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Japanese artist at Chazen to unveil the effort of three years

November 14, 2016 GMT

Ikeda Manabu remembers where he was exactly three years ago this fall: marking the first pen strokes of a massive work of art he’d create in the Chazen Museum of Art.

Soon, the work will be done.

The visiting Japanese artist has been working inch by inch on a 130-square-foot artwork, creating a riveting and astonishingly detailed visual epic. Since he began the project in 2013, some 6,340 visitors have stopped by his studio in the Chazen basement to witness his work. They saw the photos, twigs and stones laid out on tables to inspire him, and watched over his shoulder as the artwork, made in pen and ink and watercolor, flourished.

And as those three years passed, life continued outside the museum, too. Ikeda’s eldest daughter Tou, now 7, became a perfect English speaker at her Madison elementary school. The artist and his wife welcomed two more children into the world.

Slowly, the family began to meet other Japanese speakers in Madison, and even found an Asian market that sold foods from home. Ikeda and Tou spent time fishing at Lake Wingra. The artist was invited to create new works at UW-Madison’s Tandem Press, and liked to ski Wisconsin slopes — until an accident temporarily halted the use of his dominant right hand.

So Ikeda taught himself to draw with his left.

And through it all, his artwork embraced his thoughts, his learning, his imagination and inspirations. The panels that make up the piece, which is yet to be titled, will be unveiled to the public at 2 p.m. Friday (the day after his youngest daughter’s first birthday) in the Chazen’s Gallery XVII.

It will remain on display at the admission-free museum at least through Dec. 11, when it will be shipped to Japan. The work will be shown at a number of museums before it likely lands in the hands of a private collector, Chazen officials said.

It began as a near-apocalyptic depiction of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. At the core of the artwork is a craggy tree, its lower limbs reaching out like the thrashing arms of a drowning victim. Intertwined are minute, intricate images — at first evoking wreckage and strife. But as the limbs grow upward, so does the sense of life and regeneration. The work blossoms into a celebration of renewal, a flowery springtime linked to the cycles of life and death.

Humorous images from Ikeda’s life in Madison pop up in the work: Bucky Badger, road signs, even a placard from the Chazen museum.

“When he started, he was thinking more about the force of the nature, the recovery of the nature, and how human beings could live better with the nature more integrated” into their lives, said Mina Keith, a volunteer docent-in-training at the Chazen who translated Ikeda’s comments during an interview.

“But in three years, he had the birth of the children, he experienced the death of a friend, he personally experienced an accident with his shoulder, and he began thinking more about life and the importance of life.

“You see that in the flowers. The flowers depict a lot of themes related to birth and death,” the artist, 43, explained through his translator. “In some (of the flowers) you’re going to see babies, in some you’re going to see more death-related themes. Also, the tree almost died, and then recovered. In all this disaster, there is also life going on, and death happening too. And recovery.”

A market price was not available for the towering artwork, or for other works that Ikeda has sold through the gallery in Japan that represents him. Another of Ikeda’s intricate pieces, titled “Meltdown,” was bought by the Chazen several years ago with gift funds for $220,000, and is currently on display at the museum.

“Meltdown” depicts a glacier sliding down a mountain, taking with it layers of civilization. Ikeda created it over six months during another residency, in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Chazen director Russell Panczenko became a fan of Ikeda’s work after seeing it in a New York exhibition in 2011. The New York Times would choose Ikeda’s work “Existence” from that show as one of the top 10 events of the art world in 2011.

The Chazen offered work space to Ikeda for his three-year project. The artist said he appreciates the large studio — a far cry from when he had to work in a corner of his small apartment in Japan.

Ikeda “very much likes that Japanese tradition where you meticulously work it out, doing everything very precisely,” Panczenko told the Wisconsin State Journal soon after the artist began working here. “The master does it by hand; that’s what makes him the master. That’s important to him.”

During his stay in Madison, Ikeda has been filmed by Wisconsin Public Television (which will present a five-minute segment on the artist during its show “Wisconsin Life” at 7 p.m. Nov. 24) and also by a documentary film crew from the Japanese public television network NHK.

He has traveled back to Japan over the past three years for art openings. Last winter his wife Ai returned there for the birth of their third child; meanwhile, Ikeda dislocated his shoulder while doing ski stunts at Tyrol Basin.

“He damaged the nerves (on his right arm). And after that it’s a slow recovery,” Keith said.

While his wife was in Japan, Ikeda stayed at the home of a museum docent because it was too hard to live on his own.

“He was there for three months. He had to do everything with his left hand only, because he couldn’t use his right,” his interpreter explained. “Cooking, dressing, taking showers — everything was with his left hand. And here (in the art studio) he was learning to use his left hand.”

Ikeda points out a tree branch in his work, a section where “you can see veins and nerves” along the bark, symbolizing the damaged nerves in his arms growing back again.

He still has some numbness and tingling in his hand, but can use it again to draw and expects a full recovery, he said.

He’s comfortable in Madison, he said, and would like to remain in the U.S. for another artist residency. But right now he is pouring all his energy into finishing the artwork being unveiled this week.

“He can’t plan for the future yet — he has to finish the work, and then he’ll maybe have more chance to talk with other museums about this,” his translator said. “And the kids have school now, so he is planning to stay here for awhile, until he has a solid plan.”

Ikeda’s studio was open 504 days to the public during his three-year residency. Visitors, some of them from other countries, stood behind ropes to see the artist working, and sometimes asked questions that he wasn’t prepared to answer, he said.

But over time, Ikeda learned that viewers “come to the pictures and they are mesmerized — and start finding things and having fun with that,” he said.

“It has resulted in (me) having more confidence. I’m more confident now that everybody from all over the world can appreciate the work.”