Brian Williams: The Nature of Art, the Art of Nature

 By Eric Johnston

 Many foreign artists call Japan home, and the ancient capital of Kyoto and the surrounding area in particular have long attracted a wide variety of visual and performing artists from both Japan and abroad. But few have enjoyed such successful and distinguished career as Shiga Prefecture-based Brian Williams.

 The 61 year Williams, born of American missionary parents, was raised in Peru and Chile. After finishing high school in California, where he’d initially thought about becoming a scientist, he decided on a career in art. In 1972, not long after graduating college, he arrived in Japan with a backpack and 300 dollars in his pocket.

 He’s been here ever since, painting watercolors, which he fell in love with when he was 16. Currently one of the very few full time foreign artists in Japan, Williams recently scored an unprecedented success with a special showing this past May of his parabolic paintings at Kyoto’s famed Kiyomizu-dera, the first any foreign artist has ever been granted the honor of exhibiting at the world famous World Heritage Site.

For Williams, the Kiyomizu-dera exhibition was the highlight of a four-decade artistic career that combines his love of traditional Western watercolors with Japanese traditional art and aesthetic forms.

 “I came to Japan because I wanted to study Japanese landscape paintings and woodblock prints, as there is a strong relation to watercolors. I was especially interested in the technique, and the tools used for Japanese landscapes and woodblocks. The idea was to use Japanese technology as a base for creating something original,’’ Williams says.

Western brushes, for example, are often designed so that the hairs on the sides are short while the hairs in the center are long. But Williams says he was fascinated by a Japanese brush called a mensofude, which has short hairs in the center and long hairs on both ends, as well as the hirafude brush.

As for his paintings, Williams says that they combine the concept of painting atmosphere, which comes from the Japanese tradition to painting, and the concept of painting light, which comes from the Western tradition.

 “The idea of painting the atmosphere around an object, not just the object, is an idea I got from Japan,’’ he says.


As a landscape painter, Williams is particularly interested in two concepts very much at the heart of traditional, rural Japan. The first is genfukei, or, to roughly translate, the primal landscape. Writing in Kyoto Journal No. 68 (published in December 2007), Williams noted that the word carries a connotation of natural beauty, especially among older Japanese who grew up in traditional houses in the countryside. Many of his paintings capture the beauty of genfukei. Not only in his home of Shiga Prefecture but all over Japan, and the world. Williams has painted landscapes in Europe, the UK, the U.S., South America, Tibet, China, and Mongolia, among others.

 The other concept Williams is passionate about is satoyama. This ancient Japanese farming tradition, which emphasizes sustainable use of limited farm land and efficient use of natural resources, was last year recognized by the United Nations Convention of Biodiversity as an important and effective way to halt worldwide biodiversity loss. For Williams, it’s not just about preserving the aesthetic beauty of Japan’s countryside for his paintings, but also encouraging environmental stewardship.

“From the standpoint of biodiversity, it’s precisely the cultivated lands (the foundations of satoyama) that we ignore at our peril. The Satoyama Initiative shows that a rich variety of specimens can coexist and even prosper with judicious human use of the land,’’ Williams wrote in a special report on biodiversity and satoyama that was published by Kyoto Journal last year.

 He emphases that rural and agricultural lands, thought of by many urban dwellers as simply empty spaces, must also function as habitats for all life forms, and that, in order to effectively combat biodiversity loss, urban areas need to incorporate traditional principles of satoyama as much as they can.

“More than half of the world’s population is living in urban areas, and this figure is expected to rise to 80 percent by 2030. Satoyama was born out of traditional and even reverent connection with nature, and emphasis living on land in a sustainable manner,’’ he says.

While traditional watercolor prints remain Williams’ first love, in recent years he has spent more and more time on his newest passion: parabolic paintings. Unlike traditional paintings on a flat surface, inside a square or rectangle-shaped frame, parabolic paintings are created on curved surfaces that come in irregular, non-linear shapes. Williams got the idea for doing parabolic paintings after he visited the Dordogne in France and Altamira in Spain to view the Paleolithic art on the curved surfaces of the caves.

 He returned to Japan and began working on his own parabolic paintings, and, through his contacts, was eventually invited to exhibit them at Kiyomizu-dera last May. While the event drew far more people than originally predicted, Williams admits that they don’t receive praise from everybody.

 “The reaction is usually divided. Some people say ‘Wow,’ the first time they see the paintings. But others say ‘This looks like a craft, not an art,’’’, he says.

 Williams says there are a number of keys to his success in Japan over the past 40 years, besides a natural artistic talent, and they are critical for any foreign resident who decides to live and work in Japan.

 “In order to succeed in Japan, you need to work hard, pay attention to quality and detail, and you must be dependable. You also need a good social sense, a feeling for how Japanese see and do things, which may be often more valid than the way you always did something. You have to ‘go native’, to a certain extent, and yet you have to keep your sense of foreign uniqueness,’’ he says.

 “In short, you need to understand the importance of the Japanese phrase isshokenmei. You have to compete with yourself first and foremost, no matter what you do or what your profession is. You can’t be satisfied with doing the same way, all of the time.’’

 For on Brian Williams, please visit his website



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