>Makoto Fujimura: Refracting Light and Reflecting Grace

>“…the arts are a glorious gift from God; and in the process of creation lies the joy of God’s creative heartbeat.” -Makoto Fujimura

One of the most high profile Reformed Christians in the arts today is Makoto Fujimura, a New York City artist who utilizes ancient Japanese techniques in modern abstract artwork.

“I see abstraction as a potential language to speak to today’s world about the hope of things to come,” he says.

Born in Boston, Fujimura received his bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University and his M.F.A. from Toykyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. He spent several years in Japan studying the traditional Medieval technique of Nihonga. Using that ancient technique and materials imported from Japan, Fujimura creates widely-acclaimed contemporary images; images whose crushed mineral pigments refract light and whose content reflects the artist’s Christian worldview and the concept of grace.

Fujimura begins by stretching thin, hand-made paper over canvases or large panels. For pigments, he crushes minerals—actually semi-precious stones—such as azurite, malachite, and cinnabar. Finely ground mineral pigments become a lighter shade of color, while more coarsely ground pigments remain dark and intense.

“Minerals I use are like prisms, and they refract, more than just reflect,” he says. “I use them not just because they are beautiful, which they are, but because they have this wonderful lineage. They symbolize God’s spiritual gifts to people…in the Bible. In Solomon’s temple these precious stones were embedded in the walls as well as in the garments of the high priest.” He uses gold as a symbol of divinity because it does not change, while silver—which oxidizes and changes—is a symbol of “death within.”

The minerals are heated dry and darkened, then mixed with animal hide glue and applied to the thin paper in what Fujimura describes as “a semi-transparent layering effect” that “traps light in the space created between the pigments and between layers of gold or silver foil.” He calls this trapped light a “grace arena” that creates “the effect of space rising and falling through these veils of pigment.”

“These materials and the technique itself capture the essence of an aesthetic-world view developed over centuries of Japanese art,” he says. “At the same time, I believe the range of expression and surface-presence of these materials makes them appropriate contemporary medium; a visual diction that bridges the past and the present.”

The materials are expensive and Fujimura admits there have been times when he had to balance what materials he would order against what his family would eat that week. But he compares these exquisite materials to the fragrant oil poured over the feet of Jesus by Mary (whom he refers to as “the quintessential artist”).

“The arts parallel this act of pouring the expensive perfume,” he says. “Is the expense justified in art? In order to answer this question, we must answer not with ‘why,’ but ‘to whom.’ We are either glorifying ourselves or God. And the extravagance can only be justified if the worth of the object of adoration is greater than the cost of extravagance.”

“The extravagance of the materials used only contrasts the poverty of my heart,” he says. He explains that his art must testify to how his life has been touched by grace, and refers to his artwork as “God’s Images of Grace.”

Fujimura’s work has been influenced by artists of eastern and western traditions as well as recent historical events. As a resident of New York, the tragedy of 9/11 profoundly impacted him and generated his “Water Flames” series. This series is also based on the imagery found in T.S. Eliot’s poetry, notably the “Four Quartets,” a work inspired in turn by Dante’s Divine Comedy. A section of Eliot’s vivid imagery concludes: “tongues of flame…in-folded/Into the crowned knot of fire/And the fire and the rose are one.”

Quoting Dorothy Sayers’ phrase in the introduction to her translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” Fujimura writes, “I am aiming for this integration of elements, spiritual and physical, in these works that somehow capture the ‘imagination of ecstasy.’” He also writes of “the need for ‘visionary fire’ to sear us through.”

“We know that in order to create, we must destroy something,” he says. “In order for the minerals to refract beautifully, they must be pulverized. So Dante’s dream of purgatory seems apt in light of the process of creativity. It is a journey of beauty that the Japanese of old understood: ultimate beauty is necessarily tied with death, and sacrifice.”

“Art cannot be divorced from faith,” he says, “for to do so is to literally close our eyes to that beauty of the dying sun setting all around us. Death spreads all over our lives and therefore faith must be given to see through the darkness, to see…the beauty of ‘the valley of the shadow of death.’”

Fujimura describes a biblical perspective of the arts as flowing from Genesis 2: “art and culture that is generative (flows out of Eden into the City of God), rather than reparative (merely an effort to get back to the Garden).”

“Art reaches to both heaven and earth, fusing them together,” he says. “If we attempt to do this in our wisdom, the result will be a greater schism between heaven and earth. Christ is the ultimate example of this fusing: the incarnation of Christ, the divine becoming a man…is the greatest example in which all artists can find inspiration. Christ’s unique significance for the artist goes even deeper than mere inspiration. Christ’s incarnation resolves the most difficult dichotomy that exists for an artist; that is the dichotomy of form and content.”

Fujimura believes that “exclusive commitment to God” entails “practicing the presence of God” in studios and businesses. It means asking the Lord what He sees in art.

“His exclusivity and absolute sovereignty allow us the privilege of asking such a question in museums, galleries and as we work,” he says. “He is already there, pointing the way; in fact, he owns all things.”

“We are created to be creative,” he adds, “and we have stewardship responsibilities that come with that gift. The more we find fittingness in the God given responsibility, the more freedom we will find in our expression.”

Fujimura is an encourager. He encourages fellow artists in their work, and he encourages fellow believers to support the arts, first, by becoming more informed: “The community of believers needs to be more intentional in educating each other in art. The gap that exists between the arts community and the church must be bridged by God’s community being more aware of the language of art, and being part of the solution rather than being part of the problem.”

“Churches need to be engaged in culture at large, but also to support tangible production of art that may or may not have any explicit connection with Christ or the Church,” he says. “In other words, Christians need to be the most important patrons for the artists (believers and non-believers) if we want to change the world.”

Fujimura believes that in order to lead and “teach our chlidren to lead” with creativity in this century, it is necessary to convince the culture “to value art” and “steward” it “with proper boundaries” and “a sense of responsibility.”

“What we create matters,” he says, “all art products cast their vision of what the artists consciously or unconsciously desire for the world to become. [I]f we do not understand both the power and the danger of our imaginative powers, we will not begin to birth meaningful, and hopeful works of inspiration.”

“Art needs to be an expression of how God defines us rather than an expression through which we define God. We must seek and express our identity in Christ, rather than expressing our identity in ourselves,” he says. “Accountability with our brothers and sisters through the local church is vital in understanding what our identity and calling is. Ultimately, our gifts belong to God and Him alone.”

Fujimura’s work has been exhibited in many national and international venues. His artwork is featured in the Four Holy Gospels Project, scheduled to release an illustrated leather-bound Bible in January of 2011 in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible.

Fujimura is a sabbatical elder in the Village Church (PCA) in Manhattan. He describes his 1987 conversion as transferring his allegiance from “Art to Christ,” causing his “Art to be art” and creating a shift in his vision.

”Whereas before, I had an intellectual doubt of seeing reality as is, let alone depicting it,” he says, “…my newfound faith gave me the foundation to see reality and trust it…now I have a new conviction, to know for certain that certainty existed, that the ‘substance of things hoped for’ is not a shadow of existence, but THE greater reality, more real and weighty than our own.”

“…I want my works to be an alternative to museums and galleries offering…their Altar of Art,” he says. “…I want them to create a worship space inviting the viewers to God’s throne, where an encounter with the living, but invisible, God is made accessible.”

“I pray that God will use my works to prepare the way for many to hear the gospel,” says Fujimura. “The fruit of souls regenerated will remain forever; my works, certainly, will not.”

Quotations in this article are from an email interview with Mr. Fujimura as well as from essays on his website and blog.

The above is a slightly edited version of an article that appeared in the July 12, 2006 issue of Christian Renewal.

© Glenda Mathes, 2006 & 2010

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