Viva Vivian
By Kate Kustanczy. From the website www.TorontoWide.com

:: Looking at the luscious colours and eye-popping vibrancy of Vivian Reiss' work, you'd swear she was born with a paintbrush in her hand.

The petite American-born, Canadian-living artist says art has always come naturally to her, and she finds inspiration everywhere, from walking around her house to looking in her refrigerator.

This past spring she found inspiration in a trip to Japan.

Reiss was chosen to take part in the Echigo Tsumari Triennial , a prestigious annual art event that attracts over 350,000 worldwide visitors. She and her family lived in a small Japanese village called Hachi, population 150.

And yes, it was a bit of a shock, however briefly.

"My first night there, I had to sit in on a meeting with the elders about project," she says, "I was talking through the fog of jet lag - 'where am I again?!'"

For 3 months, Reiss painted a selection of the town's inhabitants; the 18 portraits, along with a series of other lovely drawings, form the bulk of an exhibition now on at the Japan Foundation at the Bloor Colonnade.

"Coming from city, I always dreamed of extensive time in the country," she explains, "In Hachi, there was no industry. The air was clean, I saw mountains everyday, I lived in a schoolteacher's house. Everyday when I went walking up the hill to my studio, I could see how the flora around me was changing, day by day. It was exciting. So, first thing in my studio everyday, I'd do works on paper on changing flora before preparing myself to do portraits."

The process of choosing subjects for her portraits wasn't necessarily easy; late snows had made for a late planting season, and many farmers were simply too busy to sit for Reiss.

"You think city ppl are busy, always checking their daytimers," she laughs, "Well the same is true in the country! The people who farm also have very frenetic lives. They're up at 3:30 in morning, gardening, farming, and doing secondary jobs as well, things like preserving, and attending community meetings. It made scheduling really difficult."

The other great challenge to overcome was, of course cultural. How did Reiss overcome the barriers of shyness and reserve?

"I kept visiting people," she explains, "and they'd always tell me, 'I can't sit, I'm shy', and I'd say, 'Well, I'm shy, it's hard for me to ask you'... "

"The process of doing a portrait is very intimate in a wonderful way," she continues, "It's a very joyous, very warm connection, not a threatening, ugly thing. This is two hearts and minds joining, producing a work of art. I collected a whole history of the village, then I collected a history of these people in their lives, then after that, when I'd go out and go to their houses, go to the factories and the fields, I'd get another view of the culture. A tourist one would never experience that."

The world Reiss experienced is easily found in her works; the curious expressions of her subjects are balanced with a keen eye to detail for her surroundings; one subject holds her favourite chicken, another clasps his hands.

The lushness so apparent in her earlier works, is still present, if meditative this time, with plenty of flora, curvy lines and sensuous colour usage, whether representational or abstract. Even her painting of a miso spoon has the air of quiet sensuality.

Reiss is quick to point out the connections between her art, vivid and colourful, and Japanese art, with its seemingly-austere style.

"So much of the art I do is influenced by European art, when Japanese art first opened up to the western world," she explains, "Yes, they venerate small things in Japan, but there's this other side. They love fun things too. We think of it as a restrained culture, but certainly in the country people are very free and open and they were very welcoming to me and very generous."

Reiss' work didn't just open up Western eyes to a rural lifestyle; urban Japanese people also found a new world in Reiss' portraits of Hachi's inhabitants.

"People in Tokyo looked at my work and were spellbound. They had no idea of a culture that exists outside of the city," Reiss says with wonder, "One of my translators lived in the town below me. It was twenty minutes away, and she was stunned - 'really? this is how it is in Hachi?' - here she was, translating and helping an international artist, and having this Western experience, while at the same time exploring her own culture."

What is perhaps so spellbinding about Reiss' Satoyama Storehouse portraits is that she paints a whole person, not just their face. The traditional notion of a portrait gets turned -literally -onto its head, as Reiss portrays the entire subject, capturing their awkwardness, shyness, reserve, bravery, whatever the case may be for the person she paints.

"It's a cliche that the eyes portals to the soul," she says firmly, "it's not true, it's the body... it's how you hold yourself."

My personal favourite among the portraits is Kitchitaro; it is a portrait of a 90-year-old Hachi inhabitant who volunteered to be one of Reiss' subjects.

Reiss' use of colour in the portrait is imaginative but never intrusive; her vibrancy and keen understanding of her subject are reflected in smooth, long brush strokes, serene and zen-like.

Kitchitaro , like the rest of its Satoyama Storehouse companions, deserves to be seen, and savoured, like asaki.

"Right now I'm in the flowering of my artistic endeavors," she says quietly, "I feel like I am able to connect almost immediately with the blank canvas."

And what a beautiful connection it is to behold.




The Satoyama Story: Vivian Reiss in Japan runs until October 25th; it will be part of this year's Nuit Blanche activites. For more information, go to www.jftor.org or www.vreiss.com.