interview with Kellen Hatanaka

Kellen Hatanaka is a multidisciplinary artist from Toronto living and working in Stratford, Ontario. His vibrant, figurative work is centered around heritage, tradition, identity and representation. He has exhibited in Canada and internationally and created many public works. He has worked with a variety of clients including Nike, The Wall Street Journal, The Polaris Music Prize, Bruce Mau Design and Absolut Vodka. He was awarded the Governor General's Award in 2016 along with Jon-Erik Lappano for their book, "Tokyo Digs a Garden."

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a Japanese-Canadian artist working in painting and sculpture as well as client-based and public art projects. I graduated from The Ontario College of Art and Design in 2008. Around 2018 I began a studio practice creating work that is centered around heritage, tradition, identity, representation and the AAPI experience. 

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada.

Why and when did you move to Stratford? 

My wife and I moved to Stratford in 2015. She had grown up here and we were looking for a change from the city. Moving here provided us with much more space than the city offered and I decided to rent a dedicated studio which led to the start of my art practice.

How is the current situation affecting you and your work as an artist/creative living in Stratford?

We have been really lucky living here during the Pandemic in that case levels have been significantly lower compared to other regions in Ontario like Toronto. Working as an artist I am used to a bit of isolation and my studio space is private so I’ve been quite fortunate that the pandemic and resulting restrictions haven’t impacted my day to day that greatly. 

What initially inspired you to pursue a career in art?

I decided to go to art school because I had always enjoyed working on creative projects, but I enrolled in the design program with a major in illustration. After graduating I worked as a designer at an agency and then left a couple of years later to work as a freelance designer and illustrator. I think I always felt like something was missing from my work, but I hadn’t considered a fine art practice until more recently, mostly because I didn’t know what I wanted to say with my work. I began to dig into my heritage and ethnicity, considering the value and importance of representation and became interested in exploring the Asian American experience as well as mixed-race identity as I am Half-Japanese.

How would you describe your creative process?

It really depends on what I am working on. For paintings, I sometimes create drawings or painted studies and other times I create rough work on the computer. The way I work in illustrator is with a mouse, so the resulting shapes are irregular and janky. I really like this aesthetic and try to translate it to the paintings. The juxtaposition of painted vs vector shapes is interesting to me and sometimes I try to keep that in the work by adding collage or drawing with a paint tube to get a very uniform line weight. 

Does your city and surroundings influence you as an artist and individual?

The city doesn’t influence me or my work directly, however, the slower pace and quiet that the city offers is conducive to staying focused on my work. It’s less stressful and chaotic here for many reasons, from less congestion to lower cost of living. I think the city keeps my anxiety levels down and that allows me to stay productive in my work.

The responsibility of the council in every city is to provide a solid foundation of design, art and cultural facilities, is that evident in Stratford?

For a smaller town Stratford does have a lot of art and culture to offer. Stratford is well known for the Stratford Festival which consists of a wide range of theatrical productions put on every summer across multiple venues throughout the city. 

Do you think it is also the responsibility of the artist/creative to improve the quality of people's lives in their city? 

That’s a great question. Generally speaking I think that artists and creatives have the opportunity to improve the lives of those around them through their work. I’m not sure if it is necessarily the responsibility of every artist to to improve and engage with the city directly and perhaps sometimes the artists work and the city's mandates may not align. I’ve been greatly inspired by the work of Isamu Nogichi, specifically his public works and play structures and I think these projects present an ideal relationship between the artist and their community. Many of these works were unrealized, but if they had been they would have improved the lives of the communities they served without compromising Noguchi’s work and vision. These are the kinds of opportunities I am looking for.

What do you struggle with the most in terms of working and living in a city like Stratford?

The biggest issue for me is being isolated from many of my friends as well as feeling disconnected from major art cities like New York, LA, etc. It’s hard not to question from time to time if not being in one of those cities is creating a hurdle for my progression and what I am trying to achieve. It’s even difficult to get supplies in Stratford. In all cases I’ve just had to become far more proactive in staying connected and building relationships remotely. Since the pandemic, connecting remotely has become more of a necessity for everyone, but prior to this situation I was also making an effort to travel and meet with other artists whenever possible. 

Can you tell us about any current or future projects that you are particularly excited about?

Currently I am working on a few shows including my first solo exhibition which will open in October at the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby, B.C. The subject of that show is the Vancouver Asahi, a Japanese-Canadian baseball team active from 1914-1942, when they were disbanded as a result of the incarceration of Japanese-Canadians during World War II. Using the rise and fall of the team as a metaphor for loss of pride, identity, community and Japanese-Canadian culture, my work questions how these significant losses have affected generations of Japanese-Canadians. It’s a very personal project and it’s been in the works for over a year now so I am excited to see it come together.

If you could add or change something about your city, what would that be?

I really wish there was more green space here, especially a better off leash dog area. When we lived in Toronto we could walk to High Park where there were dedicated trails for off leash walking. That’s something I really miss. 

If you could choose any artist/creative to collaborate with, who would that be and why? 

My sister is an incredible artist who really inspires me. We’ve always enjoyed working together on projects and many themes including identity and heritage overlap in our practices. In 2020 we decided to form an official collaborative practice called Pine Prize.We have begun a few collaborative works which will be included in each of our respective forthcoming exhibitions this year. 

Outside of that I’d really like to work with Eddie Huang on something. I’m not sure what that project would be, but I’ve been a big fan of his for a long time and I have a lot of respect for how outspoken he is on social issues and the leader he is for the Asian American community. Listening to him speak on contemporary issues has helped inform my work greatly. 

What do you do to switch off?

I have two sons, 3 years old and 5 months old, so I spend most of my free time with them and my wife. I like to get out and skate as often as I can as well. I’ve been skateboarding since I was 11 or 12 and it’s been a consistent outlet for me to “switch off.” I think because it requires so much focus it is a relief to apply that focus to something other than my work for an hour or two.

What does home mean to you?

Toronto will always be my hometown. There is a comfort to the city and all of the places that hold sentimental meaning for me there. But home really is wherever my family is. I’m not tied to any place, wherever my wife and kids are is what home is to me. 

Sometimes people relate a specific smell to the city they live in or the place they grew up, does Stratford evoke a personal smell to you?

Nothing specific really comes to mind for me. My new studio is above a sandwich shop so sometimes I’ll smell the baking bread if I am at the studio late.

What is your favourite time of the day?

I don’t really have a favourite time of day because each part of my day is so different and important these days. Since having our second baby I have been staying home most mornings to spend time with the kids and help out, so that time is really important to me. I usually head into the studio for the afternoon which is also a great part of the day. The kids are asleep by 8pm at the latest, so from that time on is also a very important part of the day to unwind and spend time with my wife. 

If you weren’t living in Stratford and could choose any city to live in where would that be, and why?

That’s a tough question. I think I would probably choose New York because some of my closest friends live there and it would make sense career-wise. LA is really attractive to me as well. I could definitely do without shovelling snow. I also really enjoyed being in Copenhagen when my wife and I were there visiting with her family.

Stratford by Kellen Hatanaka

A selection of places in Stratford - recommended by artist Kellen Hatanaka. See Kellen Hatanaka's citylikeyou profile page here

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