My Life as an Artist
AS TOLD BY SHIZUKO KAWABATA
“Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Beautiful People Who Are Declaring the Good News All Over the World” was the title of one of my pictures on display at an art exhibition in Versailles, France, in 1999.
LESS than a week before the exhibition, Jehovah’s Witnesses in France had distributed throughout the country 12 million tracts that drew attention to the government’s unfair treatment of them. For my picture praising the Witnesses, I was given a special award. Later, the person in charge of presenting it said: “You have courage, but I have courage too. That is why I am awarding you the special prize.”
Many artists try to convey sensations and emotions in their pictures. This is what I try to do. I paint what I feel, and my pictures are bright, reflecting my joy and happiness. During my childhood I discovered the joy of combining creativity and painting.
Why I Started Painting
I was born in 1920 to well-to-do parents in Morioka, Japan. My older sister and I had tutors who taught us Japanese dancing, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, the koto (Japanese zither), piano, singing, and so on. I hated all of it. When the tutors came, I often ran off and hid. The servants had to search for me and drag me back.
It was the rigidity of the lessons that I detested. People I had never before met decided how I should dance, arrange flowers, and serve tea. I felt cramped, as if there were no way to think up things for myself and set personal goals. When I painted pictures, though, no one looked over my shoulder. No one told me what to do. Here was the freedom I craved.
Since I had no tutor for art, I could be creative and improvise, and nobody criticized me. Gradually I became bolder. At about the age of 12, I began taking my father’s silk ties and painting directly on them. Soon after that, we made dresses at school. The teacher was shocked when she saw that I had cut out half of the front and replaced it with white material. Like my father, though, she made no comment.
Dreams and Reality
As early as elementary school, I said that I would grow up to be an artist. My goal did not change, and I wanted to go to a university to study art; but my parents would not allow this. They said that in Japan an arts graduate would be considered unacceptable as a bride. So I took a course in domestic skills.
I liked foreign poetry and foreign books and read them a great deal. At the time, however, these were criticized as enemy literature. Even owning such literature was dangerous. At school I had studied French for five years under a French teacher, but conditions changed in Japan so that even interest in foreign languages was viewed with suspicion. Freedom of speech was denied us.
In 1943, as World War II raged, I was flattered to hear that after looking at 40 photographs of young women of marriageable age, a man had selected me as a possible wife. I later learned that his mother and her friend had visited our neighborhood to take a secret look at me. Afterward, their family sent a formal proposal of marriage to our family, and I was talked into accepting it. I met the man just once before our wedding.
After we were married, massive air raids threatened our lives daily, and finally our home went up in flames with the rest of the city. Survivors sought refuge in the mountains, but even there we could hear the sirens and see the warplanes. It was terrifying. Everyone suffered. The ten years after the war were also truly bitter.
Besides our three children, my mother-in-law and six of my husband’s brothers and sisters lived with us. Although we employed servants, we all had to work in the fields in order to eat. During that time I was very sad and forgot how to laugh. But I was afraid that putting my feelings into words would invite misunderstanding. Gradually, though, I found I could express my feelings through my art.
Gaining Recognition as an Artist
Even a person with an artistic flair must expend a tremendous amount of effort before worthwhile results are realized. I bought books on art, and I studied under a number of Japan’s top artists. None of them recommended that I change the style that I had already developed as a youth.
Art critics began taking notice of my work, yet I painted for my own satisfaction, not to show my paintings to others. In time, though, I began to wonder what people thought of my pictures. So in 1955, I held my first exhibition in Tokyo’s Ginza. It was entitled “Silent Struggle, Silent Speech, My Diary,” and it expressed everyday life in picture form. The exhibition was a success.
Meeting the Witnesses
In 1958 our family moved to Tokyo because my husband and I wanted our children to enter good schools and have the best education possible. My life revolved around painting. It had become my custom to spend about five hours a day painting. At night I would go out with my artist friends, and my husband went out with others. We had no idea how to bring up our children.
My husband’s work took him away a good deal, so rearing the children became my responsibility, and I lost confidence. As a child, I had attended a Catholic mission school, and I wondered if some kind of Bible education would help. Across the road from our house in Omori, Tokyo, was a Lutheran church, and I suggested to the children that we go there. But we never made it to the church.
Instead, the very next day—early in 1959—one of Jehovah’s Witnesses called at our house. I quickly assembled the children, and we all sat down to listen. The Witness explained from the Bible that we are living in a marked time when God will soon rid the earth of wickedness. I ordered four Bibles along with Bible literature and readily accepted her offer to call each week to teach us. I asked how much the monthly tuition fees would be and was amazed to learn that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not accept payment for their teaching. How different from all the tutors I had known!
My daughters readily accepted Bible truths, and we even began having a regular group study in our home each week. But after a few studies, I began to feel uneasy. For me it was a painful period, so sometimes I would try to hide or go out when it was time for my personal Bible study.
My problem was that I could see that everything the Bible said was correct and that I should conform to its guidance. At the same time, though, I was determined to become a good artist, and I believed that I had to maintain free thinking to be creative. As a result of the turmoil I was feeling, my painting suffered. My pictures were being relegated to back corners at exhibitions.
My Trip to Paris
I felt that a visit to Paris would help me improve my pictures. So in 1960, I went there, since a major exhibition to introduce Japanese art to France was being held. I was the only female artist from Japan to attend. In Paris the difference in living conditions, clothes, conceptions, color—everything—thrilled me. The exhibition lasted four days, and to my surprise, the country’s leaders attended the exhibition. Yet another surprise was that women were fascinated by the kimonos I wore. I was determined to stay longer.
Not understanding how to have money sent from Japan, I began selling my kimonos. Thus, I was able to spend the next three months studying works on display in art galleries. Often I recalled the words of the artist whose picture had hung next to mine at the exhibition. He said: “I paint the brightness of the sun. Your painting is naturally dark and black because you are influenced by Oriental philosophers.”
A married couple from the Paris branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses visited my apartment. After several visits, I finally agreed to accompany them to a Christian meeting. When I arrived, I was stunned by what I saw. One lady was wearing a beautiful red broad-brimmed hat. Another wore a dress of brilliant green. The clothes worn reflected a sense of style and good taste, so that my view of the Witnesses underwent a complete change.
The program also impressed me. Seeing the same procedures being followed on both sides of the globe, with the same teachings, made me realize that this group and its activity were far from ordinary. My heart was deeply touched, as I realized that I was associating with people led by God.
Upon returning to Japan, I began to study the Bible seriously. I discovered that our Creator’s guidelines allow for more freedom than I had imagined. Lovingly, he has given us individual personalities as well as individual talents and the freedom to cultivate them. So I came to realize that becoming one of Jehovah’s Witnesses did not mean giving up one’s love for the arts.
My daughters and I progressed with our Bible studies. One daughter symbolized her dedication to Jehovah by water baptism in 1961, and the other in 1962. To this day, both have remained faithful servants of God. Yet, I still held back. In 1965, Lloyd Barry, who then had oversight of the preaching work of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Japan, encouraged me by saying: “Just think what wonderful pictures perfect people will paint in Paradise!” The following year I was baptized.
The Effect on My Painting
Looking back, I can see how the changes in my life and personality have affected my painting. My earlier pictures were dark and gloomy, reflecting the pain, suffering, and hopelessness I felt. But then I learned from the Bible about our Creator, his marvelous qualities, the happiness that comes from praising him, and the proper standards by which to live. As my feelings changed, so did my pictures.
I now spend a lot of time sharing the Bible’s message with others, doing this on a regular basis. Talking with people about the qualities of God, as well as his wonderful purpose to make this earth a paradise under the rule of his Son, Jesus Christ, brings me great joy and contentment. This Bible-based activity stimulates me, and I just have to pick up my paintbrush and give expression to my feelings. And as my happiness has continued to grow over the years, my pictures have become brighter.
Emphasis on the Bible
I receive requests to exhibit my paintings from all over the world—from Sydney, Vienna, London, New York. But it is Europeans who admire my pictures the most. Experts of the Louvre Royal Academy of Arts in Paris have asked: “How is it that a Japanese can be so moved by the Bible and Christianity that her pictures express a joy never seen in centuries of religious art?”
The Bible psalmist David expressed his feelings through music, and he used his musical talents to teach others the wonders of God. My aim is the same. I want to praise Jehovah. I strongly desire that people sense in my pictures the joy that can be had from knowing Jehovah and his wonderful qualities. An art critic said about my titles: “The artist’s own words are cleverly avoided, and she objectively gets the Bible to talk.” It thrills me that people recognize the power of the Bible in my pictures.
In 1995 the World Council of Arts, which is an international art organization with headquarters in Tokyo, awarded me first place among the world’s top-ranking artists. The council reported regarding my paintings: “The artist quotes words from the Bible for titles . . . All of her pictures have the Bible depicted in them, but this is exactly what life is about for an artist who walks with God.”
The above was a reference to the fact that I often include an image of an open Bible in my paintings. Recently, I have combined printed pages of the Bible with my pictures. So the eye of a viewer is drawn to my selected title as well as the words in the Bible and then to the way that I depict these in my paintings.
In 1999 some of my pictures were exhibited in Bangkok, Thailand. One was called “How Wonderfully Jehovah God Made the Earth, Giving It to Man as a Dwelling Place,” and another, “Prayer of King David: ‘Jehovah, Let the Heart of This People Be One With You.’” I was invited to the palace of the king of Thailand along with a few other artists. The king wanted to discuss my pictures with me, and he asked me many questions. I was able to talk with him at length and include comments about my Bible-based beliefs. Afterward, I made a gift to him of a picture.
During the past 35 years, I have also served on a committee to judge the work of other artists. Pictures that I like express emotion. To me a picture is good when it leaves me with a good impression, causing me to feel inner peace. I greatly admire the pictures that appear in the publications of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which accomplish their purpose of faithfully representing the message of the Bible.
Blessings as a Servant of God
As a result of my painting, I have enjoyed unique opportunities to give a witness about Jehovah God and his grand purposes for the earth. This has been true during interviews for magazine articles and on television programs. In fact, no matter where I go or whom I talk to, I try to let people know that it is the faith, joy, and happiness that comes from serving Jehovah God that enables me to produce my pictures.
I am convinced that if I were to give up my faith, I could not paint as I do. But because I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and because the truth of God’s Word fills me with joy and happiness, for these reasons I can paint.
[Picture on page 21]
When I was in Paris
[Picture on page 22]
With my two daughters today