April Artist of the Month Iku Oseki, interviewed by Charan Devereaux
Artist Iku Oseki is a painter and educator. She was named an artist of the year by the Cambridge Art Association in 2019. Iku teaches art at Fayerweather Street School in Cambridge and often spends a month each year painting in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She attended Oberlin College and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Iku Oseki was interviewed by Charan Devereaux.
How do you describe what you do, your art?
How do I describe my work, my paintings? I try to separate myself when I paint, from [my role] as an art teacher. I try to be myself, not as a teacher surrounded by kids -- which is my life -- but be in my own space. The process is always very spontaneous. I’m always looking for the next painting idea, and it is usually something that catches my eye. Sometimes it is a photograph in a magazine or newspaper, or a scene I saw on a street. It is always something that catches my eye and gets stuck in my psyche. I will spend some time looking at the image. Then I start doing sketches, often in blind contour style, several of them, that is how it starts.
How do you approach your craft, what draws you in?
It is usually the human face. I do paint landscapes sometimes, but often my landscapes have people in them. Usually, it’s a person that pulls me into the scene, or what appears to be happening in that place. Then, I make up a story, I imagine it as I explore and search the story in the faces and the place.
What got you involved in doing what you do?
I went to art school and then I worked as a graphic designer, illustrator, and stage/set designer for quite a while – that is what I did when I was young. During that time, I created stage props for a children’s theater. I explored different materials because you need to know materials that are lightweight and can be used on stage. I was drawn to these things for a while. One day, I said to myself, “I really miss painting.” I just started to itch for it. I asked if I could have a mini-sabbatical to focus on painting. I wanted to simply paint, not much other things mixed in, meaning not the exploration of various mixed media or creation of interesting surfaces. I wanted to see how much I can make paintings “talkative” like a companion. That was in 2010.
Painting is very exciting, but challenging to me. You get a picture in your head, and think, “I’m going to paint this,” and you try to make it happen, but it is often difficult because what I have in my mind’s eye is elusive and keeps changing its shape.
How did you come to live in Somerville?
I’ve been living in Somerville for a long time. I came to the United States as a foreign student and went to a liberal arts college in Ohio -- Oberlin College. I was studying science. When I graduated, I went home for a couple years [to Tokyo, Japan]. I had met a lot of people at Oberlin, including my current husband. I felt like I didn’t belong [in Tokyo] anymore. You get expanded and you can’t shrink back. Maybe it expanded me too big, living in the U.S. and going to a liberal arts college. I couldn’t go back to a traditional, homogenous society, which is where I come from. Those two years, when I was home in Japan, was when I got interested in art. I said to my parents, “I’m going to study art,” and when I was looking for schools, I found Mass Art -- one of the few public art colleges in the United States. It was $300 a semester! I could [pay for] it by waitressing. My boyfriend from Oberlin joined me, and we lived in Allston. I became a Green Card holder when we got married. I loved Mass Art. I loved it as much as I loved Oberlin College. I went for four years. Then we moved to Somerville in 1984/85 and we’ve been here ever since. We love Somerville.
You write that you "paint to discover" -- that is beautiful.
That is what really excites me about painting, you get a picture in your head, but you never get there. It is just an illusion. When I start to paint, I think, “this was not what I was expecting.” It is so exciting. Like I said before, I try to make my paintings “talkative.” But, in reality, when it starts to talk to me like an interesting companion, I know I’m on the right track.
Is there anything new you're working on that you'd like to tell us about, or some of your favorite past projects?
One thing I like in Somerville is the Honk festival – I do a lot of pictures during Honk. It is not about professional musicians, but people having such a great time making music outside.
During Covid, my style changed. Usually, I like to start with people whom I bump into on streets, in cafes, on the pages of magazines, etc. But, during the pandemic, I started painting internal things happening inside me. My focus shifted to the internal world. The paintings started to change. During Covid, I started to connect more deeply with nature—I think that happened to many people. You would talk to birds and rabbits because you couldn’t talk to people. I had an intense experience with birds. I am not a bird watcher, but I got interested in identifying birds and bird sounds.
I might start to work a little around climate change now. Not in a literal sense, but it has been something in my psyche. It is everywhere, you feel it every season. Birds and nature tell me about it all the time. I might focus on that theme for a while. I usually don’t have a theme, so if I do stick to it, it would be a new thing. I made a couple paintings around climate change so far. It is still in process, but starting to take shape.
Can you talk about your experiences painting in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico? What does painting there for a month each year feel like?
Being a teacher, I have very little time during the year, so it is wonderful to go to a place full of light, culture and color, and wonderful people. We were lucky to find it years ago. We have many artist friends, we leave paints there, that we don’t want to carry home. We usually rent someone’s house, and sometimes set up a studio in the house. If not, we have friends with studio spaces. My husband also putters with paint and ceramics. The colors are so inspiring, they are not New England colors. It is full of vibrant culture and light. It is in the desert land, the highland of Mexico. The summer is very bright and beautiful. You can do a lot of things outside, including painting outdoors. it is a great experience. You go to gallery openings every weekend and get to see other people’s work too. We stay at least four weeks. I usually get to paint quite a bit when I am there. I can catch up on all the things I did not do during the year, and have so much fun going out at night. I look forward to going there this year, Covid cases are low now and we have already rented a house. It is like my art summer camp!
Do you have any thoughts on the Somerville creative scene? Do you have favorite Somerville restaurants, cafés, or art-spaces?
When we moved to Somerville in the early 1980s, it was a very sleepy town. Then the Red line in Porter Square opened up, and everything started to change. We loved it because of the convenience. With the Red Line extended to Alewife, shops popped up everywhere. There are also the culture and entertainment venues enriched by nearby universities, urban life style, and lots of students and young people. Somerville is not quite a college town, but it feels like that. I love being close to universities and colleges and a lot of young people. It is a very stimulating environment.
I’m close to Davis Square, so I take many trips there. In terms of restaurants, I love a little place called Casa B in Union Square and Celeste, too.
I love the Diesel Café. I was pleased that the Porter Square Book Store and Cambridge Naturals opened their stores in Porter Square.
And I love the Somerville Theater, of course, that is a great theater.