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Norman Takeuchi’s new show, Shapes in Between, is at the Ottawa Art Gallery

by Iris Winston

The latest exhibition by acclaimed Ottawa artist Norman Takeuchi gives some indication of the massive amount of work he has produced over the last six decades.

Norman and Marion Takeuchi, Ottawa, ON, May 2023. Photo courtesy of Rémi Thériault and the Ottawa Art Gallery, 2023

On display at the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG) until August 27, Shapes in Between is a retrospective of his work from 1961 to the present. Examples of his many prints, drawings and paintings demonstrate the evolution of his approach and style over the years.

AFTER THE BATH 2013 Acrylic on canvas 101.5 x 152.4 cm (40 x 60 in.) Photo: David Barbour

Beginning with an autobiographical segment, Shapes in Between is presented in several sections “divided more by topic than medium,” explains Marion Takeuchi, Norman’s wife and support of 57 years. Norman emphasizes that the pair “work together as a team,”  noting Marion’s enormous help as “organizer, archivist, bookkeeper and gentle critic” throughout his career as an artist.

Once a graphic designer,  Norman’s work as a painter often focuses on ways in which he has come to terms with his background. He is a third-generation Japanese-Canadian, whose family was removed from their Vancouver home and interned when he was a small child.  His art also presents his reaction to social injustices in other areas.

ANNIEVILLE DYKE REVISITED 2012-2018 Acrylic on canvas 122 x 183 cm Photo: Justin Wonnacott

“When we were interned, I was four years old, so the internment period didn’t really mean a lot to me then,” he says. “It wasn’t until later on that I came to realize what had happened and became aware of my Japanese heritage, who I was, what I looked like and the way I saw myself. That was when the way we were treated during the war years had quite an impact on me, making me feel very self-conscious.”

SURFACE NOISE 2005 Acrylic on canvas 81.2 x 101.7 cm Photo: Justin Wonnacott

From the time he entered the Vancouver Art School in 1961 to study graphic design, he knew he wanted to be an artist.  “But,” he says, “I’m a practical person, so when I left art school, I got a job as a designer, but I was always more drawn to painting and drawing than to design.”

Nevertheless, he spent many years as a graphic and exhibition designer working on projects such as the Canadian pavilions at Expo 67 in Montreal and Expo 70 in Osaka. He was similarly employed by the Canadian Museum of Nature from 1970 to 1996.

CELESTIAL GUARDIAN NO.3 2009 Acrylic on canvas 185.1 x 121.9 cm Photo: Courtesy of the Ottawa Art Gallery

It was at that point, inspired by an exhibition of kimonos by Japanese artist Itchiku Kubota at the Canadian Museum of History (then called the Canadian Museum of Civilization), he decided to take early retirement at 59 and paint full time.

“Looking at that exhibition of kimonos was a defining moment for me,” says Norman. “It made me think that if I were to make any connection as a Japanese-Canadian born in Canada and face up to who I was, the only way I could do it was through my art. Only then did I begin to incorporate Japanese images in my artwork. At that point, I really knew very little about Japan. Even now, I can’t speak the language and have only vague ideas about its culture.”

Photo courtesy of Rémi Thériault and the Ottawa Art Gallery, 2023

From this point on, many of his works have incorporated Japanese images and depictions of conflict, often using abstractions and collage-style techniques. The variety of materials used to express the different themes in Shapes in Between “not only demonstrates the result of a skilled and unique artistic practice, but also his story of finding an increasingly honest understanding of his own past, and embracing the collective legacy of his community,” notes the information on the exhibition.

Now that Shapes in Between is on show at OAG, 50 Mackenzie King Bridge in downtown Ottawa, Norman is back to his regular routine of going to his studio seven days a week to begin painting by 9 a.m.

“I’ve been doing that for a long time,” says the 86-year-old artist. “That’s why I have a lot of work. And there is more work to be done. My plan is to keep on doing it.”

For details about Shapes in Between, visit www.oaggao.ca or call 613 233-8699.