36.Noriko Shinkai  Boys 2019

As a child, Shinkai Noriko liked to doodle across the pages of newspapers. “I would turn the men in advertisements into women, or members of a  comic heavy-metal band. At school, I made some pretty good portraits of friends. But that was about it.” Born in 1972 in Minato Ward, central Tokyo, she entered design college Vantan after graduating from high school, majoring in graphic and editorial design. But asked if she has ever been ambitious to make a living in the field, she says it “just sounded like fun.”

Her story turns to the almost one-year she spent as a virtual recluse.

Since I was a child, I have often been harassed by weird older men and young guys, and I have felt a lot of fear. When I was 19, I was kidnapped from my neighbourhood by a man who tricked me into his car. It was the middle of the night and we drove toward the sea at Shonan. We got onto the expressway and at a service area around Gotemba, I jumped out and ran while he was napping. I banged on a parked car but no one got out to help me. So I ran as fast as I could along the oncoming lane of the motorway. Someone gave me a lift and I made it home by morning. Fortunately, nothing bad happened, but I was so afraid to go out after that, I stayed indoors for almost a year.

I spent most of my college years mucking around instead of studying. I barely picked up a single skill, and my drawing remained poor. After college I couldn’t make use of anything I had learned and ended up taking an ordinary office job. At first I wanted to work in design, so I applied to a company that made bags and shoes. At the interview I was told to draw a picture of a horse and a shrine, and when I completed it the interviewer was appalled. He asked me, “What score would you give this out of a hundred?” I thought it was probably a zero, but I said, “Maybe 20?” He said, “That’s about right. You can go now.” After that, I really started to hate drawing. I felt sorry for any picture drawn by me!

I got a job at a magazine doing clerical work, but of course it wasn’t interesting, so I moved on. In fact, I’ve worked for dozens of different companies over the years. At first I was positive about switching jobs. I was like, “OK, let’s try another one!” But after two weeks, I would resign.

My reasons for quitting included just wanting to try something else. The job environment was probably easier back then than it is now. I also experienced heartbreak, sexual harassment and power harassment. Eventually I decided to settle down, so I stayed at one firm for about 10 years, and I’ve been at my current company for about 7 years. It is a normal office job.

The reason I started drawing the way I do now was the Miyamoto Saburo Drawing Award Exhibition five years ago, at the Setagaya Art Museum. My elder sister, who is an artist, encouraged me to enter. I had no idea what to submit, I hadn’t drawn a picture since I was doing it for a laugh as a child. And then I found a photo of my mother holding a dog, and my first thought was, “I have to keep this in my eyes until I die,” so I decided to draw it.

I submitted two pictures, the one of my mother and the dog, and one of my father. And my mother’s picture won. I thought, “Oh my god.” That was my first time on the public stage, and I received some kind of prize, so it felt like it wasn’t about me. I hadn’t known anything about this stuff, or how the size of a picture could be important in an exhibition, and I had only drawn my picture on a small sheet of paper I had at hand. I never thought it would be accepted. Some of the unsuccessful artists were quite angry at the award ceremony, and some were sarcastic. I told them, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” But I decided to use this win as a good luck charm, and to accept any bad things that happened to me in the future.

The following year, my mother, sister and I held our first Female Family Exhibition at the small Diginner Gallery in Jiyugaoka. My sister asked me to take part, and I really sweated over it every day. She is a professional contemporary artist, and my mother has been studying painting for 30 years, so she had a lot of work, but I was new to everything. Leading up to the show, after coming home from the office, I would set a time, say from 8pm to midnight, to work frantically on my paintings. It was hard, and a strange feeling. Until then, I had always watched my mother and sister work, but they never inspired me at all. I was just like, “Oh, she’s painting.”

In 2019, we held Female Family Part 2 at the Setagaya Art Museum Citizens’ Gallery, and in 2020 I had my first solo exhibition, Chaos Drawing, at the same Diginner Gallery as the first Female Family show. Most of the pieces were from Female Family, but there weren’t enough of them, so I hurriedly drew pictures of cats and turtles, as I used to keep a tortoise. As I was drawing, two pictures got stuck together. I told the gallery staff I would redo them, but they said, “They’re fine, just as they are!” There are many drawings that were a bit weird when I looked at them later, and I said I would take them home and fix them, but the gallery insisted they were OK like that.

I draw in pencil all the time. I also wanted to colour them in, but I tried this and it went really badly. So after that, I just use pencils, erasers and kneaded erasers. My subjects are usually familiar objects, and I don’t have any particular criteria. I just draw what I think is nice. I also like to look at photographs and draw them. I like to find someone in the picture with an unexpected expression, or a surprising object that has fallen over, or something that no one would think is any good.

My sister says the quality of my drawings has nothing to do with my drawing skills, but from the fact that although I draw what I see, my pictures don’t look anything like their subjects (laughs). But they do achieve some resemblance. My faces are very detailed, but my hands are pretty ordinary. But my sister says that’s what makes them interesting.

In the last five years since I started drawing, my life has really changed. I’ve never been so passionate about anything before. I used to be a real spendthrift. I wasn’t a shopaholic or a brand-name maniac, but I still got into debt. My family used to worry about me, but since I’ve been drawing, my spending stopped before I knew it, and I was suddenly able to stay home alone and work all the time, instead of needing to go out at night. My family is really relieved that I have drawing.I also like pencils because I associate them with my life. Pencil drawings can be erased and fixed, right? If you take the time, you can smooth over almost anything nicely. There are many things, like my everyday life and my past, that can’t be fixed by rubbing out. But with pencils and an eraser, I feel I can start over.