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Aya Kakeda

Aya Kakeda

Meet illustrator and educator based in Tokyo, New York and Baltimore, Aya Kakeda.

 

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Hello. My name is Aya.  I grew up in downtown Tokyo, I moved around a bit and I now live and work in New York.  I am a freelance illustrator and educator.  My art revolves around an imaginary island called totai island which I created as a child. I am rediscovering and expanding the idea as an adult. This world is always changing and it’s parallel to the one we are living in.  Folk tales from different cultures and current events are a big influence on my work. I like using a variety of mediums such as paint, ceramic, embroidery, and printmaking.

 

Describe the city you’re living in and what it’s like to live there.

Currently, I am living in 3 cities. My base is in New York which I love because of the creative community.  I spend 3 days a week in Baltimore where I am a full-time professor at Maryland Institute College of Art.  And my home town, Tokyo, is where I spend most of my summer and get a lot of inspiration for my art.

 

Currently, I am living in 3 cities.

What is the best and worst thing about living in your city?

New York and Tokyo are very creative and artsy cities.  I feel lucky to have both cities in my life since they both have a different approach and influence on art.

 

The best thing about New York is that it’s a multicultural city with a bit of chaos. There is constant high energy and for me, this is a creation spot where I’m constantly creating art. The worst would be that it’s a fast-paced city and can be stressful. I have a problem managing time to rest here.

 

Tokyo is a rejuvenating city for me.  Even though it has the stereotype of a large crowded city, I can always find a quiet spot. Being in a quiet street or resting at a small shrine with trees, I can really feel the connection to the earth. There are always festivals and events that remind you of the season you are living in. I see this in other Asian cities as well but even in big cities, I can feel the connection to nature and spirit.  Art-wise, Tokyo has very interesting selections of exhibits from Manga to underground culture as well as big classical masters and contemporary art.  When I’m in Tokyo I go to a lot of shows. I also read a lot of books here. The worst thing about Tokyo is that I observe more here but create less which is often times frustrating.

 

Baltimore is new for me.  I just started a full-time professor position last year. The best thing about Baltimore for me is the community at the college.  I have wonderful students and colleagues. I enjoy being there exchanging ideas, sharing influences, and talking about art.  The downside is that it’s still a new place for me and I don’t feel as connected as I am here yet compared to New York or Tokyo.

 

Give us 3 words that describe what it’s like to be a creative in your city.

New York: energetic, resourceful, activated

Baltimore: exchange, learning, academic

Japan: Spiritual, cultural, exploration

 

How did you start your career in art?

My first illustration job was from The New Yorker Magazine. I met the art director during my master study at the School of Visual Arts. After that, I slowly started to get more editorial illustration jobs. My first illustration portfolio was about my imaginary island, Totai Island, that I created as a 5-year-old.  I wanted to rediscover it as an adult.  I started drawing some environments and characters who live on the island.  I created 15 silkscreen prints as a series and that became my first portfolio to carry around the city to show to art directors. This imaginary island became the core of my art making and it still is the center of my creation. While starting my illustration career, I joined the artist collective Flux Factory and started exhibiting my work at their gallery. It was a learning period. I was able to experiment with many different mediums and expand my work outside of the canvas. As a collective, we did a lot of events and shows building installations and building “experiences” for the audience. As a starting artist, it was very helpful to have other artists around, exchanging ideas and collaborating with each other and above all being in a healthy support system.
Starting out my interest was everywhere.  I was into illustration, fine art, performance, product design, comics, and so on.  Other artists advised me to concentrate on one thing so I can succeed in that area faster, which there is truth to it, but with my personality it was difficult.  I am glad that I experimented a lot and tried doing anything I was interested in.  I think everyone glows in a different way and it’s ok.

 

I think everyone glows in a different way and it’s ok.

Were the people around you supportive of your decision on working as a creative?

Yes.  Since there were no artists in my family, it was harder for them to understand what exactly I wanted to do, but they were always very supportive.

Also, the artist community in NY, Baltimore, and Tokyo have been extremely kind and supportive which I feel very lucky. I think the worst enemy is myself, doubting my skills or telling me that I’m not good enough. I still struggle, but I try to turn this into energy to keep me going and encourage myself to be a better artist.

 

What are some goals and ambitions you have for your future work?

This year is my incubating year. The past decade I was creating constantly and pushing myself extra hard that I really wanted to take some time to look back and think so I can move on to the new decade of art-making.  I’m collecting all the characters that I created in the past and putting them into one book. I’m also finishing all my unfinished projects, gathering a drawer of my past influences and updating.  It is a bigger process than I thought but exciting.  So my future ambition would be collecting my old self and recreating myself to something new, which I think is a huge challenge!

 

My future ambition would be collecting my old self and recreating myself to something new, which I think is a huge challenge!

If you could collaborate with any person in the world who would it be?

One of my dreams is to design costumes and do background design for theater, opera, or dance.

So I would love to collaborate with a theater director or a writer.

 

How would you describe the women around you?

Strong, sensitive, talented, thoughtful, emotional, smart and kind. All kinds and all good.

 

Strong, sensitive, talented, thoughtful, emotional, smart and kind. All kinds and all good.

Were there any local female creatives that you looked up to when you were growing up?

I didn’t have a local artist to look up to when I was growing up but I read a lot of Manga from female manga artists.  My favorite was Sakura Momoko, Chie Shinohara, Yukari Ichijo, Syungiku Uchida, and Rumiko Takahashi. Even though she is not Japanese, Niki de Saint Phalle was a big influence on me.  There used to be a Niki Museum in Nasu, Japan where I often visited with my grandparents during the summer. Wild colors and shapes of her sculptures were shocking to me and it made a great impact on me. Her art was powerful and it was about the thought of celebrating being female. When I saw her work I thought art can be more free, vibrant and fun.

 

Are there any challenging aspects of being a female in your industry?

I think in the illustration field in the US I don’t feel much of a difference being female or male. This might be irrelevant but personally, I struggle every month with heavy PMS, 3 days out of one month I have a hard time thinking or sometimes physically working. The freelance lifestyle makes it easier for me to plan ahead and work around it but I often think about how much time I lose because of this. I was doing silly math, average women have 450 periods in their entire lives, that means these 3 days a month can add up to 1350 working days, that’s 3.75 years!  Since it’s not considered sickness or not everyone struggles with this, I usually just keep it to myself but this question made me think about this.

 

Everyone can find the place to fit in, maybe it might not be in your city or country but right now the world is closer with the internet and you might find your self in surprising places.

Do you have any advice to young women who are aspiring to work in your field?

I always tell my students to keep doing what they like which I know is very general advice.  But keeping on doing a thing is not so easy. You need to be patient and you need to trust yourself.  Let’s be the last artists standing, let’s be the artists who create till they are very old.  Art making can be lonely, being by your self for long hours. Finding the right artist community to be your support system is really important and it will help you. Everyone can find the place to fit in, maybe it might not be in your city or country but right now the world is closer with the internet and you might find your self in surprising places.

 

 

Photos courtesy of Aya Kakeda.

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