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‘After I moved to the US, my work changed. I wanted to draw more space.’

Gems in this

Photo>>>Munemasa Takahashi


Explore Playbook

Feature by Madison Watt

Monumental. Colossal. Meticulous. Just a few ways to describe the work of Japanese modern  and contemporary artist, Manabu Ikeda. After growing up in rural Kysuhu, Japan, Manabu’s global creative footprint spans Japan and Canada, and today, Wisconsin, USA.

It’s here that the visual artist brings his otherworldly artworks to life — large-scale imaginary worlds all painstakingly drawn by hand, and often taking years to complete. His works have been exhibited in galleries across Japan, South Korea, Germany and Russia, often exploring themes of coexistence and conflict between nature and humankind. We met with Manabu to discuss his biggest work yet, life from Japan to the US, and his Travel Playbook of personal recommendations for one of Wisconsin’s most exciting places.


On growing up in Japan and finding your artistic style

I was born in Saga, in Kyushu. I grew up by the river, the mountains and the ocean. A lot of my relatives are artists — comic creators or traditional Japanese artists. So as a kid, I liked to draw realistic work, like insects I caught from the forest or fish from the river. When I was 18, I moved to Tokyo, where I studied art for six years at Tokyo University of the Arts. I studied a lot of different techniques at university, but everything I did felt not quite right — until, in my fourth year, I drew a very detailed mountain with a pen, like the realistic drawings I did as a kid, and my teacher said ‘You should draw in this style on a big paper panel.’ I did that and very much enjoyed it. I was so excited; I didn’t have to think about techniques or materials or anything. I just needed a pen and pencil. That’s how I found the best technique for me.

On moving from Tokyo to Vancouver to Wisconsin

After university I got a scholarship from the Japanese government and I moved to Vancouver to become an artist-in-residence for one year. Then in 2011, the huge earthquake happened in Japan, so my family and I decided to stay in Vancouver. I stayed one more year, then in 2013, I was invited by Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin to become an artist-in-residence. After that, I was looking to move to other US states when one of my friends introduced me to an IT company called Epic in Verona, which is a town located about 25 minutes by car from Madison. They invited me to use their space for my next project, and I’ve been the artist-in-residence there since 2018.

All images of Manabu Ikeda creating ‘Rebirth’ (2016). First and fifth rows courtesy of Mizuma Art Gallery. Second and third rows courtesy of Chazen Museum of Art. Fourth row by Eric Tadsen, courtesy of Chazen Museum of Art.

On what has made you stay in Madison for so long

It feels so nice to live in Madison. People are happy and enjoy life here. It’s a very safe place; it’s quiet and relaxed, and there’s lots of nature. I feel like I belong in Madison because everybody is different and everybody has a different cultural background. It’s a small town, but it has a strong community. I feel my roots, like a tree, are spread out in Madison, so there’s no reason to move to a new place.

On where you take visitors in Madison

When my friends visit Madison, I usually take them to Epic. The buildings there don’t look like offices: every building there imitates some very famous movie or country — some are even shaped like castles. It’s like being inside an amusement park, so it’s fun to visit, and anyone who makes an appointement is allowed to come inside and tour the buildings. That’s why my kids like to visit me at work. I also always take friends to eat at Vintage Brewing Company. It’s my favorite restaurant. The hamburgers there are delicious –– and so big!

‘The lakes of Madison – Mendota, Monona, Wingra — make people so happy. Whenever I want to refresh or get inspiration, I go to one of the lakes.’

On where you relax — and find inspiration — in Madison

My neighborhood, Hill Farms, is quiet and has lots of greenery. And I can see small animals like swallows, lizards and rabbits. It’s a fun place to take a walk and relax. And the lakes of Madison – Mendota, Monona, Wingra — make people so happy. Whenever I want to refresh or get inspiration, I go to one of the lakes. In town, I usually make prints at Tandem Press every few months. There’s also a small gallery there where I can see other artists’ prints and get inspiration. The Chazen Museum, where I was artist-in-residence for three years, is a peaceful and quiet place, and I get inspired by a lot of the artworks there. Because I have four kids, my house is so busy. So I go to Crescendo Espresso Bar because it’s very peaceful, and the perfect place for thinking about my artwork and escaping the kids! But my favorite thing to do in Madison is skiing at the Tyrol Basin. I enjoy skiing after work there every day in winter. 

On a song that best represents Madison

‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams.

On Madison in one word

Nest. I have many good memories in Madison with my family. We have lots of friends and a strong connection with our community. A nest is an essential place for life.

First and second rows of Chazen Museum of Art courtesy of Chazen Museum of Art. Third row of Lake Mendota by Focal Flame Photography, courtesy of Destination Madison. Fourth and fifth rows of Epic Systems courtesy of Epic Systems.

On how different surroundings can change your work

In Tokyo, everything is densely packed with lots of buildings, cars and people. There’s only a little bit of trees and sky. But when I moved to Vancouver and then Wisconsin, it was the complete opposite. When I lived in Tokyo, I used to draw a lot of buildings in my work, but after I moved to the US, my work changed. I wanted to draw more space — more three-dimensional spaces. Now, my work explores not only details, but also air, room and space.

On finding big ideas in small things

I get inspiration from nature. Not from people, not from buildings — only nature. Sometimes I’ll find a small plant or insect between the cracks of a rock. When I find those small things, I imagine if I was that tiny, what would I see? If I was tiny, how would I see the world? If a small train was running across that crack and I was riding on that train, what would I see from the window? And if I was in a small airplane that was flying around the rock, what kind of scenery would I see? So my imagination grows more and more — that small world makes me excited, and then I want to draw that scene.

On current and upcoming projects you’re excited about

My current project at Epic is my biggest work yet. It’s about 9.8 feet by 19.5, and it will probably take five years overall. The theme is ‘ocean,’ firstly because I’m concerned about global warming. And secondly, because the American landscape has greatly influenced my way of thinking, I wanted to draw something vast and magnificent, with various shapes of waves and expressions of water. I’ve been working on it since 2018.

‘When I travel, I like backpacking and traveling alone, because it’s freeing. I can go anywhere and be inspired by anything.’

On how traveling alone inspires your art

Travel is very, very important for my art. I get inspiration from my travel experiences, especially when it’s in nature. I’m not so interested in sightseeing spots — I’m interested in nature. When I travel, I like backpacking and traveling alone, because it’s freeing. I can go anywhere and be inspired by anything. That experience is important for me, but now it’s very difficult to travel: I have four children and it’s very busy. I miss traveling!

On a window or an aisle seat

Definitely window. I’m so afraid of airplanes that I want to see the outside when I’m in the plane.

On travel making you a more confident person

Before I started traveling, I was quite a nervous person who was worried about a lot of things. But after arriving at an airport or a new place, I became proactive and confident. I was very surprised because I didn’t know that was in my character! So this has been the most surprising thing I’ve discovered about myself. I feel more free when I’m traveling; finding new experiences and places.


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