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West Japan 'gorilla artist' holds exhibition after midlife career change to painting

One of Akira Furutachi's paintings is seen in this image provided by the artist.
Akira Furutachi is seen with his paintings at the Minatogawa Park hand crafts market in Kobe's Hyogo Ward on June 27, 2020. (Mainichi/Chikako Kida)

KOBE -- Akira Furutachi, 46, a resident of the western Japan city of Kobe, has styled himself as the "gorilla artist" since a chance up-close encounter with the animals at a zoo, where he was enraptured by their almost-human expressions and behavior.

With a belief to "enjoy my life in the spirit of challenging myself," Furutachi quit his job as a local public servant at age 44, and devoted himself to the art business. "Gorillas show people things worth picking up on," he said. From July 7 to 19, his work will be on display at an individual exhibition at a gallery in the city's Chuo Ward, whose name literally translates to "Pocket Art Box Motoko."

Furutachi is fascinated by gorillas, and his work shows his love for them through portrayals of a mother's warm gaze at her baby, of male gorillas sitting majestically, or of a smaller gorilla who looks like they're smiling while resting on a larger one's back, among others.

"I liked art at a hobby level," Furutachi said. He didn't seriously start learning how to paint until 2013. The change came when he went to pick up his children from an art class they were attending. There, the teacher invited him to give it a try. In the same year, his work made an appearance at an exhibition held by the Modern Japan Art Society.

With his work becoming good enough to win prizes, his dreams of becoming an artist grew stronger. He decided that if it became too difficult to wear both hats of a public worker and artist, he would quit his job as a civil servant. Despite his reservations, and with the encouragement of his wife, he eventually left the workplace he had been in for 26 years. "My colleagues were surprised, and asked me, 'Have you gone mad?'" he said.

In 2016, he was at an art museum in Tokyo's Ueno for a prize presentation event. With time to wait, he wandered into the nearby Ueno Zoological Gardens, where he came face to face with its gorillas.

Each one of them had their own personality, and some reminded him of an older lady he saw in a fishing village in his home-prefecture of Hiroshima, in western Japan, and others reminded him of "terrifying Showa era dads" from the post war period. It was then that he felt immediately that he'd found the "subject only he could draw" that he'd been searching for.

Since then, he has gone out to zoos which have gorillas to observe and photograph them, and then take those impressions and turn them into his works. His individual exhibition includes around 30 original watercolor and oil pieces. He's also selling reproductions and postcards at the show. Furutachi said, "I paint while my heart is touched by the sight of gorillas living their lives." He added, "Now, with the world seeming to take a turn for the worse due to corona, I'd be very happy if people who see my paintings are brought to a smile."

The gallery is open from noon to 7 p.m. daily, except for the last day when the exhibition will close at 5 p.m. The display will not open on July 13. For enquiries call Planet Earth (in Japanese) on 050-3716-3540.

(Japanese original by Chikako Kida, Kobe Bureau)

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