The Breathing Stones

Seeds of stone Artist Kanako Matsui uses marble to reimagine nature
Seeds of stone Artist Kanako Matsui uses marble to reimagine nature. Photo: Arun Sehrawat

Normally stones defy all life depictions, especially life-in-motion. But Japanese artist Kanako Matsui sees them differently. In a recent exhibition in the capital’s Café Rose, Kanako showed how stones have a life of their own. Shades of white are speckled with shades of black to give various shapes and forms. A tree in bloom starts mid-trunk from the bottom of a sheet of handmade paper, with various other trees and plants around it. Under the wall mounts, on a small pedestal, are what look like huge white seashells, only carved out of marble, a little tag on the wall saying, “Do touch and feel its surface.”

Kanako explains, “The carved marbles are seeds and the paintings are the blooms out of these stones.” Sensing the confusion, she conveys in her halting English that the exhibition is a work of imagination. She first carves the seeds and then tries to think what if the stone seeds actually had life? How would the saplings, the flowers out of each of them, look like? The answer leads to her painting the plant motifs on textile, handmade paper or parchment.

The stones acquire a life of their own in Kanako’s imagination. “My imagination shows me something and I quickly jot it down; it is all a momentary glimpse. I refine my work later, usually on the same day,” she says. As understanding and appreciation dawn on her audience, she gives an accomplished grin.

Kanako, 27, is based in Tokyo, Japan, and started sketching very young, at the age of two. Her mother was the first person to acknowledge her talent. “She brought me all the books, papers and colours to draw with,” Kanako recounts. When she decided to pursue a degree in fine arts, she dedicated herself to sculpture. After pursuing her masters, she decided to go for a PhD in 2012, but left it midway when it became too academic for her. “That was when India called me,” she says with a smile.

For her current project, Kanako derives her influence from nature, mostly trees.

“My grandmother lives in the countryside. I loved it, only because of the sprawling greenery. It served as my training ground and inspiration,” she says. Her abode n India, Santiniketan, is her second inspiration. “I had never seen so many types of trees before. It is so fantastic!”

India has influenced Kanako in other ways too. “When I started this project,” she says, “I used to work on the seeds alone. India helped me realise the germination process.” She discovered her preferred material, the Jaipuri Marble stone, here and also learnt the kalamkaari and other techniques. She now uses kalamkaari to draw plant motifs on silk, cotton and handmade paper. Indian spirituality also helped her grow aesthetically. “Buddhism and the harmony it preaches in all life forms helped me understand a lot about my own work,” she says.

Kanako’s process of working is in keeping with her calm exterior. First she makes stone seeds and then works on each one of them for a couple of days to come up with the paintings. “The colours are subdued simply because I don’t want my pictures to be loud,” she explains. “They should be close to the earth.” All her works seem to flow from one edge to the other and it’s hard to find the starting or end-point of any of her paintings. Kanako herself describes it as a peaceful and constant artwork.

Besides inspiration, India has given Kanako the room to be original, unlike Japan, where she says, art has saturated. “There are many artists working on new ideas, but a bigger number of artists are just copying past works. The anime or animation industry is ruining plain nature-oriented artwork.” On the other hand, she feels that art in india has a far more emotional connect. “They are a rightful depiction of the people. Deeply emotional and highly attractive due to the bright colours,” she says, albeit she admits colour is not her area. “It’s the complete opposite of my work,” she chuckles.

For now, Kanako plans to finish that PhD she had left half-done and wants to travel to new places, to see more of the spiritual side of India. “I want to visit Ladakh, Sikkim and other places that have Buddhist influences,” she says.


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