In her Pasadena home, illustrator Shino Arihara lives at the cultural nexus of art and music. A few of her surprisingly small paintings dot the walls, two pianos mark the boundaries of the spacious living room and other instruments double as art objects on tables. (Not to mention a bedroom at the back of the house packed with five keyboards and recording equipment.) Arihara played the piano as a child in Japan, but found the rigor of lessons and practice less alluring than pencil, paper and a wide-open imagination.
Her studio is a tiny room tucked away at the front of the wide, gracious fourplex she shares with husband Ken Charlson, a pianist and music editor for television and films—hence all the pianos. Located on a tree-shaded street in south Pasadena, the apartment is so spacious that Arihara, who has lived there over eight years, worries they will never find a house to buy that will match it. Some days she never emerges from behind her drawing table, the task lamp making her sweat, fan turning overhead. Paintings from her latest book project, a story about a little boy in Cambodia, are laid out on the drawing surface. She follows rigorous notes from the art director, but uses her own palette and a light touch that belies a serious approach to representing historical references.
Her paintings at first glance may appear a bit childlike, but look deeper and the sophistication of her gouache technique and her use and understanding of color elevate them into another realm. It’s fitting that in addition to her award-winning editorial work, she has begun to illustrate children’s books. She enjoys the research aspect and the freedom to create a world and people it with characters developed through a story arc.
Arihara’s unique geographic trajectory doubtless influences and inspires her creative choices and techniques. She was born in Northern California in 1974 while her father was attending graduate school at Stanford University. A Japanese petroleum executive, he moved the family back to Japan when she was one-year old.
“The first thing I remember about me having anything to do with drawing was in Saudi Arabia—in kindergarten. It was a Japanese kindergarten for my father’s company, so all the children and teachers were Japanese. I was drawing a mask for a play or something. The teacher pointed out to the other children, what I was doing,” Arihara relates, and says she remembers thinking, “It’s weird, but I can get attention with this!” A highly decorated leg cast added to her budding artist reputation and the injury gave her a lot of time at home which she spent drawing and honing her skills. They lived a year in Saudi Arabia, long enough to help direct Arihara toward her future career.
At the age of fourteen her family relocated to Austin, Texas. Those geographic opposites fostered her ability to switch between a muted, sumi-e inspired palette and the brighter abstract expressionist backgrounds of works like Swim Against the Stream for the Olive Group. There is often tension between elements representing the traditional and the modern in her work; it’s not much of a leap to imagine that the time spent in different cultures has given her insights into the East/West dialogue so prevalent in our culture.
While her father returned to Japan to work, Arihara’s mother stayed with her in Austin until she graduated from high school, returning to Tokyo only after her daughter had moved to California to attend Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Her family still lives in Japan; although her father’s work brings him to the U.S. at least twice a year, she sees her mother and older brother less often.
Asked if the image of a goldfish—that appears in several of Arihara’s personal paintings—has any particular significance, and she smiles, before replying, “I worked in a sushi restaurant for forever, and I was swimming every day.” Then she adds with a laugh, “I just love their big googly eyes.” She has plenty of models in the large fish tank that is the focus of a wall in the dining room. One of Ken’s hobbies, the aquarium houses a variety of coral, a large pink anemone and a handful of tropical fish.
Color is an integral part of the spread that awaits us for lunch. The dishes are simply yet artfully arranged, evidence of her Japanese design aesthetic is apparent in the burst of color offered by a bowl of blackberries set next to a plate of lox. She credits her mother, who would often point out that she should add a certain color to balance a dish, for this attention to detail. It’s also a talent she employs in her art.
Her style is subdued and elegant, her use of visual metaphors—sometimes executed in black-and-white—for clients such as the LA Weekly, Time, Seventeen, the Boston Globe and others, address a range of social and political issues. Her juxtaposition of sophisticated surface textures with childlike characters and a spare but appealing palette distinguishes her work. Arihara claims the graphic novels of Kent Williams—“He had a huge influence on me...”—and Mary Blair’s work for Disney as inspiration. “I’m starting to look at Japanese artists,” she says, and cites Chihiro Iwasaki, whose work her mother introduced her to.
Arihara speaks in a soft accented voice and will admit to being very shy (“My flavors are subtle,” she admits), but she has served as the show chair for the Society of Illustrators Los Angeles—definitely not a role for the completely shy and retiring. ICON 4 [The Illustration Conference], held in San Francisco in summer 2005, was the first conference she had ever attended and it opened her eyes to sharing business practices and leads.
One new business opportunity is Fugu Fugu Press, a letterpress business she and Ken have started. They recently bought two old letterpresses and plan to print cards and small jobs. She showed me a Christmas card with three blowfish hanging like ornaments, printed on a rich cardstock. “Fugu means blowfish in Japanese,” Arihara explains. “We love fish. I’m Japanese, there are two of us—and fugu sounds cuter than maguro or unagi,” she adds.
Ten Speed Press editor Abigail Samoun worked with Arihara on Ceci Ann’s Day of Why. “We had a very tight art due date and I was worried because this was Shino’s first picture book. The text was also somewhat unusual in that it consisted solely of a set of questions like, ‘Why are there birds? Why is there sky? Why are there words? Why is there why?’ We wanted the illustrator to create a narrative around these questions. It would have been a challenging assignment for any illustrator, much less one who was doing her first book,” Samourn recalls.
“I was on winter vacation when the sketches came in. I’d gone to a café to check my e-mails. I opened up the files...and I was amazed at what Shino had done. She had given these questions a context full of mood and atmosphere. We had a sense of this girl’s world and how her external life related to her interior life—her questioning nature. Shino did a lot with simple body language to convey emotion and relationships, showing the characters skipping, holding hands, huddling together. Her style is spare but it conveys a lot of warmth and emotion. Her palette for the book is subtle with unexpected spots of bright color—like the sun setting at the end of the day and a gorgeous grass green watercolor playground.
“We had discussed Ezra Jack Keats as a possible style to inspire the book and she took his way of using abstract blocks of color to convey an urban setting and made it her own,” Samourn says. “Shino has a unique way of contrasting thick, textured backgrounds with a more mottled, light watercolor treatment for the skin tones.”
“It’s been a really good learning experience,” Arihara says of book illustration. “I am so used to editorial; it’s completely different.” The long-range deadlines and the occasional loss of momentum while working on a project have been part of the learning curve. “There are many rules, because the audience is so young, for keeping their attention,” she adds.
“It’s a beautiful medium,” she says of gouache. “I fell in love with it when I was in college. I never really got into acrylic; it didn’t agree with me. I used to put a lot of water into gouache and I would puddle it and let it dry. It makes amazing marks that you would never be able to achieve if you were trying to do it. Since then I’ve become much more painterly. I love the versatility of the medium.”
While many of her illustrator friends work in animation, Arihara seems content to paint in her tiny art studio, telling stories one image at a time. And there’s also her new business venture—another way she has found to celebrate craft and tradition. ca