Issaquah painter Hiroko Seki is a force of nature

May 29, 2012

By Rose Marie Gai

Hiroko Seki created a Nihonga painting of koi. By Hiroko Seki

Nature is the inspiration for the artwork of Issaquah resident Hiroko Seki. It is evident in her painting of a weeping willow in Lake Sammamish State Park, as well as in her sketches of Northwest birds.

“When I paint, I communicate with nature,” said Seki, explaining that she communicates with the subject she has chosen to create on canvas. In turn she “communicates to someone through my art.”

In this respect, Seki is a medium translating the natural world to her viewing audience.

One type of painting style that Seki uses is Nihonga, a traditional Japanese method thousands of years old. Nihonga uses natural ingredients — minerals, oyster shells and even semi-precious stones — that are crushed and distilled into a powder. The powder is then applied with traditionally rendered Japanese glue that has to be heated to the right temperature to adhere the powdered pigments to canvas, which produces vibrant colors.

Seki said that the Nihonga method does not fade like other paintings because “Stone never fades. Artificial fades.”

Her sketches, composed with a sumi stick (black ink), a paintbrush and water, are mainly of Northwest birds and fish. The sketches depict movement in the brush strokes and composition, but evoke a feeling of tranquility.

Seki said she likes to sketch outside with her subject right in front of her. Painting outside is also a  French expression, “en plein air.” She said her favorite places to bird watch and sketch are Marymoor Park, Kenmore and Juanita.

Seki displayed a talent for art early on, in elementary school in Japan, she said. Her teachers would recommend her artwork for exhibitions. She received awards when she was young, but they weren’t a big deal to her at the time. She did not focus on art until college, when she attended a professional art school for two years. She studied mostly Western art. Then, she met her husband, David.

After art school, Seki worked in a kimono factory as an artist painting in sumi ink on silk. She said that was a turning point in her life. She realized that she loved that type of painting.

A few years later, she took art lessons from a neighbor, Mr. Suenaga, who was an art teacher at Tokyo Geidai. She took lessons for three years.

If you go

Hiroko Seki’s artwork

See Hiroko Seki’s paintings at the Women Painters of Washington Gallery until July 13 at the Columbia Center, 701 Fifth Ave., Seattle. Learn more at www.womenpainters.com.

Then, Seki moved with her husband and two sons to the United States. In transitioning to another country with two young children, she said art really helped her life. She had to come to America to realize that she wanted to go back to Tokyo and study Nihonga, she said.

She was able to take some credits online and then traveled back to the Musashino Art School in Tokyo to take classes for a few weeks or months at a time. The style of teaching at Musashino allowed Seki to approach art her way rather than force her into a style that wasn’t natural to her inclinations. It took her nearly four years, but she completed her bachelor’s degree in Nihonga in 2007.

Seki has taught art classes for 19 years, including at Bellevue College and from her home studio. Over the years, her students and friends would try to persuade her to show her art in public. She never did any street shows or joined any organizations to promote her art until two years ago. She said that people found out about her work through friends of friends.

Seki’s artwork is composed of Northwest subjects. Because of that, her husband said, “Every Northwest home should have one of her paintings.”

One of Seki’s paintings, a sumi ink on silk, is currently displayed in the Women Painters of Washington “Encounters” exhibit in the Columbia Center in Seattle. There are 45 artists featured from 20 cities in Washington.

Her work — one pair of Nihonga paintings and 10 sumi paintings — was also featured recently in an exhibit at the Weyerhaeuser Pacific Rim Bonsai Gallery in Federal Way.

“When she uses color, she uses it well in terms of balance,” Weyerhaeuser museum curator David De Groot said of Seki’s Nihonga paintings. “She uses enough color to be arresting but never crosses any lines.

“Her art has an elegant simplicity,” De Groot said concerning Seki’s sumi wildlife ink paintings. “Plein air painting demands that you go in and use sure strokes, make strokes quickly.”

Seki doesn’t have to go further than her deck to find inspiration for her artwork.

“This is my blanket,” she said with her arms outstretched to the view of the Cascade Mountains she commands from a hilltop near Issaquah.

“With pollen,” she added with a laugh.

Rose Marie Gai is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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