The Canadian and Japanese Art of “Wa-no-e”: An Interview with Local Artist Etsu Inoue5 min read

0 comment

Taking calligraphy lessons instead of painting classes due to her parents’ wishes, Etsu Inoue only started to paint professionally after coming to Canada and holding art classes for “etegami”- Japanese postcard art. While she humbly denies herself as a master in calligraphy despite her awe inspiring performances, her long withstanding love for art has led her to join the Federation of Artists and be a part of many exhibits and galleries, including the recently opened Coastal People: Crammer and Gray Exhibition (Opened on June 23, 2012) and the Summer Gallery at the Federation Gallery (Opened on June 26, 2012).

M: It’s amazing how you studied painting on your own, without going to art school. Did you just continuously practice painting?

E: Yes, in order to improve, you just have to paint, paint, and paint. Ever since I was a kid, I loved art and my marks in art class were so much better than in calligraphy class, even though I had more intensive schooling in the latter from grade 1 to the end of high school. Yet once I started working at Japan Airline (JAL), I did not have much time for art.

Even during her busy time at JAL, Etsu still found opportunities to display her creativity by drawing illustrations in the company’s magazine. Rediscovering her passion for art through her “etegami” classes, Etsu moved onto a career in wedding consulting and art. As a professional artist, Etsu mainly specializes in creating “Wa-no-e,” (Japanese style art) being inspired by such traditional Japanese painters as Ogata Korin, while displaying western influences.

M: So your painting style is strongly influenced by traditional Japanese art. Do you feel that the environment you live in right now has also contributed to shaping your art style?

E: Yes definitely. If I were in Japan, I may have specialized in water colour or oil painting but in Canada, there is already too much competition for those mediums. That’s partly why I chose Wa-no-e (Japanese style art), which not many people here specialize in.

But to Japanese people, my Wa-no-e paintings of sakura blossoms seem westernized since I’m observing and painting the sakura blossoms that grow in Vancouver. In Japan, the sakura is smaller, more subtle, and poignant. In North America, it is more dynamic and colourful. I see my art style to be a mixture of Canadian and Japanese culture, mirroring my own lifestyle since I split my time in Vancouver and Japan.

M: How do you feel that the shift from creating art as a hobby to a means of making a living changed your attitude towards it?

E: When painting for a client, I need to paint according to their requests, which are not necessarily aligned with how I want to paint. That is a constant dilemma for me. Like this one time when I did a show at a gallery, there was one painting in which I used a blank piece of washi (Japanese paper) and wrote down some words in sumi (black ink), leaving lots of open space. In Japanese, we call this “Ma,” – you see it in books, movies, dramas, music, even conversations – it is an important part of Japanese culture and is considered beautiful, but it is very difficult to explain to Canadians.

On many occasions, Etsu suffers from a “lost in translation” moment, not in terms of language, but towards the perception of art in the western context.

M: Artists are required to explain their work. How do you manage to explain your work, which is largely based on traditional Japanese art in English?

E: The thing is I don’t manage it! I can’t even explain it in Japanese. I feel that explanations of art works always come about afterwards, not during the process of creating it. I also like to keep it open for the
person observing the art, instead of giving them the answer on a plaque. On one occasion when I got an order for a painting at a store and the owner asked me to write a message to go along with the painting, I had no idea what to write! So I just asked my friend to write it for me. To me, I paint something because I want to paint it. If my painting provokes some sort of emotion, like relaxation or calmness, or something else, I am satisfied. But I don’t think that’s something I can tell them to feel.

Like many international residents in Canada, living away from home has made Etsu realize the richness of Japanese art and culture, yet she laments the challenges she faces in recreating them in Vancouver.

E: When you are in Japan, people have more interest towards western art, especially if you go to the famous art galleries. But when I’m here, I really appreciate the Japanese literature, culture, and arts.

M: Your western-Asian infused Wa-no-e painting style seems to be something that would appeal to nature and organic loving, Asian-fetish prone Vancouverites.

E: You’d think so, but it’s not so easy. Vancouver has many art galleries but honestly, I don’t think artists will grow and cultivate here. If artists want to make it big, I recommend them to go elsewhere, like the east side – Quebec and Ontario, or to Europe. Most of the people that purchase my paintings are from that part of the region. There just aren’t many people who are willing to spend money on art in Vancouver. My future prospect would be to create art here, and then sell it to people outside of Vancouver.

For more information on Etsu Inoue, go to, or

Leave a Comment