The Artistic Evolution of Toko Shinoda

by: Caroline Moore

“Without [art], I wouldn’t feel quite alive, or I wouldn’t feel like I should be living without doing some work. You could say it’s a sense of responsibility. It’s the proof that I am alive.” Toko Shinoda, 2017

At age 106, Toko Shinoda (篠田 桃紅, Japan / China, 1913-present) is one of the oldest practicing artists of modern and contemporary times. The artist continues to create bold and elegant sumi-e (ink paintings) and lithographic prints in her home studio outside of Tokyo. Shinoda dedicated her life to exploring various art techniques and creating a new type of art that reflects the hybridity of the Eastern and Western worlds. Shinoda’s artistic approach and style has evolved over time to what it is today – a tour de force unlike any modern artist of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Shinoda was born in Dalian, Manchuria, China in 1913, although her family was from Gifu, Japan. The daughter of a wealthy tobacco merchant and niece of an acclaimed artist, Shinoda was taught strict lessons in calligraphy at the age of 6. During school, Shinoda continued to practice calligraphy but was frustrated by her teacher’s corrections with red ink. Instead, Shinoda added her own streaks of red vermillion ink to her work and began creating interesting and abstract designs, straying completely from the order of traditional Japanese calligraphy. Shinoda continued studying calligraphy and sumi-e in school, but created her own distinct and abstract art beginning in 1936.

Shinoda has adopted and transformed the art of calligraphy with her own practice, style, and abstraction of the ancient language. Traditional Japanese calligraphy, called shodō (書道) or shūji (習字) entails a formal and strict canon of material, preparation, and application of the ink on paper. Japanese calligraphy emerged from the creation of Chinese calligraphy, which goes back to the 28th century BC. Calligraphy was introduced to Japan in 600 BCE, but after the invention of Hiragana and Katakana, the Japanese syllabary systems from 800 BCE, was Japanese calligraphy established. Kanji (漢字, “Han”), or adopted logographic Chinese characters are also used in the Japanese writing system. Shinoda takes various forms of kanji and old calligraphic script but abstracts and manipulates the forms to create a non-objective image. Calligraphy was used in high social order throughout Japan’s history and is connected to Japanese Zen practice. Zen calligraphy is practiced by Buddhist monks and shodō practitioners and mastered by clearing one’s mind completely and writing without hesitation. Shinoda uses similar practices and motives. She claims her art is made when she is in the right mindset or thinks of an image or design that she as not previously made before.

By her 30s, the artist was discovered by influential New York art dealer Betty Parsons. In 1956, Shinoda moved to New York and displayed her work in many prestigious galleries. In New York, Shinoda was exposed to the peak of the American Abstract Expressionist movement that included the work of Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollack, Helen Frankenthaler, and Barnett Newman. Before New York, Shinoda previously had little to no knowledge of the American art movement or its artistic luminaries. Shinoda was creating large, abstract paintings and prints similar to Pollack’s process of painting large-scale art. Both artists spread out their canvases or paper on their studio floors and worked standing up, expressively applying their chosen medium across the large compositions. Tragically, Pollack died in a drunk-driving accident just two weeks before Shinoda moved to New York.

Influences from American abstraction and non-objective art are apparent in Shinoda’s work; an artistic approach and style remained with her. The artist recalled her time in New York in an interview with Japan Times in 2017 stating, “At first I was impressed by the freedom that American artists had. In Japan we used to copy the calligraphy of the masters, but at that time in New York artists were expected to produce something new and different. It was the start of abstract expressionism and artists were called on to bring forth new forms. I was able to paint my work, first based on calligraphy, to new forms and shapes and I think that it happened first in New York and then continued when I came back to Japan.” After living for some time in New York, Shinoda moved back to Japan permanently.

In Japan, Shinoda continued to practice abstractions of calligraphy and sumi-e and adopted the lithographic printmaking process to mass-produce her work. Once the prints are made, Shinoda adds individualized brushstrokes of ink or paint to the prints. Through this practice, each print displays different visual attributes but embody Shinoda’s signature touch. Shinoda believes her artwork and process has become more conscious, focused, and made with intent - opposed to her previous expressionistic and rhythmic abstract whims. Shinoda applies the Japanese martial art concept of shu-ha-ri (守破離) into her artistic practice. The three part practice involves discipline (shu, 守), an intent to willfully explore aspects of digression (ha, 破), and the final transcendent state of focus and creativity stemming from the artist’s core of being (ri, 離). Shinoda also includes the traditional Japanese practice of yohaku, using negative space as an active part of the composition.

Toko Shinoda’s extensive lifetime is demonstrated throughout her continuously evolving and impressive oeuvre.  She exhibits incredible artistic ability to imagine and interpret aspects of nature and life to create completely original abstract designs. Her artwork also reveals immense artistic mastery and an assortment of traditional and modern influences unlike any artist of her time.

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