ELLEN ALTFEST IS HERE
INTERVIEWED BY HER HUSBAND, ART CRITIC ROB COLVIN,
WHO ACCOMPANIED HER IN KYOTO AT THE SAGA HOUSE
When did you get invited to SAGA HOUSE?
I think maybe February 2022.
When you got to SAGA HOUSE, what was your impression?
Tok [Tokutaro Yamauchi, Shibankaku Gallery] had given us a walkthrough, a virtual walkthrough when we were in Connecticut, which was really surreal. It was still winter in Connecticut, but it was spring in Kyoto. You could just feel the beauty coming through the monitor. I was very interested in the garden scenery, in addition to the house, which was overwhelming in how cool it was.
So when we got to Kyoto, it was like that walkthrough. But was really intense, just waking up that next morning and going into the bathroom and seeing the view. The fresh green of the early spring was really fantastic.
And we were the first ones to stay in that house. So it was kind of a responsibility in some ways; you felt the responsibility to keep it nice and also to figure out how to use it as a studio and a living space.
What was your feeling of that area of Kyoto, that Tok was showing us near the house?
We were there in a particularly magical time because of the limited amount of people allowed in the country. We had to get a special visa that was a challenge to get. We had to go to consulate several times. And so when we got [to Kyoto], I mean, there were very few tourists. And so we were just in this area with a with, you know, Japanese locals and so everything was very quiet and we could see the area more clearly. It’s a little bit removed from the center of the city, so it has a little bit of a more of a country vibe.
How did you go about finding where you wanted to paint, or what you wanted to paint?
I felt like where I wanted to paint and what I was going to paint was kind of preordained or predestined, like right before I got there. Tok had found this temple garden, with a [Buddhist] monk taking care of it, that was just a little way away.
And so, I was really – as soon as I heard about that – I was really hoping that that would be the place, that I would be able to paint there, and my paintings take a long time. So, it would have to be some sort of collaboration with that temple to allow me to be in there every day. I was very hopeful that it would work out, although it was far from certain. I just really wanted to see that garden, to see if there’s anything in it for me to paint.
How did you choose your subject when you were in the garden?
I just literally walked along the little gravel path, and it turned a corner, a little corner, and I saw this patch of moss that was being subsumed by another kind of moss. It formed a shape that was almost barely recognizable as a subject, which is why I liked it. It had a presence, but it wasn’t a specific thing exactly.
And so, when I saw that, I just knew that was what I wanted to paint. It was a manageable size for the amount of time that I had, because I was only in Kyoto three months.
You were having a small retrospective at the Mori [Art Museum]. When did you realize that you would be able to finish the painting in order for it to be in the exhibition?
I got a lot of encouragement. I think rationally I hadn’t made something so quickly. But then you encouraged me and said I could do it. And I feel like you’ve been right about in the past, when [you] told me that I was taking on too much and that I wouldn’t be able to finish something, that I was being unrealistic. And so, when you told me that I could do this, I felt like maybe I’ll just try it, you know, and if I don’t finish it – I was just running that risk. And then I kind of had these mini deadlines, like when Toku [Hirokazu Tokuyama, Associate Curator of the Mori Art Museum] came from the Mori to visit me, and I knew he was coming, I wanted to get the painting up to a certain level for his visit.
And then sometimes the painting will get to a level where you can see what it’s going to look like when it’s finished, even if it’s not finished. And so, I got it up to that level and unsurprisingly, he said, you know, we want this for your show, because it did really make sense to have a painting I made in Japan that was going to be seen in Japan; it was such a nice idea. But when he said I want this in the show, I still wasn’t at all sure that I could finish it in that amount of time, but he said can you finish it, and I just said I would try.
But you did finish it, and then you made even more paintings. What was that like?
It just felt great. I just felt so encouraged and supported and stimulated and inspired in Kyoto. Then that garden, and especially meeting and with speaking every day with the head priest of that garden and discussing ideas. I just felt like I was on a different plane; I was able to tap into a different level of consciousness or something, even though that sounds really grim. That’s how it felt.
So, you developed new ideas there to come away with. What were those?
I’m gonna keep some mystery in my next group of paintings, but I think that, you know, coming out of the pandemic, my paintings have become kind of somber. And I think that being in Kyoto, with all that bright green, it made me want my next paintings to connect it, to represent a kind of fresh life force, and to make a group of paintings that had that quality of being alive.
Photography: Tadayuki Minamoto