Why Mako Fujimura Left New York City for the Country
Cities have attracted artists, musicians, and writers for centuries. Patronage, an educated audience that values the arts, and, perhaps most important, a robust community of creative peers to encourage and challenge artistic practice, have made cities fundamental to the history of art. However, the artists and writers I’ve been thinking about recently have, at crucial moments in their careers, left dynamic urban centers for the country. Herman Melville left Manhattan in 1850 for Troy in upstate New York, for a 160-acre farm he called Arrowhead to write his masterpiece Moby-Dick; Norwegian painter Edvard Munch left Berlin and its fertile bohemian avant-garde community in 1909 for a solitary, rural life in his native Norway; Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock left New York City in the late 1940s for the rural setting of The Springs, Long Island, followed by friend Willem de Kooning in the late ’50s. And many more—Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, Anselm Kiefer—have left the city to do their most important work.
And now Makoto Fujimura, after many years of working in and for New York City as an artist and creative catalyst, has moved his home and studio to an old farmhouse outside of Princeton, New Jersey, which he has come to call Fuji farm. Because they deal in and work with the ineffable, ephemeral, and transitory states of experiences and feelings, artists are particularly shaped and affected by their environment. How has riding the subway numerous times each day over the last decade shaped Fujimura’s thought patterns? How has painting in a small studio effected the scope of his work? And now, his thinking, reading, writing, and painting will be shaped by new stimuli and new hobbies, like long walks, early nights and early mornings, bird watching, building and shaping his studio, and the quiet.
What are we to make of this move of the artist from the city to the country, from the urban center to the rural periphery, from community to isolation?
The city offers intense concentration. Artists can see great art in art museums, the newest art in galleries, attend lectures and other social events that bring them into contact with artists, collectors, dealers, and critics. The art news cycle runs on a daily basis, and the institutions that are necessary for professional artistic practice are found in the city and are responsive to this news cycle. Yet the blessing of intense concentration is also a curse. It can limit the scope of the artist’s experience to the micro-level, in which seasonal fashion trends take on significance they do not deserve. And the institutional, social aspects of artistic practice—going to events, meeting the right people—can gradually become the content of an artist’s work, as he or she becomes an art world “insider” rather than an artist. In fact, cities can breed conservatism among critics, curators, dealers, and artists who are fearful to go against fashion trends, upset convention, and risk marginalization from their peers.
For just as artists have by necessity worked in cities, in close proximity to patrons and an educated audience, many have lived at enmity with the achievement of Cain, and, at one time or another, felt compelled to leave it for the country. They have forsaken concentration for space—space to think, to work, to reconnect with nature, to shun the obsession with art world gossip, to take off the blinders and drink more deeply from the waters of the living history of art, music, and literature that have endured over time. Time away from the city allows the artist to make culture differently. For Fujimura, it allows him to transform a bucolic red barn into a spacious working studio, develop a bird-watching hobby, and take long walks with his wife, Judy.
photograph by Kevin Casto
The escape to the city is not an idealization of the country, as if it gets the artist closer to nature, or closer to God. In fact, it does just the opposite. It forces the artist to experience her exile anew. Art often contradicts our comfort with the world, reminding us that we are exiles and wanderers, testifying that the world is not as it should be. The city offers a place for wanderers to congregate together, perhaps becoming a little too comfortable with this diasporic community of lonely artistic exiles, turning them into a gang of hipsters. The country forces the artist to once again confront his exile, and do so alone.
Art is about discontinuity and contradiction, which is how grace is experienced in the world, as an alien intrusion into a world that deceives us into believing that we are defined by what we do, not by what Christ has done. And so we are compelled to prove ourselves, to make something that justifies our existence. But art is not just doing and making, it is also receiving, and hearing. It is not just an achievement; it is a gift. It is devoting one’s life to something so futile, inefficient, and in many ways useless, that it becomes a means of grace. Cities, with their concentration of doers and achievers, full of those obsessed with going from good to great, can pose challenges to cultivating a passivity that is absolutely necessary for art.
photograph by Alec Casto
The city is indispensible for artistic practice. An artist cannot develop without the concentration, the creative density that cities offer. And yet to make work that is not solely defined by contemporary fashions, locked into and responsive to parochial concerns, artists need to develop ways, at times, to escape it. Not every artist needs a Walden Pond, Arrowhead, or Fuji farm. But every artist needs to step away from the urban pressure to do, to build, to transform, to engage.
The country can also offer a means by which the artist restores her work into the larger, more diverse fabric of work. The intense concentration in the city tends to narrow the artist’s vocational scope—everyone she knows is an artist, critic, curator, and drawing a paycheck from the art world somehow, even it it’s sitting at the reception desk at an art museum. In the country, the artist befriends the mechanic, gets to know the dairy farmer or beekeeper down the road, and begins to think about her paintings in the context of producing honey, milk, and getting the car to run. Munch often placed his precious paintings outside in the Norwegian cold in order to toughen them up, see how they would fare out in the real world of freezing rain and bird poop. The country seems to offer that experience for the artist herself. Can I still be an artist without the trappings?
Fujimura’s retrospective monograph project, Golden Sea, combined with his move from the city to the country, marks a watershed for his artistic development. Fuji farm is no escape or retirement. And the artist himself recognizes the importance of this transition, explaining to me: Last December, as I headed to Japan for an exhibit, I left the ‘Ground Zero’ loft that we spent the last 14 years in and raised our three children in, and I came home to a farmhouse in Princeton on Christmas Eve. The move is a culmination of many years of wrestling for both Judy and I to gauge our journey together, to determine the best path to weave our future together.
As it was for Melville and Munch, Fuji farm is a sign that Fujimura is rolling up his sleeves to dig deeper as an artist and as a human being, to produce work for the future that is not defined by the art-world categories with which he’s fought, but responsive to his own changes as an artist, but also as a husband, father, grandfather. Yet this future requires passivity—to receive art and life as a disruptively gracious gift from a disruptively gracious God.
Daniel A. Siedell is director of Theological & Cultural Practices at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and curator of LiberateNet.org, the online resource ministry of Tullian Tchividjian. Before joining the staff at Coral Ridge he spent 15 years as an art history professor and museum curator. He is Scholar-in-Residence at the New City Arts Initiative in Charlottesville, Virginia, during 2012-13. He blogs weekly at Patheos.