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Conversation with Tatsuki Hakoyama

Updated: Jan 27, 2023

A conversation with Tatsuki Hakoyama, upcoming guest artist at the ACWL-Nuveen.

Tatsuki's Exhibition, Human/Nature will be on display at the ACWL-Nuveen from January 27 - March 11. A reception featuring an artist discussion with Tatsuki will be held on Friday, February 3 from 5:00 - 7:00pm. Thank you to Eastbrook Homes for sponsoring this exhibition!

Transcript has been edited for clarity.

Ian Martin, ACWL-Nuveen (IM): I’m really happy to be here today with Tatsuki Hakoyama, Taz. He will be talking to us today. We got to know Taz because he worked as the Emerging Artist of Color Mentor for 2022 and did a fantastic job working with Elijah [Pierce], and he also taught several classes while he was working as a mentor here. He has an exhibit coming up at the ACWL-Nuveen which we’re super excited about. That exhibit will take place January 27 through March 11 and the title is Human/Nature.

Taz, thanks for joining us today. I do have your bio here that I lifted from your website, and I can read it off, but I feel like it would be much more interesting if you told us a little bit about yourself, about your background. Who you are as an artist and as a person.

Tatsuki Hakoyama (TH): Hi everyone and thanks for having me here. I am artist based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I got my bachelor’s from Central Michigan University and my master’s from Kendall College of Art and Design, and I currently teach at Kendall College of Art and Design.

Me as a person - I was born in Japan and I was raised in Japan until the age of eight. Seven? Eight – one of those ages! My family moved to a small island country of Samoa, in the middle of the South Pacific and I lived there for four years before moving to the United States. I experienced a lot of different cultures growing up and now I’m in Grand Rapids, surrounded by snow… or what would be snow in a usual winter! A lot of my work does deal with, or is at least influenced by, my own experiences. A lot of the works that will be in the show at the ACWL is going to hopefully make sense to you after listening to me talk a little bit, after this interview.

IM: I actually really want to ask you about the show. I’m going to read a little bit that you sent us about the show, which is called Human/Nature. “Human/Nature is a collection of pieces from various bodies of work. Some of these works focus on a figure as the subject while others focus on landscape. However, the underlying theme is the relationship that we as humans have with nature.” I found that title really intriguing, and also your description of it really intriguing. I wondered, can you tell me how you chose that title, what it means to you?

TH: Like I mentioned, I grew up in different places, but in Japan I grew up in a small village outside of a city and it was surrounded by a bunch of trees and mountains. In a pacific island country, obviously you can think of typical island calendar scenery surrounding you. So, I grew up surrounded by nature a lot, but more than that, once I started to grow up more, I started thinking more about how our environment and communities impact the way we see things, how we act, what creates culture - those kind of things. A lot of my figurative works reflect on how we interact with our surroundings and what changes, and what impacts, the way we think. With the figurative works, landscape becomes kind of like a backdrop a lot in my work. If I’m not working with figurative works, oftentimes I still get drawn to creating landscapes. It’s a way for me to zone out and just relax without having to think as much. It is kind of that therapeutic process for me, in a way. I also feel that way when I am out in nature as well. Although sometimes you get busy, and you don’t get as much time to really do that. Especially when making artworks, that takes a long time. Nature - natural elements - are always in one way or another, included in my paintings. I thought the title Human/Nature worked well because I do reflect on those things throughout, but also because I’m always looking into this idea of human behaviors - that human nature aspect of things - and how we behave. It worked on multiple levels in that way of just using landscape as well as the idea of human nature and our tendencies to see things the way we do based on our surroundings.

IM: Are you an outdoorsy person? Do you spend a lot of time outside?

TH: I used to a lot more. I used to skateboard a lot, so I was always out at skate parks, and just being outdoors. When I was in Samoa, we used to go fishing all the time and that kind of stuff. When I was in Japan, the place I lived was essentially in the middle of nowhere. It could be more camping-like than a lot of campgrounds in Michigan. I do enjoy the outdoors. It is a lot harder to find time when you have a lot of work, and you have to get paintings done. I do enjoy plein air paintings here and there, but it really becomes more about time management.

IM: Everyone, I feel like, has similar feelings. It can be hard to get that time.

You mentioned figurative allegory and you’ve also discussed magical realism in your work and on your website and in some of the statements about your work. Why are you drawn to these modes of expression?

TH: One of the reasons that I’m drawn to the magical realist approach.... Well, let’s talk a little bit about the differences between a surrealist approach and magical realist approach. I also enjoy surrealist painters as well – Salvador Dali is probably the most famous among all of them. They do start to do a lot of visually interesting things that give a sense of story with what they’re creating. But sometimes the surrealist approach, it’s so out there that it’s hard to ground into the real world, because it’s purely about that dream state and the subconscious. With magical realism it gives it a little more. There’s something that’s different and odd about it, but it still roots the image to that real-life physics almost. I like to do that kind of stuff so that the works have more visually interesting things happening - where it’s not just a purely representational image - but it also keeps the image to reflect on the real world in which we exist rather than just making it into a dream world approach. If that makes sense.

IM: Yeah, totally. It sounds like it helps anchor your paintings in the real world, which is one of the things I really love. I love that combination of something that feels surreal or dream-like but also feels realistic, especially in the characters that are featured.

In some of your pieces, your figures are wearing or holding up masks. The piece behind you has a character with a mask on. For you, what’s the significance of the mask imagery?

TH: There’s a couple of different factors that influence my decision to do a lot more of those. One is that once I start to hide the face, it does make it a lot less about the individual and more so a person in general. As opposed to it [being] about this one person. Especially since I tend to use myself or my wife as the model because of accessibility. We’re always here, so it’s easier to use as reference. But once you start to have a lot of paintings that use repetitive models, it starts to interfere with people looking at the work and seeing it more as autobiographical or looking at them as, “oh, this painting is about this specific person.” I do want to try to eliminate that separation between how people see and interpret the work. Masks are a good way of creating that. I try to make it so it seems natural enough, so that it doesn’t seem too forced. I try to. I don’t know if it works that way, but I try! So that it feels that it makes sense within the space but also try to eliminate that individual characteristic so that people can see themselves in the painting a little bit easier.

In the past, I’ve also created works that are a lot more autobiographical or a lot more personal. With those ones, I used masks less. I painted myself a lot more because it was autobiographical. It just depends on what kind of work I’m doing or what I’m trying to communicate, how I want people to view the work.

IM: I know in college you initially studied architecture. Is that correct?

TH: At first, I was in the math program as a pre-architecture path. Technically I think I was a math major for the first couple years in hopes that I would transfer to an architecture program.

IM: What made you decide to go down an artistic path rather than going into architecture or something math related?

TH: The reason is because I did start taking drawing classes as a prerequisite, to transfer to the architecture/engineering process. But I really enjoyed the more creative freedom that the artistic path has. It’s more about expressing yourself than the logistics of things. I’ve always enjoyed doing creative things, so it’s just a matter of, “what do I do? What would I want to do with my life?”

IM: Did your experience with architecture and math affect your work in any way? Either the way it looks or the way you approach it?

TH: I don’t think that specifically impacts it too much, but I do use a fair amount of perspective knowledge in my work. Especially my previous body of work, some of them create this trompe l’oeil effect, that makes it feel like the painting is coming out at you. To do that, I am using a lot of mechanical perspective systems, which is similar to drafting where it’s creating a sense of space using a mathematical approach. I do incorporate that here and there, but it’s not as direct as it could be.

IM: Your Instagram bio says you’re an artist, educator, musician and metalhead. And on your Instagram, you have some wonderful clips of you playing multiple instruments. Does your musical work inspire your visual art at all?

TH: A little bit, in a way. I am a proud metalhead. I listen to a lot of European symphonic power metal, I like folk metal bands a lot. I think it’s not as direct, but they do influence my creative approaches a lot. Their lyrics tend to be a lot more poetic, compared to a lot of pop music that you would hear. They do have a lot of songs that reflect on human interaction with nature as an underlying theme. In a more direct way, some of the titles that I have for my works are either reflecting or are taken from some of the metal songs that aren’t really directly related but some of them are inspired by the metal lyrics. In that way it has impacted a little bit here and there.

IM: I don’t know how many metalheads that we have who will be watching this, but we might have some! I wonder, what metal music do you recommend? Are you listening to anything right now that you just are really loving?

TH: That’s a tough one! I could go on, I feel like I could do a one hour interview just with the metal songs. But I would like to say that a lot of the stuff that I listen to are probably a little less… I think in the U. S. there is this tendency for people to think that metal music is all about screaming and death metal, or more of the thrash metal, like Metallica and that kind of stuff, like Megadeath kind of approach. But there are a lot of variety of metal bands out there that are a lot easier to get into. I would say one of my favorites is Nightwish, which is a symphonic metal band from Finland. Some of their songs are very easy to get into and it’s kind of like film score, but with a little heavier drums and guitar. I’ve been listening to a little bit more of this band called Serenity – I don’t remember exactly which country they’re from - but a lot of their songs are inspired by history. Their singer, I believe, has a masters and PhD in geography and history. He uses a lot of historical content. They have a song about Henry the VIII called "Legacy of Tudors", they have other songs that are inspired by artists like Albrecht Dürer. There are some of those things, content-wise, that can be interesting to me as an artist as well.

IM: I think on your site I saw a hashtag ‘folk metal’. It was the first time I had ever heard that term and I thought it was really cool. It’s always exciting to discover some new genres.

You’re also a teacher, you’re an educator. I’m wondering, does teaching inform your artistic practices, and if so, how does it?

TH: It definitely does. I feel like everyone says this, but teaching is really a great way to learn yourself. It was once I started teaching that I really understood the significance of the foundations. Things like design principles and drawing fundamentals. It’s stuff that when I was a student – everyone tells you it’s important, but it’s easy to brush it off to the side like, “Yeah, we know that.” Once I started teaching I was like, “Oh, I really need to get back into the basics and really make sure that I’m always thinking about it in the process.” When you work in a more representational way, there is to a certain extent a right or a wrong. If you’re doing a figure that’s supposed to look realistic and the anatomy and proportion is off, that’s off. There’s stuff like that when I’m teaching these classes, I need to make sure my work isn’t completely off in proportions. It’s kept me having to double-check, more than I used to, that I’m keeping these things in check. I need to make sure to lead by example, right, as a teacher? I’m always still learning; I’m always trying to improve. I need to at least show my students that I’ve been doing this a while and I understand some of the basic concepts.

IM: I’ve done some teaching and you always have a group of people there to keep you honest! If you’re not following the rules, or doing something right, usually someone will point it out.

Did you have any influential teachers growing up, either in art school or just growing up? Anyone who affected your artwork or your teaching practices?

TH: I’ve had a lot of good teachers, but one of the professors that influences my work the most is one of my professors from undergrad CMU (Central Michigan University). She works with the figurative stuff with also a lot of nature surrounding the figures, so aesthetically speaking, it’s very similar to the kind of stuff that I’m interested in. So, I would say that stylistically I’m probably most influenced by her. In a way, I think as artists we’re always influenced by everything surrounding us, it’s just a matter of how we dilute them into our own. It is true that nothing that we create is truly original. We are just essentially mixing everything into one and letting it out as our own mix of things. It’s hard to say who’s influenced me the most.

IM: The teacher that you mentioned, what was her name?

TH: Shelley Stevens. Shelley Newman Stevens. She also runs Golden Apple Artist Residency in Maine. If you search that on Google you will be able to see a lot of her work.

IM: Earlier you talked a little bit about surrealism – you mentioned Dali – and a little bit about the way it’s affected you. What are some of your artistic influences? Any particular artists who have had a big impact on you?

TH: I would say probably my favorite is René Magritte. He’s also pretty famous – usually considered surrealist – artist, but his work is usually a lot more stylistically closer to a magical realist approach. It’s definitely surreal, but it’s usually not nearly as much out there as some of the other surrealist work. His stuff is probably one of the most influential things for me. There are also other artists that I really enjoy. There’s a Japanese artist called Tetsuya Ishida and his work is very critical of the Japanese society and he uses a lot of figures to reflect on the societal impact on people. Or at least that’s what I take from his work. I’m also interested in and inspired by some of the magical realist painters from the 1960s. George Tooker is one of them. If you see some of his work, you will start to see how the way I’m using objects or different things to mask the figure is also apparent in a lot of his work as well. Some things are fragmented with the identification of faces in his work. You can kind of see that in a more abstract way how his work has impacted and influenced my work.

IM: Excellent. Well Taz, those are the questions that I have. I don’t know if there are any questions that you have or anything that you wanted to add before we wrap up?

TH: If anybody else has other questions, I’ll be at the reception for the show, so if people attend the reception, you can always ask me any other questions you might have.

IM: That’s a great point. We’re excited to have you! I’ll remind everyone watching this video, Tatsuki will have a solo show at ACWL-Nuveen from January 27 through March 11, 2023. That show is Human/Nature. He’ll also be teaching two classes at ACWL-Nuveen. An Oil Landscape Painting class and a Painting with Pulp class – a papermaking class.

Taz, thank you so much for doing this interview and thanks for everything that you’ve done for the ACWL-Nuveen. We’re super excited to have you.

TH: Thanks for having me.


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