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Drawing Circles: Hiroyuki Doi Wants You to Know That You Can Make Art

Hiroyuki Doi’s first drawing workshop in the United States is held in the Folk Art Museum’s Collections and Education Center, on a narrow industrial street in Long Island City, Queens. On my way, I realize why Suzanne de Vegh, the museum’s Director of Public Programs, insisted on giving me directions. The street is dominated by still-functioning factories; I sense the hum of machinery and the faint chemical smell of acetone.

I find the number and ring a bell. I am led into a dimly lit space, bare, but cozy, as the walls are hung with quilts by American folk artists. Doi is sitting at the far end of the room in semi-darkness, with his sunglasses on. The workshop participants are taking their seats on long tables near the artist. Most are inspecting the drawing materials they have been given—a felt-tip drawing pen and a postcard-sized piece of thick, crisp washi paper.

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Hiroyuki Doi at the Circles Only event.

Doi will remain relatively quiet throughout the workshop. He communicates with us via his gallerist and translator—Yoshiko Otsuka. As eloquent and personable as Doi tends to be curt and enigmatic, she begins the workshop by telling us about the artist’s story and his drawing methods.

The paper in front of us, Otsuka says, comes from a Tokyo firm that has been hand making these sheets for over three centuries. Doi prefers it because for him drawing on machine-made paper feels “cold.” Otsuka tells us about Doi’s journey as an artist. As a child, he liked drawing classes in school and wanted to pursue art. But because of his family’s situation, he had to start working instead: at the age of 15, he became an apprentice chef at a hotel where he learned to make French and Italian dishes. Doi would work at the hotel by day and teach himself art at night. He started experimenting with various media—Japanese woodcut prints, oil painting, watercolors—as he was trying to find his style.

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Hiroyuki Doi at the Circles Only event.

Meanwhile, the artist was able to save up and, since 1973, he traveled to Europe every other year to visit museums and experience art in person. “Of course he went to lots of restaurants and ate lots of food,” Otsuka says, to laughs from the audience. At this point in the story, we all have two questions: First, why circles? And second, was there any connection between Doi’s work as a chef and the style he created?

As it turns out, the answers are related. Doi would often draw or paint particular foods he likes to eat: for certain periods, he would focus on strawberries, cherries, eggs, tomatoes, or chestnuts. As he was going through a sweetcorn phase (one of his favorite foods), one day Doi noticed that each little kernel looked like a human face. He came to the realization that he could draw these faces using only small circles to create pattern and texture. Thus his breakthrough came not so much because of his trips to European museums but through his experience in the kitchen. Now, Doi typically spends eight hours a day drawing circles in his Tokyo studio; he only occasionally depicts realistic subjects such as flowers, before returning to circles again. Doi turned 70 on March 9, the day before the workshop; he says he wants to continue drawing circles for as long as he lives.

A member of the audience asks Doi, “What do you think of while you work?” We all expect a soundbite of spiritual enlightenment, and so the majority of us crack up when he says, “I think of how angry I am at Japanese politicians.” He channels this frustration into making something beautiful. As Otsuka summarizes his artistic philosophy, he “loves to cook, loves to eat, and loves to draw.”

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Hiroyuki Doi at the Circles Only event.

The atmosphere in the Folk Art Museum’s project space is greatly lightened by Doi’s refusal to take himself too seriously. He peppers his Japanese with English words that we can all understand: for instance, “Hippie. Sixties,” referring to his looks. A burst of laughter fills the room. (Doi wears long white hair, a paisley-patterned scarf, and a profusion of colorful jewelry, so his self-description is quite accurate.) When I ask why it is that he dresses like a hippie, Doi responds that he “had nothing else” to wear. More laughs from the audience. A woman next to me, a Japanese speaker, is cracking up so much that it makes me wonder how much of Doi’s deadpan humor we are missing in translation. After talking with Doi and Otsuka for close to an hour, the mood is convivial and relaxed. It is now time for us to try our hands at his drawing technique.

Surprisingly, at this point Otsuka tells us that Doi “doesn’t teach anything.” We simply have to use the felt-tip pen and draw using circles only on our washi paper. That is all. The secret is to begin.

Untitled (HD 3312), Ink on Paper, 18 x 15, 2012

“Untitled,” Hiroyuki Doi, Ink on Paper, 18″ x 15″, 2012. Image courtesy of Ricco Maresca.

My way of coping with the anxiety of the white page is to start efficiently filling the surface with little circles. The washi has the consistency of an oyster cracker; it feels fragile and rough. I choose not to dwell on the fact that this piece of hand-crafted paper belongs to a centuries-old tradition. If Doi thinks about politicians he is angry with as he is drawing, then I can also channel my frustrations into the process. I attack the paper, using my Manhattan-grade stress levels to drive me, and the paper responds. Fine pearly-white fibers appear on the surface as the pen scratches it. I realize what Doi means when he says machine-made paper is ‘cold’: the washi has character. It is impossible to draw too fast; you need to work with the material. It is a process reminiscent of crafts such as knitting or even plowing. Of its own accord, the process becomes rhythmic and meditative. I take my time in forming perfectly rounded little circles, and the washi absorbs more ink; the difference in speed creates gradations in tone. I draw circles over circles and weave them into tight patterns. It is incredibly satisfying.

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Hiroyuki Doi at the Circles Only event.

“Circles Only” is based on a startlingly simple idea, so simple that it veers on the profound. The workshop evokes Yoko Ono’s art pieces that consist of brief and often cryptic instructions (“Scream. 1. against the wind. 2. against the wall. 3. against the sky.”) The task is simply to draw circles on a postcard-sized piece of paper. But of course, something happens in the process.

Otsuka explains: “Doi is not just an artist. He feels like he is a messenger. We human beings have our hands. We can create. We can even make art. Doi wants to bring this message to people.” The workshop acts as proof: through a kind of anti-education, Doi shows that, really, there is nothing to learn. Art is a right, not a privilege, and always within reach. Doi’s genius lies in the fact that he delivers this message with disarming lightness and good humor. Who can resist this man who gets inspiration from sweetcorn and cherries? Go ahead, draw circles.

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