By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“When I was younger, I had a difficult time understanding what it means to be happa (half and half). What made me Japanese, and what made me Dominican? What does being American mean for a person such as myself? When my parents separated, my mother (Japanese) got custody of me, which is why I’ve spent most of my life exposed to Japanese culture. It wasn’t until later in life where I started to learn about Dominican culture through my Dad’s side in the Bronx, New York…
“Even in Japan during school as a child, I would get bullied for being mixed. Being exposed to ‘Japanese things’ when growing up with my mother, it’s no surprise that it strongly influences my body of work. Before I left Japan, I remember my mother told me we were going to a sento (a Japanese bath house)… Instead, we ended up at the airport to fly to the United States to start a new life. That road to learning about what my identity means, has been a source of my artistic expression.”
That’s Seattle artist Julian Peña, a painter, whose exhibit of new work features at the grand opening of the ELBO Room on Oct. 12. Pena spent most of his growing up in Tacoma, though he was born in Japan and holds fond memories of Japanese summers— “the scorching sun and cicadas chatting in the background.”
Peña attended Spanaway Lake High School, near Tacoma, and after studying fashion design for some time, he started art classes at the University of Washington. That’s where he discovered the work of Japanese painter Takhashi Murakami, whose bold colors, flat surfaces, and considerable influence from anime all fed into his own work.
He initially learned painting in oils, but decided, after some experimentation, that painting in acrylic suited his essential impatience better—acrylic dries much faster than oil paint.
“I wanted to be able to manipulate acrylic paint in a variety of ways, to ensure different decorative surfaces and color control,” Peña explained. “I do occasionally dabble in photography with my Canon EOS Mark 5D III. I recently discovered the joy of using gouache! I love the matte and opaque results when it comes to color.
“I also play with dry pigments and gold leaf. My early training in Nihonga painting (Japanese mineral pigment painting) has introduced me in the use of applying thin sheets of flatted gold. Now, I apply glitter, dry pigments, Mylar foils, and other metal leaves to surfaces of my paintings. I’ve always wanted to dive into the digital art realm someday.”
He’s shown his paintings at the OK Hotel & Gallery, the Tacoma Art Museum, and also as part of an all-queer art show, “Look How Far We’ve Come,” presented at the Columbia Center’s Sky View Observatory. But the ELBO Room, run by Andre Olivie not far from Pena’s home on Capitol Hill, is a new, small art space, ideal for hosting single-artist exhibits.
“You can expect lots of bright saturated colors, surreal narratives, Japanese motifs and decorative techniques, and insane avatars,” remarked the artist. “I’ve also included new works that explore a slightly different approach on how I utilize color relationships in my paintings. One of them, titled ‘Black John Doe,’ depicts a blurred image of an African American figure. The colors have literally been broken down to pixel squares —it’s a trip!
“After practicing art for the past 12 years, I’ve learned to harness Japanese motifs and decorative effects in a more refined way. I’m learning to take a step back here and there. It’s an ongoing learning experience for me.”
Asked about future plans, Peña mentioned staying the course on acrylics, plus a few new directions.
“I run a monthly art workshop at the Lab at Ada’s [on Capitol Hill] called ‘Acrylic Lab: Drink and Paint.’ It’s a lot of fun! I have been working on a few bodies of work and looking forward to exploring more art-community events. I’m also playing with illuminated wires for neon-like sculptures and digital art. I’m always posting events on my website!”
Julian Peña’s exhibit of new work opens on Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. at the ELBO Room, 1633 Bellevue Ave. Suite C, on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. For more information, visit jpenastudio.com.
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.