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Satsuki Shibuya | An Interview

This week we sat down with artist Satsuki Shibuya to talk about her new works launching on Tappan this week and her practice as it continues to develop.

Simple in form, Satsuki's watercolors are representative of a meditative state of mind. Conscious of the movement, palette and tone in each work, Satsuki perfectly coalesces her medium and her mindset, creating paintings that exude a calmness, a state of existence that one can truly get lost in.

Satsuki discussed her special gift of synesthesia with us, a heightened sense that ultimately led her to convey feeling and emotion through her watercolor paintings.  


Tell us about this series of work?

These new pieces continue to explore the dimensions between the seen and unseen worlds, depicting subjects such as energies, emotions, auras, dreams, and everyday nuances which may slip by us as we rush through each waking moment.


We've briefly discussed your gift of synesthesia before and how it has influenced you to create. How do you define synesthesia? There is certainly a dictionary definition, but what a personal and unique experience! Tell us about what is means to you, and your early experience of realizing you possessed a special gift.

For myself, synesthesia comes in a variety of forms, some closer to the definition and others, not so orthodox. If more inline with mainstream understanding, I associate sounds with colors, or more specifically, certain sound waves as colors. It is a combination of the sound tone, mixed with a sensory connection to the vibration felt throughout the body which produces an association with a particular color. 

Ever since I was young, I would feel the world around me, noticing the simplest of details, like a leaf falling from a tree on the side of the freeway, while peering out the window sitting in traffic. I would not only see this happening, but feel the leaf, swaying side to side, floating down onto the ground. It would mesmerize me as all senses were being tantalized by this one moment. 

I remember one day riding in the car with a friend and pointing out a beautiful autumn colored leaf which was green not too long ago, sharing thoughts about the seasonal change, only to receive a reply of, “What the heck are you talking about? You’re so weird, Satsuki.” ’Til this day, those words ripple within, once associated with a stabbing reality of being different, is now a fond memory, coupled with a chuckle and thankful for the deep connection I experience through this “gift”.


Is the affect of synesthesia a constant one? How have you managed to "live with it?" 

It is a constant one in a sense that if I visit a densely populated area or find myself surrounded by multiple sound sources, it can get quite overwhelming quickly and therefore need to either do some preparation work prior to entering the environment or find quiet time afterwards to recharge. Sometimes, if it affects the body heavily, I will end up feeling ill for a few days.

Before, it felt out of my control as I was not aware of what was happening, but finding out more about my condition and the way in which the body, mind, and spirit interact with the outside world, I am able to better harmonize with my surroundings, and through it, transmute the experiences into my work.

Living with synesthesia certainly inspired a slew of creativity in you - did you begin with watercolor or were you at first finding other creative ways of discovering and communicating your gift?
As I was not quite aware of this “gift” until 2011, after a sudden illness, I never really took into consideration having it a part of what I do, but by the time I discovered watercolor, through receiving messages to paint, it was very much a guided decision, watercolor being the medium best suited in expressing the unseen words experienced into a tangible form of communication with others.


Have the cities you’ve lived in influenced your practice? If so, tell us a bit about that, and what elements in particular steered you in certain directions.

I’ve never had the opportunity (yet) to live in another city except the City of Angeles, but I have always been deeply influenced by my parent’s homeland, Japan, whether it is the philosophy of Buddhism or the architecture of Kyoto. When I first began painting, there was never an intention to create in a particular style or genre, but was intrigued when others, who graciously shared my work, would refer to it having hints of Japanese culture. Being second generation Japanese-America, I have always felt neither here nor there, but in the middle, and sense that this is what comes through in my work.


Last gallery show you went to?

The last gallery show I attended was of Shio Kusaka at Blum and Poe in Los Angeles. I was not familiar with the artist prior to attending the show, but immediately mesmerized by Kusaka’s world. Each piece was imperfect in the most perfect way, lending a sense of warmth and familiarity, reminding myself of the wonderment experienced during childhood. Having studied and connecting with ceramics at a young age, it enforced my love for objects that are both beautiful and functional.


Tell us about the best studio visit you’ve had.

I must admit, I am quite a hermit and have not visited many studios, but one which continues to linger is of a letterpress studio in Silverlake: Presshaus. Owned and operated by Kristine Arellano, the idea of having a large, expansive working studio in the same compounds of the main house continues to be a dream as I deeply enjoy working from home. Quiet and nestled in the hills, it was an ideal setting, hearing only the sounds of the press machine and smells of freshly, cut paper. My business cards are a collaboration between Kristine and myself and feel truly grateful to call this amazing designer a friend. (


What is one artist living or dead you feel a great connection to? Someone who’s work has inspired your own practice and what you’re creating these days?

Agnes Martin. When I first came across her work, the distinction was instantaneous. All the cells in my body danced — I knew I was in the presence of something beyond just a beautiful piece of art. After reading more about her life, her philosophy towards painting, and perspectives, it was clear why I felt a connection.


Best gift you’ve ever received?

The thoughts behind a $100 bill gifted from my parents when I was in 5th grade. I had never seen a real $100 bill before and always dreamed of having one to call my own. The bill itself was not so much meaningful as was the gesture behind the gift. At the time, we were struggling financially and although they were not able to afford many things, my parents were about to scrounge together what they had to create this bill. I had it for one month, looking at it everyday in disbelief, which was stashed away in a birthday card, with a special message that read, “... we know it’s been one of your dreams to have a $100 and now you have one to call you own. Here’s to many more dreams fulfilled. ” Unfortunately, the following month, while tearing, my parents asked if they could borrow it, but for myself, there were no tears for the thought behind the gift was worth a lifetime’s worth of $100 bills. Through this experience, ‘til this day, I feel the most expensive gift I receive from loved ones are cards.


What is your favorite quote?

"The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance." - Aristotle

What country do you wish to visit?

I have yet to visit Denmark, specifically Copenhagen, but my heart is still somewhere in between London and Kyoto.


What makes you laugh no matter what?

Anything my husband does. It’s not so much a laugh, but a tickle, knowing that someone in this world, just by their pure existence, can bring so much joy into life.


What's one accomplishment you're most proud of?

I’m not sure if proud would be the right way of describing this feeling, but it is of not giving up on finding my life purpose, no matter what others may say or do. It is not easy as judgement seems to be of second nature to us all, but something inside continued to push on and I am thankful for if it were not for this inner knowing, I would not be who I am today.


What’s one habit you wish you could break.

Sleeping late. I always try to sleep before midnight, as I feel completely off the next day if resting any later, and yet, the mind continues to explore and before I know it, it’s 1am or even 2am! For some, that may still be considered early, but for a morning bird like myself, it’s a constant struggle between knowing what is good for myself and satiating my curiosity.


Who was your favorite teacher in art school?

This is a tough one. Could I share two? Hands down, my favorite teachers in art school were illustrator J.T. Steiny and type designer Greg Lindy. Two completely different types of professors and yet full of intensity in their specific fields, I remember being inspired in every class and continue to have the utmost respect for them.


What's one thing you still have from your childhood?

My sense of direction. I’m sure I get it from my father, but if I visit a place once, sometime twice, I will never forget how to get there again. It’s funny as I had the hardest time in school remembering historical figures, names, mathematical equations, chemistry elements, but maps and directions? I was and am the queen.


When do you make your best work?

When I am well rested, feel balanced and grounded through yoga, meditation, reading, writing, and eat a whole foods diet. All things that I am sure make any human body feel good, but for myself, with painting being such a physical practice, the mind, body, spirit balance has to be in tune with the Earth and Universe to create the best work possible.


Regarding your method of making, is it a case of the material or method dictating the idea of the other way around?

It is definitely the method that dictates the material or the philosophy that dictates the method that dictates the material. Without the conscious and higher self as my guide, I would be like a boat, without a compass, aimlessly floating out at sea.


Is art making therapeutic for you?
Yes. A spiritual practice.


What do you see yourself doing in 5 years?

The same. Only, painting larger pieces, perhaps.


If you could travel anywhere to create for a while, where would you go?

Somewhere out in nature. Either in Scandinavia or Japan.


Did you grow up around other creative people?

My father being a french chef, was constantly talking about the importance of being immersed in beautiful things, even if you might not know what they mean. He spoke about a man he looked up to during his years in London, who would tell him to go visit museums and art galleries, to be surrounded by art. He explained that he grown up in a rural farm village and knew nothing about art, nor was interested, as he wanted to learn how to cook. The gentleman informed him that he was learning about art, the art of cooking. Many years later, my father finally understood what he was talking about — that beauty is not always something to comprehend, but something to be felt, to move us emotionally, something we can experience not only through the mind, but through our hearts, our being. There is something in art, the use of colors, the markings, the white space, the composition which heightens our understanding of the relationships in our material world. I continue to apply this philosophy, both in work work and life.


What motivates you?

To be a catalyst of love, peace, and harmony through art and words, where we can all live, appreciate, and honor one another for who we are and the life we have been given.


Silence or sound while creating? If sound, what?

Silence when writing, sound when painting. If sound, some artists on my current playlist are: Tearnote, PawPaw, Sonicbrat, Pascal, Coeur de Pirate, CHARA, Arashi, Mika Nakashima, Park Jung Hyung, Bebel Gilberto, haruka nakamura, Les Nubians, Wild Nothing, Ryuichi Sakamoto.


Any advice to aspiring artists?

You may feel a need to have a unique voice, but it takes years, if not more, to find and even then, it may slip away as fast as it came into focus. There is no need to rush, for the journey is where you will find the pieces to the puzzle, when you least expect.