artform that stands between calligraphy and Japanese ink painting.
Simplicity and Zen Lifestyle
Zen philosophy can be found in both your lifestyle and your art. Do you remember how you came to adopt this approach?
When I was a child I suffered from atopy, and my mother struggled with caring for my condition. Since I had an allergic reaction to most commercially available goods, I could only use natural products.
Through my atopy, my mother became more aware of the environment, which eventually lead her to live an eco-friendly life. Growing up watching her, there was something in my mother’s way of life that lead to Zen philosophy such as cherishing everything, treating things with care and so on. When I began reading a book about Zen, I thought that there was truth in that spirit and thought I wanted to train myself in Zen philosophy.
There is another reason why I was interested in Zen philosophy. I felt it’s odd that in a busy, modern world, it’s hard to live in the moment when you use a smartphone while walking and watch TV while eating. When I heard that in Zen training one practices living in the present, I decided to study at the Eiheiji Temple in 2014; a temple known for its very strict training.
Earlier on, you mentioned that calligraphy is a reflection of your mind. How does your personal growth affect your artwork?
My work has a lot of lines that curve, but I think this curve is becoming more and more exaggerated over time.
It is the curve of nature — a sea of clouds, an arching branch. As I discover myself more through my love of nature, I often find myself diving in the ocean or going out into the wilderness, discovering more “curves” of the world, and my lines become more curved. I am pleased with how my artwork has evolved because it represents me.
Calligraphy Is Life
I believe that calligraphy is life.
When practicing calligraphy, one begins with copying “rinsho” characters, which are chosen either from ancient Chinese texts or drawn by the teacher.
Rinsho practice has three stages.
- First is “keirin,” mimicking the shape of the letter. This helps you to learn the master’s technique.
- Second is “irin,” trying to understand the meaning and thought of the calligrapher and drawing characters by immersing yourself in their thought.
- Third is “hairin,” creating something entirely unique on your own, forgetting everything you have learned so far and simply drawing freely.
I think these stages can be applied to life itself. From the moment we’re born, we start learning words by mimicking those around us, then we try to understand other people while developing our own personality along the way.
The way of calligraphy has many elements similar to life. That’s why I believe that calligraphy is life.
Where to Buy Yuna Okanishi’s Art
TRiCERA is proud to include many of Yuna Okanishi’s pieces among our growing offerings. If you are interested in learning more about other emerging contemporary calligraphers from Japan, please visit our calligraphy art page.