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Photo: Makoto Fujimura

On a warm spring evening in April 2014, Makoto Fujimura introduced himself to a packed audience at the Seattle Pacific University campus. People fanned themselves, peeled off jackets and quietly filled the remaining space on the floor to make room for latecomers, but no one left. The crowd was there to see Golden Sea, a new documentary on Fujimura’s life and work.

It was a humble setting for Fujimura, a successful artist with a career spanning 20 years, whose paintings are exhibited in galleries around the world. However, the documentary itself gives some clues to his motives. While the film examines creativity, it also makes a strong case for advancing art as a cultural language, a point of view that has inspired a lifetime of questions for Fujimura:

What are the things that are made to last?

How can imagination survive times of great collective trauma?

What is the role of beauty in a society overwhelmed with violence?

How can creative work inspired by culture also point to the future?

Mokoto Fujimura

Mokoto Fujimura. Photo: Brad Guise

Golden Sea beautifully explores these themes through interviews and voice-over commentary in Japanese and English, with footage shot in several international locations. It begins at the completion of a painting and follows Fujimura back to the places of inspiration in his past: along the beaches and temples of Kamakura, Japan, with his father, and through the streets of Tokyo, where he returned as an art student after growing up in the United States. It was during his time at Tokyo University of the Arts that he began to study Nihonga, an ancient technique of Japanese painting where mineral pigments are applied to handmade paper, layer upon layer, to mesmerizing effect. Inside Tokuoken, a tiny Nihonga shop lined with colorful jars, Fujimura looks around and reminisces, “I entered this shop, with the brushes and pigments, and my life was changed.”

pigments in bowl

Photo: Makoto Fujimura

Later, as we cross the bridge at Futako Tamagawaen and watch the two rivers move, Fujimura explains how these waterways inspired him to transform both his creative technique and his burgeoning faith into languages more people could access.

The film comes to a sharp point halfway through with words about purpose from critic and artist Robert Kushner: “Irony, cynicism, ennui has been a dominant force in much recent contemporary art, and indeed, it is one valid reaction to the difficulties facing us. But for many of us, the seduction of nihilistic despair seems self-indulgent. The idea of forging a new kind of art about hope, healing, redemption and refuge, while maintaining visual sophistication and intellectual integrity, is a growing movement, one which finds Fujimura’s work at the vanguard."

Makoto Fujimura art

Photo: Makoto Fujimura

One of the first questions from the Seattle audience when the film finished was, “Why champion beauty? Why beauty?”

Fujimura answered: “Today, we have a language that celebrates waywardness, but we don’t have a cultural language to bring people back home. Everything I do has something to do with that.”

At the end of the evening after much of the crowd dispersed, a smaller group stayed behind and lingered in conversations. Fujimura greeted them like old friends. Some had worked with him on previous projects, many considered him a mentor. Fujimura’s natural affinity for building community is another theme from the film that is easy to see when watching him in person. I asked later how he balances his time with artists and his time making art, and he said it’s all part of creating. He continued, “I think of my studio as the center of my labyrinth. When I am traveling, I see myself moving outward in prayer, and as I come back, moving inward in focus. So in that sense, my studio is always the center of my call, and traveling, too, can become a spiritual discipline."

It is this theme of wayfinding that surfaces again and again in Fujimura’s life and work. In Golden Sea a portrait emerges of a person perpetually between: a bicultural artist using ancient techniques to create contemporary art, a successful creative whose work is well received and who still needs to explore, and a mentor with a calling but also deep questions. Yet instead of retreating from these places of incongruity, Fujimura treats them instead as hinges, pushing through them and declaring the unfamiliar beyond as fertile ground. He is earnest in his assertions that beauty can be created anew in these places and that wayfinding, too, can be a cultural language.

A short version of the Golden Sea documentary can be seen at makotofujimura.com. The extended version is available with the Golden Sea: Makoto Fujimura monograph published by Dillon Gallery Press. The film screening mentioned in this article was hosted by Image and was funded by the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust Artist in Residence program.