As a Presbyterian pastor I often speak of the spiritual meaning of grace, the unmerited gift of God for salvation. The word can also mean simple elegance or refinement of movement. Poise. Finesse. Courteousness. Artist Seiko Konya paints with, and embodies, that kind of grace.
Seiko was born in Tokyo, Japan just after WWII. She was the youngest of four siblings, and the only girl in the family. Her father worked as an English teacher in high school. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom.
Growing up in Japan in the 1950’s, Seiko remembers there were only things of basic necessity. She loved collecting things, and finding things, especially different kinds of papers. “My toy was collecting papers, and things like chewing gum wrappers, foil with the little zig zag cuttings. I loved that.” She collected doilies from pastries, washed them carefully and ironed them. She put these finds away in a box. And peaked sometimes at them. “That used to give me so much pleasure,” she says.
Her father first came to the U.S. for education in the 1920s. He helped start a number of Japanese schools in Southern California. Eventually there were ten schools that he and his friend started. At that time, many Japanese families would send their children to Japan to learn the language and the culture. But some could not afford this. These ten schools were started to help mainly those who could not afford to send their children to Japan for cultural education.
Her father graduated from a college in Pasadena, Calif in 1930s with a PhD in religious philosophy and moved back to Japan. In the 1950s when he retired from work, he was asked to come back to the United States to help run these schools. That’s how their family came to immigrate to the US.
Seiko’s two older brothers were almost adults at that time, so they opted to stay in Japan. So just her immediate older brother and her parents came to the US. She was ten at that time. “I was kind of an average kid in Japan, and no real talent in art or anything. But coming here, I didn’t speak a word of English.” She was only good at math and painting. The teachers in the public school she attended put her to work painting historical settings and murals for school events. And then in later years she did a lot of posters, anners for the school halls, and things like that that gave her some experience in painting with brushes.
Seiko attended Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles. The students were asked to pick a major. She selected math because that was the only thing she knew how to do. She also elected to take painting. And as it turned out Ms. Terasas was the head of the art department. She recommended that Seiko try out for this scholarship at Chouinard College of Art, a large art school that is now owned by Disney, in Los Angeles. The thing was, to try out for the art scholarship, you had to be an art major. Seiko asked her if there was a future in art for her. Ms. Terasas said that if she worked hard enough and graduated from college there would be something. So she changed her major from math to art and tried out for this scholarship. And to her surprise she got in. This is where her art journey started.
JOURNEY INTO ART
For two years while a student at Roosevelt, Seiko attended life drawing classes on Saturdays at Chouinard. That became the foundation for her journey into art.
After graduating from Roosevelt, she attended East Los Angeles College for two years. She received her BA in art from the University of California Irvine.
At that time her parents couldn’t afford for Seiko, a girl, to go to a private art school. But her older brother was going to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. She got to learn a lot from him and his friends who came to their house to do their homework. They gathered in the family’s big basement to do their projects. Seiko watched them work, and actually did her homework with them. She also went to their school to see what others students were doing, and look at the standard of their work. She tried to keep up with the artists there, knowing she would have to eventually compete with them for a job. It was important for her to really study what they were doing.
Her brother, Yoshiro, was a big help for her in jump starting her career as an artist. She remembers how he looked at her portfolio, and made her do this one illustration five times before he said that it was good enough. He also gave her a list of art studios around Los Angeles and Hollywood. Seiko had no idea what kind of art jobs there would be. But through watching her brother and his friends, and seeing their aspirations, she got the idea that maybe she could be an illustrator.
But she had to go out and get the jobs. And she did! She went around town to get interviews with all the art directors. They were so helpful and encouraging that before long she became a freelance illustrator. She also was lucky enough to get into this Adam’s Studio in Melrose. They provided her with a desk and art equipment, like lucy machines and stat machines. They had five reps who would take the portfolio of the illustrators there around, and they would provide her with work.
Thankfully, Seiko’s parents were open to her pursuing art as a career, just as her older brother had. Her father, especially, had a very open viewpoint. Her father had a former student of his who had had success as an artist. This student had visited the family, and shared about his life as an artist. But they did want her to make a career of it. And she did.
CAREER AS AN ILLUSTRATOR
Seiko worked as a freelance illustrator for a year and a half. She learned of a free-lance job with Mattel Toys. She went there to try to get the work. At the interview they gave her two Barbie dolls, and asked her to come up with two themes, illustrating the backgrounds and dressing two Barbie dolls. She didn’t know how to sew at the time, but figures she must have done OK because they offered her a permanent job. She figured it would be a good thing that she work eight hours a day, like “real grown-ups”, and that she would try it for a year. She says, “I went in and it was so much fun.” They put her on a team that worked on preliminary design, on the conceptual design side. They had to come up with the ideas. The team had model makers that designed the prototype, chemists and electricians, who “helped you with all the parts that you don’t know how to get done. It was just a fun place to work. It was just so creative and energetic that I stayed for five years,” she recalls.
In 1978 she married Kaz. After she had kids, Seiko went out and freelanced again for eight years in toy industry. She eventually went back, to Mattel. This time she went to the development side, which is after the concepts get approved by the upper management. They took the concept to production. As a Senior Staff Designer, Seiko worked with a whole team of people with engineers, marketing people, safety people and schedulers. She often got the high priority projects at Mattel. Many times she would end up taking a project to their Hong Kong office and production site in PRC just to expedite the production.
She began working on Barbies. Then she went into the larger dolls, like the baby dolls and then the small dolls. Almost all her work was doll related. She also did the accessories and things like that. At Mattel she got a really good picture of how you get a product done, the three-dimensional execution of products.
Reflecting on her time at Mattel Seiko says, “It was so exciting to me to work with other people who are professionals, who are good at what they are doing. It made me try to do my best. I found it very fun and creative to do that.”
MOVE TO SEATTLE
While she was at Mattel, she began to hear rumblings that McDonald Douglas, where her husband worked, was merging with Boeing in the Seattle area. They had to decide whose career they were going to follow. Seiko said, “Seattle sounds pretty good.” She was curious to move up to Seattle. They decided to do the Boeing thing. Their son, Craig, was in junior high. The move was not too bad for him. But their older daughter, Christine, was a senior in High School; it was heartbreaking to have to bring her up to Seattle. “She was a real trooper”, Seiko recalls. Christine said, “I’ll do it. But let me go down and see my friends.” Christine went to California to visit her friends, and her friends came to Seattle to visit her. This made the move bearable.
A headhunter called Seiko and asked her if she would be interested in working at a small manufacturing company. She thought, Why not? She worked as the Creative Art Director there. She helped bring in the Disney and Warner Brothers license into the company, and started a whole line of dolls. She understood the process – and the business – really well since she worked at Mattel as a preliminary design all the way up to production side. And it was interesting work for her. “I think I was, you know, right place at the right time and it worked for me there,” she says.
She also taught industrial design at the Art Institute of Seattle for a couple of years. Seiko’s career path is marked by hard work and creative energy. Her launch into watercolor, on the other hand, happened in a more surprising and spontaneous way.
FIRST STEP INTO WATERCOLOR
One freezing day, she walked into the Mercer Island Community Center. There was a hall full of floral watercolor paintings by artist Genny Rees, “beautiful, beautiful paintings,” Seiko remembers. “And I went through them. And it just felt so warm looking at those paintings, [they] just warmed me up. You felt the Spring had come, and seeing that, I thought ‘I’m going to do this.’ I’m going to get into watercolor.” Seiko had always liked watercolor. But then and there she decided that this will be my step into next journey. She thought, “I’m going to really do it.” Inspired by Genny, Seiko quit her job. She signed up for a Joan Frey watercolor class. She was fifty-five.
Up to this time she had always liked watercolor but thought it was too difficult to get into watercolor. But when she saw Genny’s painting she just thought, I’m going to take that challenge and do it.
Recently Seiko traveled to Maine and visited Winslow Homer’s studio and home, in Prouts Nest.
She also traveled to Cushings, Maine, where Andrew Wyeth spent many years sketching and painting at Christina Olson’s home. She admires these two artists and their watercolors so much.
Homer often used chromatic contrasts, like the blacks and reds, and orange and blues, to achieve his dramatic powerful paintings. His paintings are “astonishing” to Seiko. “It’s just pure colors that gets you that amazing, strong, powerful painting.”
“On the other hand, Wyeth, his aesthetics was very quiet and subtle. He has, simplicity. Kind of a subtle grace. Kind of an understated beauty. And that resonated with me,” Seiko says.
She has taken a few workshops here and there: with Nancy Stonington, Thomas Sheller, Ted Nuttle, to name a few. But she tends not to take too many. She’s kind of stubborn in this way; she’d rather work her own problems out and find her own voice in paintings.
When Seiko self-assesses her voice in watercolor, she thinks that she still is too “tight with my watercolor.” She says, “Watercolor allows you to be so loose with your watercolor. And let the freedom of the water just ooze out. But my technique is very tight, very controlling. I’m hoping to get better about that. I’m hoping to loosen up and to be a little more dynamic about my paintings.” Seiko’s precision may have its roots to when she was younger as an illustrator, working on illustrations for magazines, album covers, billboards and things like that. Those were tightly rendered illustrations. She finds it hard to loosen up and let the accidents happen.
What she does so well, so gracefully, is people: their bodies, their faces, their emotions. This is where Seiko’s acute sensitivity comes out, and too her years of high school life drawing classes.
Because she was inspired by Genny, Seiko started out with floral paintings. The first portrait that she painted was of her husband, Kaz. She was a part of Eastside Fine Arts Association at that time. They had a show, and she put in that portrait of her husband and won an award for that. Since then she went into more portrait and figurative paintings.
In portrait and figurative paintings she found her voice! “Every detail, every slight expression, the change of the facial muscle, and the tilt of the head, everything shows up as a kind of an emotion. So it’s very sensitive. I like being that sensitive about a figure. That way, the sensitivity that I have can come out in my paintings.”
Seiko tries to live art. This includes the details: how she places everything around the house needs to balance. It drives Kaz crazy because she will take things around the house and rearrange them. When she cooks, she places the plate in certain ways that it accents its color. She plays around with the layout and colors of plates a lot. It makes the food look good even though she claims not to be a good cook, and that “it’s not that good that often.” Still it makes it look delicious. “I do things like that that automatically, I think as an artist, you kind of bring art to whatever you do.”
To grow as an artist, Seiko doesn’t do well in workshops so much, but she does read a lot of books of artists she admires. Recently she read through Mary Whyte’s books. “She’s really something. I just admire her. I went to Charleston to see some of her original art. She moved from the northern states to the south to be with her subjects, to live with the people that she paints. I admire that of her,” Seiko comment.
In discovering your voice as an artist, Seiko believe you have to discover what you have a passion for. For her, because she’s from Japan, she loves learning about Japanese culture. Even though she has been submerged in it because of her parents being so Japanese, there’s still a lot more that she would love to learn and incorporate all that in my paintings.
Watercolor is for her now her life. It’s part of her existence. She paints every day, and with a group of artists on Mondays. She visits lots of galleries. And she is excited to continue to grow as a watercolor artist.
She loves the challenge of mastering one of the hardest art mediums. She challenges herself to get better at the craft. She knows she has a long journey still ahead, and a lot to learn. But she says, “It’s small steps at a time. You take one step at a time.” She hopes to get to a point where she can say, “Oh, I’m really happy with this painting. Or I’m excited about my paintings.”
You can be sure that Seiko will walk that path ahead with the same grace that she has walked the path behind her.
2019 Vintage Watercolorists of Washington Show
To see Seiko Konya’s beautiful watercolors, visit Sunnyshore Studio’s 2019 Vintage Watercolorists of Washington Show. The show takes place on four Saturdays, March: 9, 16, 23 and 30, from 10am-5pm.
A meet-the-artist reception will take place on Saturday, March 9th, 3-5pm.