On September 11, 2001, Makoto Fujimura was attending an artists' prayer meeting in Uptown Manhattan when he heard of an accident at the Twin Towers, three blocks from where he lived with his family. Jumping on the subway toward his home, he found himself stuck underground, incommunicado for the next two hours while hell broke out in the streets above. He finally emerged to smoke and ash and a flood of fleeing workers. Running against the tide, he reached his studio ten blocks north of Ground Zero, where he found his wife and learned that his three children were safe, covered with ash but spared.
In the weeks that followed, only residents were allowed into the area near Ground Zero. Fujimura found himself talking with shell-shocked neighbors over endless cups of coffee. Many were artists. "There were candles popping up everywhere [as impromptu memorials]. We wanted to do something, too, temporary, authentic, broken, revealing where we were." For Fujimura, those conversations deepened thoughts that had begun with the Columbine disaster. "What is it that we have to deal with, this dehumanized reality that we are living in? What is the role of imagination in that?" One response was TriBeCa Temporary, a space Fujimura created in which local artists could create experimentally to restore wholeness.
Fujimura creates large, shimmering abstract paintings using a traditional Japanese technique called Nihonga. At the age of 13, his family moved from Tokyo to New Jersey, where his father, a linguistic scientist, worked at the storied Bell Labs. "Mako," as Fujimura is known, attributes some of his love of visual communication to the frustration he felt learning English from scratch. Returning to Japan for graduate studies in fine arts, he had to relearn Japanese. While there, he became a Christian.
It happened through his art, as he learned to use the gorgeous metallic pigments—gold, silver, azurite, malachite—that Nihonga features. "When it came down to looking at this sublime grace that was flowing out of my own hands," he writes in one essay, "I didn't know how to justify it. … I knew that inside my heart there was no place to put that kind of beauty." His wife had come to personal faith in Christ. She took him to church. In the lives of other Christians, Fujimura saw a space for beauty.
Returning to New York, he experienced immediate success as an artist even though his transparent faith and love for beauty placed him outside the art mainstream. Joining Tim Keller's then fledgling Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Fujimura became an elder and later helped to launch the church plant the Village Church. Fujimura is a prolific essayist and recently published a memoir, River Grace. (Some of his writings, which reflect on literature and society as well as art, can be found at the website makotofujimura.com.)
"I advocate for art in the church, and in the art world I'm advocating for the gospel. I need words to do that." He has launched an organization, the International Arts Movement, to "re-humanize the world."
"Artists are leaders simply because we are in the 'enterprise of persuasion,' " he has written. "With that [comes] great responsibility … to use that persuasive influence to create the 'world that ought to be.' "
Tim Stafford is a CT senior writer.
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Makoto Fujimura's website links to his gallery, blog, and event schedule.
Fujimura wrote about Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper for the Christian Vision Project.
This article is the first of five profiles in Christianity Today's cover package on "The New Culture Makers." Andy Crouch argues that our best response to the world is to make something of it.