Over the past 3 years Linda and I have had more than 100 conversations for the purpose of this column. The one with internationally recognized sculptor Kazumi Tanaka last week was undoubtedly the most challenging. A resident of Princeton the past 15 years, Kazumi was born in Japan and was deeply influenced by the culture, traditions and values of that country. Now, after many years, he seems suspended between what he learned in Japan and what he experiences in Canada. “I realize I sometimes cannot synchronize my brain with yours,” he told us.
In spite of the cultural chasm separating us, Kazumi seemed at ease sitting in our sun room. He added milk and sugar to his coffee, smiled and waited for our questions.
“I received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from a university in Japan,” he said. “That was just a beginning. It opened a door for me, but I needed to learn more. The sculpting is mostly self taught.”
He’s been attracted to other art forms and actually began his career doing photography, painting, and drawing. They have enriched his sculpting. “In 1981 I spent 6 months at the Banff Centre in their Winter Cycle. It was open to many art forms. One of the participants was a professor from Columbia University. He had won a Pulitzer Prize for music composition. I did a lot of painting there.” Although they worked in different mediums, Kazumi felt stimulated by this connection.
We received a sense of his international importance when he talked about a competition to participate in a prestigious Czech Republic sculpture project. “I am very lucky. I was invited to apply for 1 of 4 positions available. There were 110 international applications. I was chosen for one of the four positions. They provided my airfare, a hotel room, meals and an assistant to work with me. It was a big project and it took place in a quarry. They brought in cranes and forklifts and other equipment to assist us. This is done every year and the sculptures are on display.” He received a $3,000 honorarium for his participation.
Over the years there have been various international invitations. At a sculpture symposium in Sophia, Bulgaria he worked on a sculpture project with the highly respected professor Emil Popov. Kazumi has numerous works on display in Japan, Eastern Europe, Canada and the U.S. On a street in New Delhi, India he was surprised to see Jon Bartlett of Princeton.
Kazumi`s life and work have been greatly impacted by Zen Buddhism. He lived in the Mount Baldy Zen Center, a Los Angeles monastery, for 6 years. Here he was a translator for Josyu Sasaki Roshi, founder of the monastery. Roshi lived to age 108. While living in the monastery Kazumi came to know Leonard Cohen, who was also there. “He was very kind, very decent, very educated, and very generous.”
Kazumi has immersed himself in Zen and in our conversation he referred to it many times. His focus on Zen, sculpting, photography and other art forms hasn’t allowed much time or opportunity to forge a Canadian identity. All require a measure of separation from the world.
Now 68, Kazumi seems to realize he needs to make a greater effort to understand Canadian ways and become more involved. In a community heavily sprinkled with loggers, miners, farmers and ranchers, a sculptor of Japanese birth is somewhat of a rarity. “The Dalai Lama said it’s good to understand our neighbours who have another faith. I know I should connect to your issues more. I should listen to CBC. I recently bought a small radio. I should also spend 10 minutes each day reading The Province. I should know what is happening.” Changing his ways is requiring a significant inner shift he probably hasn’t totally come to grips with.
I sensed in Kazumi an emotional and intellectual loyalty to Japanese thinking and culture. To discard what was bequeathed to him by his country of birth would be a betrayal. He said, “I am becoming neither Canadian nor Japanese. And I am not interested in integrating into the mainstream Canada but try to stay in my style or alternative culture.”
“The world is a little strange right now,” he said. “But I came to a multicultural country and I am in the process of cultural mixing. I’m not only visiting in Canada. I will die here.”