Artist based in San Francisco, CA

Maya Fuji Innovate Grant Winner Art
Maya Fuji, Portrait of the artist. Photo by Elliott Alexander

Tell us about yourself, what's your background?

I am a Japanese-American painter from Kanazawa, Japan and the San Francisco/Bay Area. My work is inspired by my cultural heritage and the exploration of the liminal space I live in as an issei (first-generation) mixed-race woman in the United States. I’m fascinated by traditional Japanese mythology and folklore, as well as Shōwa and Heisei–era subcultures. My work expands on these themes within the context of my experiences. A recurring theme in my work is the exploration of what forms our sense of identity and how that can shift during our lifetime after generations living abroad. Imbuing the complexity of being multicultural, multinational, and multiracial is central to my work, and my paintings contrast the nostalgia of childhood memories with underlying feelings of being a foreigner simultaneously navigating Japanese and American communities. I try to illuminate self-discovery through narration and investigation of the otherness I have felt throughout my life.

Maya Fuji Innovate Grant Winner Art
Double Trouble・Sharing Half, 2023, Acrylic, pastel & rhine stone on canvas, 30x24x1.5 in

I view my painting practice as a powerful tool that can be used to share and reclaim the narrative of what it is to be Asian American. I think the celebration of memory and diasporic experience is what connects me to the broader collective of Asian-Americans who are also preserving their own connections to culture and heritage. My paintings are a way for me to remember and generate pride, and I place this as a central theme in my heritage as a radical act of reclamation.

Maya Fuji Innovate Grant Winner Art
風呂場・Two Cousins & The Tsukumogami, 2022, Acrylic on wood panel, 48x60x1.5 in

Having two artists as parents, painting and drawing were always a part of my life. My education, however, has nothing to do with art. I graduated with a Bachelors of Business Administration from SF State and was working on getting my Masters in Accounting at the University of Hawaii with the intent to become a tax accountant. In grad school, I interned at an accounting firm where I realized this career path was not going to make me happy. I had the most joy when working on my creative “hobbies”, and took a leap of faith and quit grad school to pursue art seriously. I am mostly self taught, and experiment and grow my practice as I spend more time in my studio.

Maya Fuji Innovate Grant Winner Art
Americans Don't Use Umbrellas・アメリカ人は傘をささない, 2023, Acrylic & pastel on canvas, 24x30x1.5 in

"The celebration of memory and diasporic experience is what connects me to the broader collective of Asian-Americans ... My paintings are a way for me to remember and generate pride, and I place this as a central theme in my heritage as a radical act of reclamation."

Maya Fuji Innovate Grant Winner Art
Barter Exchange・物々交換, 2023, Acrylic & rhine stone on canvas, 16x16x1.5 in

What are you currently working on and where did the inspiration for it come from?

I have been working on a series of paintings for an exhibition opening on April 8, 2023 in Osaka Japan at YOD Editions. This will be my first time showing work in Japan!

Maya Fuji Innovate Grant Winner Art
縁側・When The Two Tailed Cat Crosses Your Path, 2022, Acrylic on wood panel, 60x48x1.5 in

This body of work investigates how identity has been interwoven through my experiences as a mixed race Japanese-American woman and the accessibility to culture in both Japan and the Bay Area. Thematically, throughout the show, there are inferences to the dualistic and juxtaposing nature of these experiences. In Japan, the term half refers to people who are mixed race, however, there has recently been a push to use the term double in its stead. Half suggests that the mixed race experience is half culture, or lesser than that of someone who is fully of one race. In reality, there is a complex and nuanced nature of this experience that is rich in a hybridity, better represented by saying double, or double culture.

Maya Fuji Innovate Grant Winner Art
We Took The 72R To Hilltop Mall, 2023, Acrylic on canvas, 24x30x1.5 in

I view my own personal history existing in tandem alongside many imagined, diverging paths. Although I was partially raised in Japan, there has always been a longing of access and curiosity of the potential, had I been raised there during my more formative years. Layers of fiction and daydream have developed over time and I have created a world through my art practice that blends this dual yet parallel existence of fantasy and reality. Japanese and Bay Area histories, cultures, and experiences emerge in these paintings depicting this inner world of mine, whether in similar yet unlikely ways or in direct juxtaposition. Additionally, as an homage to the intersections of my biracial identity, many of these depictions also create scenarios where neither culture is singularly represented. The figures, instead, live in a world where “otherness” does not exist, anamorphically framed by my visual vocabulary utilizing my own specific memories and sentimental motifs.

Maya Fuji Innovate Grant Winner Art
What's Left Unsaid・見てみぬふり, 2023, Acrylic & pastel on canvas, 24x30x1.5 in

Echoing the title of the show, Double, this series of diptychs showcase these thematic elements. In the painting My Dekochari Bike Go Hard, I Don’t Need No Car, for example, reveals similarities between Japan and Oakland through the subcultural phenomena of bicycle decoration. The Dekochari of Japan, inspired by elaborately embellished trucks called Dekotora and Scraper Bikes of Oakland, inspired by luxury car modification in rap songs were DIY responses by teens to these unattainable customized vehicles. By decorating their bikes, teens were able to participate in something that was once inaccessible to them. And, through it, began cultural movements and communities in their own respective locales.

Through the analogous interpretations of my home regions on opposite sides of the world, I hope to create a reflective embodiment of what my double experience represents and beyond.

Maya Fuji Innovate Grant Winner Art
風呂後のポカリ・A Post Bath Treat, 2022, Acrylic on wood panel, 36x48x1.5 in

Innovation does not only happen in the field of technology — it occurs everyday in a creative practice. What do you do for inspiration?

I'm inspired by reading folklore and mythology and interpreting their meaning through the context of modern day life. I often find myself asking how do lessons from hundreds of years ago apply to life today?

I'm also inspired by connecting with other Asian Americans. We often share a secondary experience of our culture, and layering multiracial backgrounds adds more complexity to reality and perception. Sharing experiences as multicultural Americans and how we individually preserve our culture is healing and up-lifting. I hope these themes resonate with people from all backgrounds - not just Japanese.

Maya Fuji Innovate Grant Winner Art
Studio view

Describe your practice and process. Where do ideas start for you? In the studio or being in the world?

My ideas often come from books, stories, conversations or current obsessions. I'll spend days or even months thinking about how these relate or tie into my work before something forms into a more substantial ideal that I take to the studio.

Maya Fuji Innovate Grant Winner Art
Studio view, process view

How do you make your work, does it start with a sketch?

My work starts digitally. I use an iPad to sketch and map out the design, and play with color until I have a plan for painting on the panel. Color is important for me to convey mood and I often draw from color combinations that are used in more traditional artworks such as Ukiyoe prints, fusuma (sliding door) illustrations, and dentōshoku (traditional Japanese color palettes). I like to blend these with newer Shōwa and Heisei era palettes, as well as the vibrant colors found in lots of Japanese subcultures such as manga illustrations and truck/motorcycle gang’s blingy rides.

I always include female figures with natural bodies in my work. I keep the folds and the rolls because it represents what me and my community looks like. The figures I paint are self portraits and not at the same time. They represent me and everyone else that connects with the work.

Maya Fuji Innovate Grant Winner Art
Maya Fuji Innovate Grant Winner Art
Studio view

Do you have your own studio ritual? What does that look like for you?

I have a part time job at a restaurant, which gives me a lot of flexibility in studio hours. I am a huge night owl so I often paint through the night. Unfortunately I'm not a creature of habit or routine and often will paint 12-18 hours straight, then not paint for a couple days. While painting, I like to listen to audio books or podcasts, or watch shows on my iPad. I’ll switch between something more serious like documentaries or something more easy like reality tv and anime depending on my mood. I've been listening to a lot of Immigrantly Podcast lately because I can resonate with many of the stores, and Next In Fashion was a fun reality show I watched recently.

Maya Fuji Innovate Grant Winner Art
Studio view, In progress shot of 風呂場・Two Cousins & The Tsukumogami, 2022, Acrylic on wood panel, 48x60x1.5 in

Who are your biggest influences?

These actually change pretty often, but right now I am inspired by artists such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Mizuki Shigeru, Hosoe Eikoh, Yokoo Tadanori, and Otake Shinro.

Maya Fuji Innovate Grant Winner Art
Detail of work in progress

Are there books or films that are an important source of inspiration?

Because I like to draw inspiration from mythology, history, subcultures, and traditional crafts, I have many history and reference books about these. I also like fictional films that play with these themes, like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Another less talked about Ghibli film called Only Yesterday is about living life the old way in an agricultural community in the Japanese countryside, which I found very touching. Yakuza, horror, and anime films such as Gokudo No Onnatachi Horetara Jigoku, Audition, House, and Perfect Blue might have had influences as well.

Maya Fuji Innovate Grant Winner Art
台所・Midnight Snack, 2022, Acrylic on wood panel, 36x48x1.5 in

How will Innovate Grant contribute to your practice?

Innovative Grant will contribute to my practice by helping fund my trip to Japan for my first solo exhibition in my home country!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Make art every day! I put this into action during lock down in 2020 and really developed as an artist.

居間・Meeting Place, 2022, Acrylic on wood panel, 48x36x1.5 in

What is the best advice you would give to other artists?

This is sort of following up with the last questions and is also something I need to tell myself as well: practice makes perfect, but also don’t burn yourself out. Balance is very important!

Stay up to date with Maya Fuji
Instagram @fuji1kenobe_