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American artist's studio connects foreigners to traditional crafts in small town Japan

Kjell Hahn sits in front of his artwork in Onishi in the city of Fujioka, Gunma Prefecture, on May 19, 2021. (Mainichi/Naomichi Senoo)

MAEBASHI -- An American man has created an art studio in a Japanese community northwest of Tokyo to connect people around the world through their encounters with traditional Japanese crafts.

    "Shiro Oni Studio," which has adopted an artist-in-residence (AIR) program, allows artists from both Japan and abroad to stay for a certain period to produce works. It has been operated by American Kjell Hahn in Onishi, a mountainous area with a population of about 4,900, in the city of Fujioka, Gunma Prefecture, and has been engaged in international exchange through art.

    Hahn was born in the U.S. state of Missouri. He had a Japanese acquaintance during his college life so he decided to join the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme, a Japanese government-sponsored project to invite foreign college graduates to Japan to promote internationalization, and came to Japan for the first time around 2002. While living in the western Japan city of Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, he developed an interest in Japanese ceramics, such as Arita and Seto ware and toured various places across the country by bicycle including Kyushu, southwestern Japan and the Chubu region of central Japan.

    Hahn was attracted to Onishi, where he had no connection, due to an encounter with the late Chiaki Horikoshi, a painter who was active in Spain. Hahn met him through ceramic art after Horikoshi established a foothold in Onishi and Kamikawa, Saitama Prefecture, a town across the Kanna River from Onishi. Hahn also wanted to live near Tokyo so he moved to Onishi without a second thought in 2008 and refurbished an old Japanese house to create an atelier and held his first private exhibition in 2009.

    While living in Onishi, Hahn came up with an idea of an AIR program. He was inspired by his college experience of launching an art event where a lot of people gathered to share their works freely. He said he thought there was not only nature but also interesting people in Onishi and that it would be great if more people could gather in a fun place.

    With the support of his friends, Hahn started the studio implementing AIR for the first time in 2013. At first, there were only three participants, including his sister. However, the number of people taking part increased little by little as the years went by. The average number of participants grew to eight to 10 people per session, and a total number of more than 200 people from 30 countries including the United States and those in Europe and Asia have partaken in the AIR program.

    Members include a wide range of artists such as painters, sculptors, potters, photographers, and documentary writers. During their six-week stay, they learn local traditional crafts such as indigo dyeing and making "shimenawa," sacred Japanese rope used at shrines, and participate in community festivals to interact with local people. The artists try to integrate their experiences into their art works.

    The unique artists taking part are not obedient "sheep" but free-spirited "cats." Due to this factor, Hahn said that sometimes as president of the studio he needs to deal with trouble caused by some of the participants. Nevertheless, he says it allowed him to open his eyes to things he did not notice before. One artist found "tsukemono ishi" (literally meaning "pickle stone") weights, which are put on barrel lids to make Japanese pickles, on a road where they used to walk every day and incorporated them into their works.

    Hahn explains that it's harder for people to appreciate the things they see every day. According to him, the participants' works enable people to see things with fresh eyes, and teaches them a new perspective on how to view where they live.

    The project was affected largely by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Although Hahn had planned to accept participants four times a year, he was forced to cancel events. He choked on his words before telling the Mainichi Shimbun that he didn't know what he could do or when he will be able to restart the project.

    Although Hahn faces hardships, he said emphatically that Onshi is a meaningful place for him and he wants to keep running the project in whatever form. While he is thinking of a good time to restart the project, he has taken on other challenges, such as opening pottery classes and repairing old Japanese houses to turn them into storage spaces for works. Hahn says he believes that art is the only thing that has the power to bond people. He wants Shiro Oni Studio to be seen as a place representing Onishi even if he stops the project.

    ***

    Kjell Hahn from Missouri, U.S. was born in 1978 and graduated from Truman State University. As the president of "Shiro Oni Studio" which has adopted an "Artist in Residence" program that lets artists stay and create their art works for a certain period, he has accepted more than 200 people from about 30 countries since 2013. In February 2021, he received an award for his international cultural exchange efforts from the governor of Gunma Prefecture.

    (Japanese original by Naomichi Senoo, Maebashi Bureau)

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