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‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’ – that is what art does. Phyllis Novak

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Watanabe, Soichi - by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema

An Artist’s Humble Response to God’s Calling

Sonya VanderVeen Feddema: An Interview with Soichi Watanabe

Christian Courier, January 25, 2016

I first met Soichi Watanabe through his riveting painting, The Prodigal Son Returns in Christian Courier’s Artful Eye column (June 8, 2015). Who was this artist who had so vividly captured a father’s love and a son’s repentance and gratitude? I wondered. Who was this Christian man who had captured the Father’s love for us and our repentance and gratitude toward our loving God? I decided to find out. In an email interview, I met the Japanese man behind the painting. I learned how Soichi Watanabe, 66, came to faith and realized his calling as an artist. As a member of both the Christian Art Association in Japan and the Asian Christian Art Association, he has had an opportunity to grow as an artist within a Christian community and has exhibited his work in numerous venues.

Christian Courier: In the early 1970s, you graduated from Tohoku Gakuin University with an economics degree and, in 1982, you graduated from the Ochanomizu Art School in Tokyo. What happened in the intervening years that led you to change course in your career from economics to art? When and how did you sense God’s calling on your life to be an artist?

Soichi Watanabe: When I was in the sixth grade, I had a vision test and learned that I was partially colour blind. I thought that it would be hard for me to take my favourite courses – science and art. I worried about what course I should take. In university, I decided to enter the department of economics. While there, I came in contact with Max Weber’s religious sociology. I took an interest in the comparative study of Western and Eastern culture. I was serious about finding out which way was suitable for me.

I attended Professor Mitsuo Miyata’s lectures on the history of European political thought. He invited me to attend a student Bible study class at his home. That day, the first Bible text I read was from Mark 8. Peter rebuked Jesus for talking about his death and resurrection in Jerusalem, but, conversely, Jesus rebuked him: “Get behind me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” Jesus also said, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” This voice – the voice of Jesus – was like a severe question that basically shook my way of life. So, I continued to attend the study and to read the Bible.

Soon, I was overwhelmed by the richness and splendid way the Bible shows us how to live. But then I had a new worry – the stubbornness of my heart and my poor ability to sympathize with other people.

In the next year, Professor Mitsuo Miyata and his wife built a Christian dormitory for students that I could get into with other members of the Bible study class. While living there, my worry grew. Every evening, we read from a preaching book. One day, I heard Jesus’ invitation to follow him just as I was, with my weaknesses and faults. But I persisted in rejecting Jesus because I felt that I wasn’t a suitable person for his invitation. Every evening, Jesus’ love on the cross was preached. Finally, I decided to follow him just as I was with my faults. Then I was freed from my restricting worry. I entered employment at a business which I believed was the way prepared by the Lord.

My work involved arranging and reporting accounts and sales data. After three years, I tried to add some visual charts and graphs to my report. The executive committee was very pleased with them. Through this experience, I realized that I was able to do art even though I had tried to get away from art for a long time because of my partial colour blindness. My story was like Jonah’s story. At that time, I was 27 years old. I studied drawing and oil painting in art school until I was 33.

By the end of the school year, my Christian faith and my art were combined together when, at a retreat meeting of former students of the Bible study class, Professor Mitsuo Miyata gave a lecture about Albrecht Dürer’s faith and art. (Albrecht Dürer was a German painter who lived from1471-1528.) I was very inspired with the message that we could do the mission of Christ through art. Later, I felt that I would like to ask a good painter from my class to paint my grace-filled experience of faith. But then I thought, art values the personality in the first place, so the person who had the experience should paint it, even if it is a poor expression. So, from then on, I continued to paint the subject of the Bible for 33 years.

On your website (www.omsc.org/art-at-omsc/soichi/soichi-intro.html), you say, “In retrospect I realize that [my works] are my own humble responses to God’s calling in my life. The images are often given to me through the words of God, at worship services on Sundays and during my daily devotion. I have the earnest hope that I will go on painting to praise the Lord.” You point out that your artistic work is clearly rooted in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading and worship. Could you select one of your paintings and explain to us how God inspired you to create the painting?

First, I would like to comment on my 2010 oil on canvas entitled, Together with Those Who Weep, based on Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” Priest Masahiko Sekiya of the Anglican church wrote this text on the front page of the English Bible I received as a gift at my graduation. He had guided me at the meeting of the Fellowship of reconciliation (For) in Sendai. (For is an organization that works for peace, justice and nonviolence.) This Scripture text had remained as a question in my mind ever since then.

Later, I was touched by a book written by Pastor Seiji Ojima that I illustrated in 2006. From John 11, I painted Jesus as he wept with Martha and Mary when their brother Lazarus died. Afterward, I painted again on the subject of peace at a conference and workshop of the Asian Christian Art Association in Sydney. In order to show weeping together, at first I tried to use blue as the basic colour. Next I was led to use yellow, because I had been taught the hope of Jesus’ resurrection. After the massive earthquake in East Japan in 2011, I was encouraged by the message that “God is with us in difficulty,” so I painted it again. With the vertical and horizontal lines that appeared behind Jesus as he hung on the cross, I showed that resurrection comes through a cross. I was so gratified by the message that God is with us, so I produced many other paintings on that theme as well.

What biblical theme do you most enjoy painting?

My favourite theme, I suppose, is the flowers of the Bible. In 1986 I began drawing with pencil objects found in nature and started to draw dozens of flowers mentioned in the Bible. I was overwhelmed by the beauty produced by God. My drawings were nothing but an incomplete response to the beauty God created. since the flowers of the Bible have historical backgrounds and symbolic meanings, I painted them receiving these moments. For example, I painted Cyclamen – The Glory of the Lord in the Wilderness based on Isaiah 32:1518, The Almond Tree – A Sign of Hope based on Jeremiah 1:11-12, and Bamboo – Emptiness, Flexibility, and the Holy Spirit based on Philippians 2:6-7, as well as many others.

What have you learned about God, the Bible and the Christian life as you have painted biblical themes?

Pastor Seiji Ojima and Dr. Kosuke Koyama’s books taught me that God became the least of all people and loves the least of all people. Professor Mitsuo Miyata and Professor Kenichi Kida’s books taught me that God is with us in our difficulties. Through painting a series on the book of Revelation, I learned to live in the hope of the eschaton. I also learned that God saw his creation and “it was good.” In Hebrew good usually means beautiful. So, the creation of the earth and heaven is also the creation of beauty. The world as the creation of God is God’s work. Art as a human deed means learning from the work of God and giving only an incomplete response to it. I learned this especially when I painted plants found in the Bible. During and after I painted I often found a deepened richness and depth in the Bible, especially in the relationship between the Old Testament and New Testament. I had the same experience by looking at a book of Christian art, as well as art work from all over the world and from ancient and contemporary periods.

According to The Christian Century (May 7, 2015), “The number of Japanese Christians is tiny – barely one percent of the population.” What impact does this reality have on your work as a Christian artist?

The number of Christians in Japan is surely very small, but Christian art, and Christian music and literature, are not refused in general by non-believers. If anything, they are extremely interested in them. Though Christians are a minority, I think that the Bible has a universality because there is truth in it. Therefore, Christian visual art should have a universal application, and if it has a high quality, all people should be impressed. I have been encouraged to continue to produce Christian art by the footprints of the pioneers of faith and art, who struggled to produce their works in the Protestant church even as they had to put up with the prohibition against idol worship. I was touched by the lives of the 51 artists who were presented in the book, Beauty and Truth – Art and Christianity in Modern Japan, written by Masao Takenaka (2006). I was taught and encouraged about Christian art as a response to God (prayer, praise, confession and mission) through books written by Mitsuo Miyata: Witnesses of Life – Art and Faith (1994), Faith and Art (1996), The Star in Bethlehem – Meditation through the Biblical Symbols (2005) and others.

How have viewers responded to or been influenced by your paintings?

I have been told that my art work is warm, gentle and healing. When I met a woman at one of my solo exhibitions she expressed her gratitude to me because when she went into surgery, she was encouraged by my small art book and had confidence in God.

One day a parcel containing a letter and a gift arrived at my house. The sender expressed her gratitude to me because she also had received healing from my art book, when her difficult sickness was cured in the hospital. At another solo exhibition, a pastor from the Congo smiled at me and told me in English, “I hear the words of the Bible from Watanabe’s paintings.” I was impressed when I realized that even through my poor expression, the message of the Bible could be transmitted to a viewer beyond my own country. And I was delighted that even though he couldn’t speak English well, just as I couldn’t, he wished to convey his heart to me. At each and every exhibition many viewers buy my art works with pleasure. And some universities and churches have also ordered and bought my art works.  

You’re a member of both the Christian Art Association in Japan and the Asian Christian Art Association. Tell us about these organizations. Have they benefited you as an artist? Have you contributed to these organizations? If so, how?

These two associations were established in 1973 (Japan) and in 1978 (Asia), nearly in the same year and both ecumenical. An artist generally works in solitude. This was true for me as well, so I was encouraged by the contact with the pioneers of the Christian Art Association in Japan (CAAJ). And in the same way I was inspired by artists and works from other Asian countries. 

In Japan I was a member from 1993 to 2013, a secretary from 2000 to 2006, and an executive member from 1997 to 2013. I served as an editor of the commemoration booklet titled The History of 25 Years of Christian Art Exhibition and also for that of the 30th and 35th annual exhibition. In Asia I was a member from 1998, and an executive member from 2003 to 2008. 

I worked as a bridge between Japan and other countries in Asia. The Christian Art Association in Japan was built by uniting the Catholic exhibition (from 1931) and Protestant exhibition (from 1935) in 1973. Tadao Tanaka was a delegate, and Sadao Watanabe, Yasuo Ueno and Yasutake Funakoshi were the central artists. The exhibitors were about 25 artists. In Asia Dr. Masao Takenaka and Ron O’Grady were leaders. The magazine Image – Christ and Art in Asia was published till 126th number in 2010.  The office of the ACAA moved from Kyoto in Japan, Yogyakarta in Indonesia, to Manila in the Philippines. Many books and booklets were published, for example Christian Art in Asia (1975), The Bible through Asian Eyes (1991), Christ for All People (2001). 

What are you painting at the present time? What are your plans for the future?

I am working on a painting with peace as its theme. The message is that peace is found by abiding in Christ. I was impressed by Micah 4:3-4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares” and “they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree,” and by John 14-16: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit,” and “These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace.” And in the future I hope to paint Jesus’ words, the Prophets, the Psalms and the apostle Paul.

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Soichi Watanabe: Together with Those Who Weep, 2010.

Soichi Watanabe: Bamboo -  Emptiness, Flexibility, and the Holy Spirit2008.

Soichi Watanabe: Even though I Walk through a Valley Dark of Death, 2014.

A resident of Koshigaya City, Saitama, Japan, Soichi Watanabe's oil paintings have been displayed in numerous solo exhibitions. He is a member of the Christian Art Association in Japan (1993-2013) and the Asian Christian Art Association.

Sonya VanderVeen Feddema is a freelance writer living in St. Catharines, Ont., Canada