“It’s a personal way of saying who I am and what it’s like to be living here.”Harumi Abe
My name is Sophia Gandarillas and I attend Florida International University. I’m a pre-health student currently obtaining two degrees, one in Biological Sciences and the other in Interdisciplinary Studies with minors in Chemistry and Spanish. I have always loved art and I believe this passion was instilled in me by my abuelo, who was an artist. In the picture above, I am standing with my favorite painting, “Irises” by Vincent van Gogh.
Harumi Abe is a Japanese American artist who moved to South Florida from Tokorozawa city, Saitama Prefecture, Japan when she was 19 years old to earn a higher education. She attended the International Fine Arts College (now known as the Miami International University of Art & Design) and graduated with her Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in 2003. Later, she then went to Florida International University for her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) and graduated in 2008.
“Personal experience is universal. Lots of people in Miami are from somewhere else, so I think the way I am talking about my own life can be similar to someone else.”Harumi Abe
Through her artwork, Harumi expresses her cultural and personal identity both of which are deeply intertwined. Through her artwork over the years, her common theme has been the exploration of her self-identity. She does this as a means of understanding who she is–having been raised in Japan and then moving to America. She explores both cultures as they have merged to become a part of her. She paints not only to understand herself, but also to tell her story and to tell others who she is.
In Just a Moment’s Notice
Personal and Cultural Identity
A pivotal event in time that influenced Harumi to paint the natural elements around her was the earthquake and tsunami that hit her home country on March 11, 2011. The fact that her father’s home was completely destroyed inspired her to preserve its history.
“I didn’t move from a war situation or anything, but in a way natural disaster can be just as devastating. When I was making a painting about Japan and my dad’s home, it’s not there anymore so it’s important history that I am trying to recreate with my imagination.”Harumi Abe
On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami devasted her father’s village among many other. Onagawa City, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan was only five kilometers away from the earthquake and was flooded and completely destroyed by the tsunami. She watched the disaster, in horror, on live television. The lives of many people were forever changed and affected, and it changed the way Harumi painted. Before this catastrophic event, Harumi wasn’t painting many nature-oriented paintings. However, she came to see how strong of a force nature could be and how in just a moment, it could destroy you; this strength captivated her.
“The first time I went back was a year after and they still had a bunch of debris all over. Just this summer, there was still a lot under construction, but they now have a huge wall, a crazy big wall. And everyone that was living in the village now lives up on the mountain, so no one lives in the village they used to live in. It is a big difference.”Harumi Abe
Subject of the Artwork, Creative Process, Exhibition History and Gallery Representation
“Inspiration comes from daily life; paying attention to things I see, like plants growing each day or how light reflects on leaves, reading, my own painting, or act of painting itself.”Harumi Abe
As an artist, Harumi draws inspiration from the world around her. She gathers it from her everyday life; whether it be when walking her dog or taking her daughter to the park she often photographs things that catch her attention. She also takes a lot of photos when she visits Japan. Being that she has a lot of photo resources, when she needs inspiration, she looks through her images and sees what works in that moment.
Once she starts a larger work it takes anywhere from one to two weeks to complete, but some are much faster. “Sometimes I don’t paint a few days to lengthen the process when I’m really enjoying it.”
Since Harumi has an in-home studio, she has the ability to go and work throughout the day. She usually paints while her daughter is in school, from 8 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon, so that she can fully concentrate. When her daughter comes home, she usually stops painting. “Sometimes when I’m in the mood I’ll do a little bit and she comes in and plays a little bit, but not too much. I can’t concentrate when she’s around.”
While working on a painting, Harumi often feels a lot of emotions ranging from vulnerability, to frustration, to utter joy, and then emotional detachment. Many times, halfway through she’ll think to herself “what the hell am I doing, this is so terrible.” This is a very vulnerable time for her, but it soon changes into a certainty that yes, she does know what she is doing; around this time, she is very happy and even delays finishing the work because she finds it so fun and enjoyable. After she completes a work however, she feels a sense of detachment from the work. “Once it’s finished, I feel like it’s more removed from my situation and mindset. I already feel like it’s already someone else’s. Whereas with one that’s still being made, my head is still in that mindset.” This is because for each work she finds herself in a different mindset, it changes for each work. For this reason, she rarely works on multiple paintings at once. She prefers to have a clear and focused mind when working on a piece; working on more than one would be too overwhelming and muddling.
However, after the painting process, Harumi will usually find places to show her work. She has had about 90 group exhibitions and about 7 solo exhibitions between the years 2001 and 2019 that have been both within the US and abroad. A majority of her showings have been in non-profit places like art centers. Her last showing was with Oolite Arts, a non-profit organization. More information on Harumi’s exhibitions can be found on her website. However, she recently began working with the Coral Contemporary Gallery who currently represents her. This is her first gallery representation and her art was shown at the gallery’s opening.
Pursuit of Oneself
Personal and Cultural Identity, Evolution of the Artwork, Formal Elements of the Artwork
Harumi’s art represents her identity and how it relates to American and Japanese culture. She is a contemporary artist who has continuously explored her self-identity.
“I’ve always wanted to explore my self-identity. During undergraduate school, I did a lot of self-portraits and very direct self-observation. During graduate school, in the beginning too, I also did a lot of portraits with myself in them. So, I removed my figure itself but it’s still about me, so the idea itself hasn’t really changed.”Harumi Abe
As she has evolved as an artist, Harumi has continued to keep on her pursuit for self-exploration. Early in her career while obtaining her undergraduate degree, she began the expression of her identity with quite literal self-observations through self-portraiture. As she continued on through graduate school, she began to remove her physical self from the works. She continued to be influenced by the world around her and Japan and was between a few different things when the earthquake and tsunami deeply impacted her and her painting style in 2011. She committed to the focus of natural subjects in order to express her identity. Although prior to this event she had been gradually developing the use of nature, this had been a big turning point. Japan had always been a source of inspiration and had always been a part of her paintings. But as she continued to paint, she kept recreating what she remembered about home and what it was like to bring those parts of her to Miami. The last collection she made was primarily about the effects of the disaster on Japan. However, she is also greatly influenced by a number of other things.
When reflecting on her work as a whole, she has observed no change in theme, as it was always this personal pursuit of her self-understanding. However, stylistically, she has observed that her painting application has become looser than it used to be, which she is happier with. She prefers the way she paints now to how she used to. Although she has changed the mode in which she expresses herself, she has stayed faithful to this self-exploration and has, since 2011, used the nature around her to express her dual cultural identity. As she has continued to paint over the years, she often wishes that her paintings were simpler, but she always tends to add more. She longs for simplicity, but I believe it’s hard to express herself simplistically when she has so much to say.
“I think being an artist is lifelong research. I probably have something I want to do forever until I die. I think that’s a good thing because I’ve seen my parents after retiring from their jobs, and it’s like they don’t have a hobby. I mean it’s not a hobby for me, but they don’t have anything to do and that must be hard for them. I’m definitely lucky that I have something that I’m into this much.”Harumi Abe
In Her Nature
Artistic Reference, Artistic Elements
Harumi draws most of her reference from American and Japanese landscapes, but often draws inspiration from other avenues. The series she is currently working on is called “Shakkei.” Shakkei is a type of landscaping design from the 17th century that incorporates the natural landscape into the design. “So, if there’s mountain, then they’ll make a fake mountain inside the garden so that it will become one picture that you can see from the inside of the temple, house, or building.” Since many such buildings in traditional Japanese architecture have shōji, they are also something that Harumi sometimes incorporates in her paintings. Shōji are Japanese paper doors, windows, or partitions. She sees the painting as something of a window itself. In this series she has sometimes placed a frame on the painting reminiscent of a shōji. However, she does not place them in every painting as she feels it can become quite repetitive and doesn’t feel like it must always be shown to be implied. Not everything must be visually explained. Also, in every painting there is a combination of aspects of American and Japanese landscape.
Another aspect of some of the paintings in this current collection is the use of inspiration from a series of photographs called “New Pictures from Paradise” by Thomas Struth. Although she hadn’t read too much into his work, she had seen some images that stuck in her mind. What she believes is that he took these pictures to show what he believed to be paradise. She then made some abstract sketches based on his photographs. From here she continued to ruminate on the idea of paradise. She asked herself, “What is paradise? Is it utopia? Or is it something that I already live in?”
As she continued to think, she decided to research the topic. She then came across a Japanese word–togenkyo. Togenkyo is a poem written by a 4th century Chinese poet. It was written about a peach blossom forest. Harumi recounted a summary of the story: “A fisherman was fishing, and he happened to come across this little village by accident. The village was full of peach blossom trees, it was beautiful, and everyone was really happy. It was a war time and no one in his own home village was happy. Politically, everything was bad as people were dying and suffering. But somehow this village was very beautiful and happy. He talked to the people of the village and they said that they didn’t like the turmoil the nation had faced a few centuries ago, so the family of the village decided to move out to the countryside and live off the land. They had lived there since then. It was a paradise. But when he went back home and tried to take people of his village to the place, they couldn’t find. They went to the same place, but it was nonexistent.” Harumi then described this paradise as “the kind of a paradise that you want to get to, but you can’t when you try to go.” This is the place called togenkyo. So, the inspiration of the paintings she is currently working, as seen in the photos above, are inspired by what she believes to be her paradise or happy place. However, “it’s like multilayer information in one painting.” Thus, it can be observed how she drew reference from many different ideas and concepts, all while staying true to her pursuit of self-exploration.
Foreign Yet Familiar
Formal Elements, Student Perspective, Identity
“Successful paintings make you look at them a lot continuously and I hope to achieve that.”Harumi Abe
Harumi works using loose lines that emulate the nature found in both American, specifically that of south Florida, and Japanese landscapes. However, she also at times has very structured strokes that can be very precise in what is observed. She uses a mixture of loose and precise, usually using more loose strokes, to create her abstract point of view. Usually the colors she uses are based on intuition and feeling. As she uses colors, she then places new colors based on her reaction to the colors she has used thus far. She is a very spontaneous in this aspect while still being very calculated in the concepts and ideas behind each painting. She thinks and becomes inspired by what she sees around her and from her photo resources. She uses this and runs with ideas fluidly. I feel that she not only successfully conveys feeling through the meaning behind her paintings but also within the tones and brush strokes she uses.
“The whole time I’ve been making work about my personal experiences, how I started to become more American in a way and learning how the American way is in a sense. But at the same time trying not to forget about my own roots, so it’s the combination of both as a personal view of my life.”Harumi Abe
Harumi’s works are relevant today and will always be relevant not only here in Miami but also worldwide. Miami is the collection of many different cultures, which come from those who live and have immigrated to Miami. The community of people who have come from other nations or communities as well as those related to such individuals can find commonality in the concepts behind Harumi’s work. Being an immigrant herself, many people can relate to her need to explore who she has evolved into when she came to a new nation, with its own distinct culture. I see how my family, of Cuban and Spanish origin, have come to adopt some American culture and values but have still continued to preserve the cultures of their native homes. As my family, and many others, have come to America they have not only conformed to some of the cultural values found here but have sought the familiarity of their own homes and cultures; they even strive to emulate it. Harumi strives to feel and emulate that familiarity in her paintings. This stems from one of her experiences in graduate school. She was influenced by Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space”. She explained to me that “he talked about how your childhood home is your first universe. And wherever you move on to, you try to recreate what you remember and what you’re most familiar with. So that idea is always kind of still there. Even though I’m making completely different paintings in each one of them I’m kind of seeking the familiarity so that part is still there.”
She explores her identity as an American and Japanese woman, and I feel like many people here in Miami, as well as all over the world, can relate to this want to explore who they are, define who they are, and tell others who they are. Harumi’s work is culturally, personally, and idealistically relevant today and always. This is because people strive to define who they are in their surroundings, whether they be foreign or not. Throughout lifetimes, people’s identities can change and evolve, and self-identity is something that people often strive to define and show to others. She has taught me the value of staying true to oneself and that it is possible to be able to define who you are at any stage in life. This can be done in many different ways, and hers happens to be through her creation of contemporary art. Her art is important as an expression of herself today, and she will continue to paint and explore herself as time goes on. Contemporary art is not always just an abstract interpretation of the world but can also be an abstract interpretation of oneself. It can be the expression of someone’s life, just as Harumi’s is. Harumi has the ability to make art that is not only beautiful at face value, but also in its relatable message that is extremely meaningful at heart.
**All images taken by Harumi Abe were found on her website cited below and are hyperlinked appropriately.
**All other images of Harumi Abe’s art were taken by Sophia Gandarillas on February 25, 2020 during her interview with Harumi Abe.
**All quotations in the article are made by Harumi Abe on the date of her interview and studio tour with Sophia Gandarillas on February 25, 2020.
Abe, Harumi. “Harumi Abe.” www.harumiabe.com/.
“Japan’s Economy after the Quake.” The Economist Intelligence Unit, www.eiu.com/public/topical_report.aspx?campaignid=japanquake.