Noriko Tamura was born in Nagoya in 1944. She enjoyed drawing and painting pictures from a young age and made her way to Tokyo in her teenage years to become an artist. After graduating from Musashino Art University, she spent four years in India. Later, in 1986, she studied in Beijing on the Japanese Government Overseas Study Program for Artists, and in 1988 she went to the ancient Chinese capital Xi'an to paint the mural Nito Kaenzu (Banquet in Two Capitals) in the Xi'an Garden Hotel Tang Hua. All of 1.6 meters high and on four panels with a combined length of 60 meters, this monumental work took a year and a half to complete.
Over the dozen or so years since then, far from settling down in Japan, she has traveled to many parts of Asia painting more than 30 murals along the way. In 2000 Tamura returned to the city of her birth to create the giant mural Soyokaze no Rondo (Zephyr Rondo), measuring 2.5 by 9 meters, in the JR Central Towers constructed above Nagoya's main railroad station.
When we turned up at Tamura's house-cum-studio in Tokyo, she stepped barefoot into the genkan (the small vestibule where one removes one's shoes before entering the house) to greet us. It was difficult to envisage this beautiful and delicately built woman painting such huge works of art on her own.
Tamura first ventured into mural painting 13 years ago, after earning a living for more than 20 years by painting in oils. And surprisingly, she took on this challenge far from the familiar surroundings of Japan, at the Xi'an Garden Hotel Tang Hua. This ambitious project involved painting high up around the four walls of the hotel lobby, to a depth of 1.6 meters just below the ceiling. The murals depict four scenes of people at leisure in the nature-rich environments of the old capitals of China and Japan. Hence the title Banquet in Two Capitals.
Since then the number of murals Tamura has painted has risen to 35, and she has lost count of how often people have asked her why she chooses to do murals. "Most oil paintings on canvas end up in private hands, so the general public rarely has a chance to see them. But a mural is something people see in the natural course of events, whether they're interested in art or not. Even so, while some describe me as a muralist, that's a mistake. I'm an artist who also paints on walls," she declares emphatically.
Many of Nagoya's citizens engage in the arts, so there is nothing particularly unusual in the fact that Tamura began learning to paint in second grade. She dabbled in other artistic pursuits, too, but with the notable exception of painting, she did not keep up with them. After entering a fine arts course at a prefectural high school in Aichi, Tamura devoted herself wholeheartedly to sketching. She also attended daily classes with the teacher, who had become her mentor. But in the final year of high school, and to the surprise of everyone who knew her, she began to question the methods she had been taught up until that time. "Tokyo's the only place to be if you want to learn about art," she insisted. So after graduation, she left home for the big city, against strong opposition from family and friends.
She painted frantically during her time at Musashino Art University, and not long after graduating she began entering art competitions. Tamura was soon winning awards and for a while was said by some to be "hogging" all the prizes.
From her early days, Tamura had often painted the human form. She was especially fascinated by the strong and beautiful local women during her four years in India, and these women have appeared in her work many times since then.
At the age of 40, Tamura went to Beijing on the Japanese Government Overseas Study Program for Artists. During a trip into the western provinces of China, she was drawn to the beauty of the deeply etched faces of the old people. As with the Indian women years earlier, these became another important motif in her work. It was the connections she made during this period that led to Tamura's painting the giant mural in the Xi'an hotel in 1988. And since then she has painted murals in the luxury cruise liner Asuka, Yokohama Minato Mirai Hall, a medical facility for the elderly in Tokyo, the airport and a Japanese restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand, and dozens of other places.
At times, this has involved working in extreme heat or extreme cold, or dangling from a safety harness, quite literally risking her life for her art. Even so, Tamura says she has never felt like giving it up. "I enjoy it all the more if the conditions are difficult, and when people tell me to ‘do whatever you want' the sense of responsibility drives me to work all the harder and enables me to express myself much better in the end," she explains. "I've always worked in this way, so I've never wanted to give it up. To get tired of painting would be to hit a wall, wouldn't it? If that's the case, the canvas for my murals is always a wall, so where's the problem?" she laughs.
Meeting, and parting, with the other people engaged on the site of each mural, and the locals who inevitably come to see her at work, is a source of great support for Tamura's art. "Whenever it's time for farewell, the workers always give me something or other as a keepsake. On the Asuka, they gave me a chair built from the planks of wood used in making the deck. In Nagoya, when I had finished Zephyr Rondo, they gave me a slab of marble cut flat. I use it as a palette, and it's wonderful the way my paints mix on it. With support like that from everyone, I'm able to discover a new part of myself every time I paint another picture. And this leads on to the next creation. For me, I suppose you could say painting is like a journey of self-discovery."
Thanks to the richness of these many experiences, Tamura places greater than usual emphasis on communicating to people through her works. She explains, "Once I've finished a painting, that's still not the end of it. It's wonderful to have opportunities to tell all the stories behind a particular work. I believe it's important to let people know what lies behind the production."
To this end, Tamura occasionally accepts requests from travel agencies to talk about one of her creations to a group of visitors. "This may be going beyond the usual bounds of an artist's work, but it makes me happy if my doing so encourages someone to think how marvelous art really is. I think Japanese people should enjoy art as a part of everyday life, as Americans and European do."
Having traveled extensively in India and China and along the Silk Road, Tamura depicts many faces from different parts of Asia in her works. "Asia's easy for me to get to know, because it's close at hand, I suppose. Japan's roots are in Asia. Similarly, my hometown of Nagoya is where my roots are. And it's easily accessible these days from Tokyo, where I live."
It was last year that Tamura returned to Nagoya to paint Zephyr Rondo in the fifteenth floor lobby of the JR Central Towers. Commenting on it, she says, "Nagoya is my starting point. I left the nest, but it's the place I will some day return to. I painted the mural with a sense of gratitude and to say, ‘Hey, I'm back!'"
Tamura wants to continue painting for as long as she is able, but she knows she cannot go on forever. "The day will come, maybe in 20 years, maybe in 30, when I won't be able to paint any more. What I want to paint up until then is so-called environment art. I want to paint murals on buildings that have been designed for the purpose of displaying art." And so, the journey of self-discovery goes on.
(Yuka Ogura, photos by Tadashi Mishima)