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Interview with Graphic Artist Kahori Maki

By Akiko Saito

Tokyo-based graphic artist Kahori Maki is renowned for her sensitive, fascinating visuals, which frequently take their inspiration from plants and human forms. She can create worlds of her own in just one powerful image. She’s also known for her flexibility: Maki works in a wide range of disciplines, from illustration and graphic design to videos and large-scale installations, in collaboration with companies around the world. Recently, she has been focusing her efforts on digital artwork—in collaboration with Apple and Adobe. We invited Maki to Adobe’s Tokyo office to ask her how she goes about creating the worlds in her artwork.

Images from What silhouettes talk about: a poetry exhibition, at L'illustrate Galerie Mondo in Tokyo.

Create: How would you describe your work?

Maki: My artworks are inspired by the physical spaces they appear in. People say my images work well as installations. My images are also often regarded as ideas for installations. One image becomes an object, or a video, or a space, and seeing the images transform is a real thrill.

Create: Can you tell us about your usual creative environment?

Maki: I have a studio in Tokyo and what I call my “mountain studio” in Gunma Prefecture, and I come and go between the two. In the mountains, I collect firewood or plow the soil—I have a great deal of work to do just to survive, so I am busier than you might think. However, the lifestyle allows me to attune myself to the rhythms of nature and deepen my ideas. The Tokyo studio enables me to focus on the practical aspects of my job more, partly because there’s great pressure there…. The fact that I can create in two different environments means I am able to experience the advantages of both, so I feel incredibly lucky.

Images from Start Something New, for Apple Inc.

Create: What media do you typically use?

Maki: Usually, I draw my images in pencil and ink on paper, scan them, and process them in Adobe Photoshop. Recently, I have also been using an iPad Pro and other mobile environments. I believe that my images gain depth as I move between the satisfying physicality of analog methods and the immediacy of digital.

Create: Where do you find the inspiration for your creations?

Maki: I am very much attracted to the forms generated by life—I find them beautiful. It is as if the micro world of something like a star or planet with great energy is bursting onto a macro world. I’m also greatly inspired by sounds.

Create: Who are your greatest influences?

Maki: My father is an artist, and when I was young he was always painting. I think he is my biggest influence. My father likes pastel colors, and he creates pictures that are cuter than mine. I have also been greatly influenced by shodo [Japanese calligraphy]. That moment when the black ink stains the white space—the white piece of paper—is almost identical to present-day design. When I see haiku written by people long ago, I feel that the balance between the letters and the space they inhabit is perfect. I think that this method of creating space, which is asymmetrical and makes use of blank space, is unique to Japan.

Images from Neo Bouquet.

Create: What motivated you to begin working as an artist?

Maki: I grew up watching my father, so I wanted to earn a living through art from a very young age. I remember writing in my elementary school graduation album that I wanted to become an illustrator. Things may have been different if I had had a talent for music or dancing, but drawing was the only thing I was good at. Having said that, I’m not the sort of person who was born with artistic ability—it has taken me a long time to get to where I am now.

Create: What was that journey like?

Maki: I initially enrolled in the graphic design course at the Nihon University College of Art in Tokyo. But in design, I felt that I wasn’t able to develop my own unique style and that I wouldn’t be able to work under my own name, so I returned to painting. After graduating from university, I studied painting at an atelier in New York for two years. It was around that time that I began to enjoy drawing people, and I thought that I would be able to draw many different types of people in the melting pot that is New York. I returned to Japan having decided to become a professional artist, and I decided to showcase my work to every magazine that used images in its pages. Every day, I would visit publishers with my portfolio trying to sell my work. I went to bookstores and jotted down the telephone numbers of various editorial departments, phoned them all, made appointments, and visited multiple companies in one day. The editorial departments would always make time to meet me, as they felt it was part of their job to meet new artists. After a while, I started to receive illustration work, and here I am today.

Image from Hakoniwa.

Create: Has your style changed since you started out?

Maki: At the beginning, I drew pictures in the style that was fashionable at the time and that I knew would be favorably received. They were the sorts of illustrations that can often be seen in fashion magazines—slim girls having tea, or images with maps or star-sign motifs. But I was frustrated because these weren’t “my drawings.” So I held solo exhibitions as I searched for a direction I wanted to take my work in. The breakthrough came in an exhibition I held in 2005—that was the first time I used computers in my work

Create: What sort of work was it?

Maki: I scanned an image I had drawn in pencil, used Photoshop to create hundreds of layers of the image, and then covered the ceiling, walls, and floor with them. At first I thought I would make photocopies and stick these copies onto the surfaces—an analog way of thinking—but the printing shop that was making these images with me taught me that it was better to scan the image and make copies using Illustrator and Photoshop. It was a huge culture shock—I didn’t know there was such a method of doing things!

Images from COLL, an installation in Hong Kong.

Create: So did the transition to digital give you more ways to express yourself?

Maki: Yes, that has been true of my exhibitions. More than wanting to show the images themselves, I like thinking about how to create the space that flows out from them. I first decide where I am going to exhibit, and only then do I start to create the images. I’d rather that the space itself look beautiful—even if that means having to fold my images—than simply show my images on a flat surface. I also have a desire to be immersed in large images, so most of my works now are big.

Maki recently participated in an Adobe-sponsored Make It on Mobile event in New York. In the photos above, we see her work and the work of Katrin Eismann. About the event, Maki says, “It's rare for artists to gather and work together. Musicians will often congregate for a jam session, but unless you’re a live painter, there are not many opportunities to create pictures with other artists. At the Make It on Mobile event, a large number of artists came together—it was an incredibly positive atmosphere and very powerful. Just as politicians or athletes gather, I realized that artists should also come together to generate a new energy. It’s important to attend events that have a ‘live’ feeling.” 

Create: What are you working on these days?

Maki: It’s a project suggested to me by my musician friend Leo Sato—his idea was to show pictures on iTunes. His concept was not to do visuals for an album, but to create visuals and then add songs to the visuals. When I’ve finished, I want my images to move like holograms, but I’m not sure if this is possible…. Apart from this, I am working with architects on the interior design of La Peer Hotel, which is scheduled to open next year in Los Angeles. I am making paintings and objects for the elevator hall, and thinking about graphics for the ceilings and the wallpaper. As for Japan, in late autumn I am planning to hold a live exhibition in a house in Kamakura with a sculptor and a few guests. I am also in the middle of manufacturing products such as lace tape, as part of a project called Chopsticks. Early next year, I am scheduled to hold exhibitions and unveil products both in Japan and in this project overseas.

Create: What’s next for you, artistically?

Maki: One thing I would like to do is to create something based on “silhouettes.” I want to create picture books or graphics that are recognizable all over the world—like Miffy, using simple silhouettes. Something like The Very Hungry Caterpillar or The Fall of Freddy the Leaf, which people across the world can read and empathize with. I want to create a story that will go on to become a picture book or short film, and that will also become a play that children can act in. It’s the simple things in which imagination resides. Why are people moved? That is what I want to explore. What is it that creation can do in the world? I hope that, in some small way, I can help make the world a better place.

Images from an installation at the Ensouler Design Festival in Taipei.