Colors Like Fluttering Butterflies


Osaka artist Michi Kawao’s use of colors remind you of fluttering butterflies in the bright morning sun

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Right around the corner from where UH Garden attracts huge crowds, with no protection from the harsh Summer sun of Osaka, sits Michi Kawao (1981), now in her final year of Osaka University of Art.

Small, full of spirit and with a disarming smile she jumps from left to right and back again behind her large collection of colorful ink drawings.

Kawao’s use of colors remind you of fluttering butterflies in the bright morning sun. Young women appear to float on the paper. Colors that are not restricted by lines, but run into each other and give each image an almost dream-like impression. As if the person drawn on the paper exists in a state between reality and imagination. Not truly imagined, but also not real. The way someone may appear in one of your dreams. Very real, but untouchable.

A World of Colors

Michi KawaoMichi KawaoMichi Kawao

“When I see a sheet of white paper I want to put all kinds of colors onto it,” explains Kawao about her floating colors. “I don’t draw my pictures with lines, I draw them with colors. I love colors.” She was born into a world full of colors, she says. “I grew up in Ayabe in Toyama prefecture. It is smack in the middle of nowhere. There are mountains everywhere you look. But with a 40 minute drive you can also be at the Japan Sea. There were colors galore. In Winter snow would sparkle brightly like gold was thrown over it, evenings brought a deep blue, the moon a beautiful yellow. I especially liked autumn when the maple trees turned into a fiery red.”

Kawao calls Ayabe “a fairy tale town”. “The seasons there are really distinctive and beautiful. You have snow in Winter, cherry blossom in Spring, the yellowish green of rice plants everywhere you look in Summer, and Japanese pampas grass in Autumn. Mountain slopes change between red, yellow and green.”

Red is Happy

Michi KawaoThis natural fireworks display of color has entered Kawao’s heart. “I am really bad at speaking. There are lots of things I want to say, but I am not able to put them in words. I can only express myself in my art.” Kawao’s art does not question, analyze or represent visual reality. Her images are simply a display of her innermost feelings, each color representing an emotion. Just like the eyes are said to mirror one’s soul, Kawao’s art mirrors her soul. “Happiness are primary colors for me. Red, yellow, green. Sadness are deep colors like sepia, wine red and moss green. When I feel lost, stressed or troubled colors don’t come to me at all. I just can’t draw. Actually, I just came out of a four month period during which I drew nothing.”

Dry Period

This dry period was a result of a sudden and unexpected success. Kawao first started selling her work on the streets this January. “I wanted to be seen by as many people as possible.” Her work seemed to click with people. Within weeks she was overwhelmed with requests. The owner of a cafe asked her to decorate his cafe’s walls, she was asked to do a exposition by someone else, magazines and TV covered her. “Everything happened at the same time. All kinds of requests came in. People asked me to draw this and this by then and then. I lost my peace of mind. By June my head was ‘overheated’.”

Not one to be easily discouraged, Kawao decided to take a trip to Cambodia to re-find herself. “I bought a ticket the day after I decided to go. It was supposed to be a trip for ten days, but I stayed for a whole month.” She pauses for a moment and smiles relaxed and from the heart. She clearly found exactly what she needed in Cambodia. “I went to a place without any Japanese, just Cambodians. It was wonderful. I feel totally refreshed. Everybody tells me that even my art has changed since my return. It is more cheerful.”

Spiritual Quest

Michi KawaoCambodia was a revelation. “The faces of the children were amazingly wonderful. Their eyes are so alive. Their faces so full of expression. In Japan when you step on the train you see all these people whose eyes are dead.” She exemplifies her words with perfect mimicry of someone sleeping in total exhaustion, a common sight on Japanese trains. “Cambodia is a poor country, but they have what Japan does not. People there look the way people should look. In Japan we have too many things and too much information. I feel people here have forgotten what really matters in life. Cambodia is a developing country. Compared to other countries they have few things and little money, but they also don’t have unnecessary things. They have just what they need to make a living. Not like Japan where everybody has lots of things they don’t really need and everybody knows lots of things that don’t really matter.”

Work to Live

Michi KawaoWork and living are still directly connected in Cambodia Kawao found. “The things people eat: beef, pork, etc. People raise their own cows and pigs. They take them for a walk. In Japan you go to the supermarket and it is yours. Their daily life is truly about putting food in their mouth. You work to live. Just living a life like that for a little while made me realize that everything that I thought was a matter of course is actually not that at all. They are just things that I was taught to believe, but they are not there as a matter of course.

It has given Kawao a new look on life. More positive, and possibly more simple. “It is important to let yourself be moved emotionally. Then you truly know you are alive. Just simple things. Like when someone tells me she likes my drawings. That makes me immensely happy. Or when you see a beautiful sunset. Then I think: ‘I am glad I was born’.”

Kjeld Duits About the Author

Inspired by the stunningly creative street fashion that exploded on the streets of Tokyo and Osaka in the late 1990’s, photo-journalist Kjeld Duits launched JAPANESE STREETS in 2002. This makes JS one of the first fashion blogs on the net, and the very first to cover Japanese street fashion.

Recent articles by Kjeld Duits:

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Oct 19, 2007 (5419 days ago)

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Dec 6, 2007 (5371 days ago)

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