When I walked into Michele Kishita’s studio during the Philadelphia Open Studio Tours last October, I remember being stunned by the natural quality of her work. Not only did the wood lend a sense of earthiness, but the lines, the colors, even the gold and silver leaf contributed an innate calm, as though I was hiking through pristine wilderness. After speaking to Michele, I realized that her understanding and interpretation of nature is diverse and poignant, leading me to appreciate the outdoors in an entirely new perspective.
Her background is the first aspect to set her apart from fellow artists. She lived in Japan, an experience that enhanced her relationship with nature. The landscape of Japan, she said, varied greatly, with vast expanses of rice fields, the ever-present ocean, and tall mountain ranges on the horizon. On clear mornings in the winter, one spot stood out to her in particular, where Fuji rose prominently between the rice fields. However, living in Japan also made her acutely aware of the dangers of nature. She had grown up with a wariness about the ocean and its overwhelming presence, and after the tsunami, which hit close to where she lived, the “scary parts of water” began to affect her interaction with the natural world.
Despite her consistent exposure to new and interesting culture, Japan did not impact her work until she returned to the United States and, in 2003, became the Assistant Specialist of Japanese and Fine Prints at Freeman’s, sparking her interest in Japanese prints from an artistic perspective. Michele is inspired by the flatness, color, and patterns present in these prints, and even the angular folds in kimonos. These elements began to inform her approach to landscapes and natural elements, her ever-present artistic inspirations.
Michele’s ideas frequently come in her daily commute, when she observes the juxtaposition of manmade structure and natural lines and shapes. This is particularly poignant when interpreted on wood instead of canvas or paper; Michele used wood panels for her solo show at the Painted Bride, and she found them to be perfect as they were. “Any idea I had changed after seeing it,” she said, and she decided to emphasize the wood grain with the paint, a tedious and meditative process where she even occasionally caught herself not breathing. It was crucial to avoid mistakes, because “once the wood is gone, it’s gone.” The idea of the inherent quality of wood against what is imposed over the wood is a constant presence in her new work.
Color choice would initially appear to be another factor working against the wood, but even when choosing “arresting” colors, such as chartreuse green, she is still uniting the natural with the unnatural. She cites fall foliage and a cardinal’s red plumage as examples of arresting color that hits you in the brain despite its organic origins. In “Built to Spill,” one can see this in practice, as the colors are at first glance unbelievable. Upon further observation, it seems obvious that these colors were needed, functioning as refracted and absorbed light.
Her repertoire of existing pieces examines a kind of duality within nature. In speaking of “Drift Wood”, she refers to Hokusai’s waterfalls, and how they are not what water is normally imagined to be. She investigates this duality in “Drift Wood”, particularly of how water interacts with other elements, and the ability in nature for an element to become something that it can also take away.
Michele is able to visually present aspects of nature that are difficult for many to articulate in words, and her work is definitely worth seeing. Currently she has work in a show at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts through October 19, and I look forward to an exhibit in Philadelphia in the future.