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Meet Anne McKenzie, Shodo inspired botanical artist

hydrangea painting

My Japan Journey Interview No 02: Anne: Communicating a language of plants
in a calligraphic way

I had such a lovely chat with artist Anne. It was almost like she was in a grove of ancient Sicilian olive trees, because as she spoke, her beautiful, suspended paintings gently moved behind her in the light air.

Anne’s art combines natural elements; the air and light that flow around and through her paintings, the ground minerals that she mixes for her paints, the water that creates the flow of her medium, and her fibrous Japanese papers. Together they capture the Shodo-inspired paintings of flowers and trees that are her passion.

Painting in Sicily

olive paintings

Cathy: Anne, I'm absolutely thrilled that you're joining me today. I'm fascinated by your painting and your painting process and I can't wait to hear more about it.

Anne: Thank you so much for asking me. I'm very happy to be here.

Cathy: How was your trip to Sicily?

Anne: So amazing. It is such a richly historic and interesting place.

Cathy: Where did you go? Did you explore the island?

Anne: I spent a week in The Valley of the Temples in Agrigento in an old convent, which then became a family home. In this valley are 50 different varieties of olive trees, including these very old ones, which are called Secolare – because they’re at least 300 years old.

Across the valley of olives and in full sight are a string of magnificent Greek temples.

Cathy: That takes you directly back to The Odyssey when Odysseus goes to Sicily. That's where he sees the cyclops, isn’t it!

Anne: Well, the ancient history feels very alive in Sicily and it is not hard to imagine Odysseus encountering the cyclops here. It’s just so amazing! There's the man made history and then there’s the environmental history of the land and the trees. And this tree, [Anne points to one of her paintings] that very big one, is supposed to be one thousand three hundred years old.

Cathy: They must take care of the olive trees?

Anne: Well, yes, and they must be in the right environment.

Cathy: So, you sit in front of them and spend time observing them and painting them in your lovely painting style. Your style seems quite meditative and thoughtful.

Anne: Yes, absolutely. My painting style is inspired by Shodo, and I have many years of yoga practice, so the two fit very well together. I sit very still and quiet, and spend time with these wonderful trees.

I could never really represent them because of the incredible living beings that they are. But to be with them for that amount of time is very, very awe inspiring.

Cathy: It sounds incredible, because you’re sitting there observing them and feeling the essence of them, I imagine. And, of course, you're in their natural environment and, this is one of the things that I love so much about your work, you’re spending time with them. I think in the world we all live in, we're all rushing around, and it's difficult to grab time.

And, if I'm really honest with you, when I was young and I was at art school, I really wanted to be a flower painter. We had old roses in the garden, and I used to spend a lot of time painting them. I used to draw the flowers in a lot of detail, like a botanical illustration, but after a while I began to sit with a little block of paper and my travelling watercolour box and just paint freely. And I think when I look at your work, it's taking me back to that lovely feeling of expression when you're not confined in any way. Is this something like the feeling that you have when you paint?

Anne: You’ve described that so well Cathy, yes!


honzo sufu botanical art

Anne: Do you know about the Honzo zufu?The Japanese illustration is from Honsu zufu a botanical work, that eventually consisted of 93 volumes. It’s that amazing combination of observing beautiful plants and expressing something emotional as well. This collection of paintings was a revelation to me.

Cathy: How did you discover this amazing style of art?

Anne shows me two beautiful black and white photographs, one of her grandmother seated near the giant Buddha at Kamakura, and one of a teahouse.

Anne: Okay, so it's quite a long story. My grandparents on my mum's side were very keen travellers, and in 1958, they took my mum to Japan. My grandfather was also a photographer. That's my granny there, and that’s the Daibutsu at Kamakura. And there's another one of a tea house. They collected a beautiful scroll and a beautiful ukiyo-e. My mum had this little Buddha which she had on her desk.

Cathy: How could you not be inspired?

Anne: I loved the little Buddha as a child. I'd pick it up and hold it, it’s a little bit broken but, the size of it, you can imagine for a child, fits in two hands. It’s beautiful, isn’t it. It’s an exquisite little thing.

Cathy: It would create all sorts of stories in your imagination.

Anne: I loved my grandparents dearly so there was a good association with the Japanese things in their house, they were so kind and lovely. So that was probably the root of it. Then at art school we learned a bit about Hokusai. I found it so inspiring!

Hokusai Bullfinch and Weeping Cherry Blossoms

Cathy: It’s unusual in the way that the bird is falling forward, like it’s clinging on to the branch with the flow of the flowers... it's really captured the truth of nature. The drawing is stylized but it's not a stylized pose.

Anne: It's exactly that combination of truth to what's there and something soulful.

Cathy: Yes, it creates a connection in you, the viewer?

Anne: It connects to your heart. It's a gorgeous print, it’s called Bullfinch and Weeping Cherry Blossoms.

And I love the indigo, don't you love indigo?

Cathy: Yes, I do! It's such a traditional colour for Japan, isn't it? I love that you are wearing indigo today.

Anne: I dyed this myself for the first time! It's a bit tricky, you've got to get everything at the right temperature and you really need to do the timing. When you put the fabric into the dye it goes a very unexpected green.

Cathy: Is it a bit sludgy, and it’s supposed to be this beautiful blue, and it doesn't look anything like it, but then some sort of alchemy happens, doesn't it?

Anne: Yes, you leave it in the sludge and you think it’s gone all wrong but then you rinse it and when you hold it up to the air, it's magic, because the oxidisation turns the fabric blue in front of your eyes. It was so exciting, it was my first indigo experience and it was fun!

Sparking art from air, light, water, earth

Japanese anemone painting

Anemone expresses air, light, atmosphere and growing

Cathy: Anne, watching your Instagram you appear to get so much pleasure from mixing the dry colour pigments into paint. Is that a really big part of the enjoyment of your process?

Anne: It really is! All of the olive paintings behind me are painted with natural pigments. I used lapis lazuli for the sky.

Cathy: This is the special pigment that was used to paint Mary’s clothing in mediaeval times?

Anne: Lapis lazuli was used for two reasons. One was to show that you had a very wealthy patron for your painting. And the other reason, which I like better, was to show the holiness of the subject matter. So Mary's mantles were painted with lapis lazuli to show extreme holiness because it was so precious.

Cathy: That reminds me of when I introduce people to furoshiki, and I say that cloth was used to wrap the treasures of the Emperor over 1200 years ago, because cloth was so expensive that it was reserved for the most wealthy. Perhaps lapis lazuli is an equivalent in the West because the pigment was so expensive?

Anne: Exactly, it originally comes from Afghanistan, and other places too. So, it had to travel a long way, but also the processing of it is very complicated, to get it to the point where it was a pigment. I thought I'd use it to show the holiness of the sky - this wonderful blue, holy sky.

Cathy: Are you bringing symbolism into your painting?

Anne: I'm trying to do everything with intent. There's a limited colour palette and I'm trying to do the best I can. That lapis blue sky I mixed, painted, fixed and stretched on the sheets of Mitsumata paper before I left for Sicily. I've used this gorgeous Mitsumata paper that is handmade, from Japan.

Cathy: Is it really textured?

Anne: It’s very fine and delicate. It’s really translucent and very fibrous. You can see my hand through it.

Cathy: And that's what's lending the quality of the airiness and the outdoors to your artwork, isn't it?

Anne: It’s a paper that captures and so represents light. The pigment does that - the little grains of pigment holds the light on the surface, and then the light comes through the paper. But also the fibres of the paper hold the pigment. It's quite a delicate business getting the very finely ground stone lapis, to hold on to the fibres of the paper. I use fixative which is made from casein, which is a milk derivative, as I'm trying to keep it all natural and earthy.

notebook and art pigments

Cathy: It's almost like the painting is emerging from its natural element, isn't it? The air, the light, the fibrous paper, the ground up minerals in the pigments...

Anne: And of course the flow of the water which is the medium of it all: air, light, water, earth – but fire not so much! I'm not quite sure where the fire comes in, maybe determination or something!

Cathy: That's a wonderful concept, and I love how the paper is so translucent because I notice the way that you've got your olive tree paintings hanging behind you, and they are gently moving in the air because the paper is so light...


Cathy: You were saying that you were at art school and you were introduced to Hokusai and the beautiful print.

Anne: I went to a very classical art school. Drawing was a big part of the first year, it was mostly drawing from classical casts, life models and still life. They wanted us to learn the very classical way of composing and so on. And then in the fourth year, they introduced a few other elements, and the minute I saw those Japanese prints I thought, that's it!

I love the very special and beautiful relationship with nature and the use of space. This image is something I discovered later in life which I absolutely adore. It's a very old screen in Tokyo, I mean, look at the space in this, so evocative.

Hasegawa Tohaku screen

It's by Hasegawa Tohaku - it's a large folding screen made of six panels painted in ink on paper in the 16th century, and it’s in Tokyo Museum, a National Treasure.

Cathy: I can see the connection between that image and the work you're doing now.

Anne: The paper may be same kind that I'm using. It's fibrous and it's the natural colour - unbleached -it gets better and better with age because it's not pulp. So, instead of declining with age, as many other papers do, it actually improves with age.

Inspired by Shodo

Anne McKenzie painting

Cathy: I've never done Japanese ink painting, and I got a very cheap pad of Japanese paper from an art shop. I just thought I’d have a go, because I'd like to get back into flower painting at some point. I'm used to using watercolour on wet paper to spread the paint around - it was always quite controllable. But when I put the calligraphy brush on the Japanese paper, there was an impression of liquid spreading, a grey line of soaked thin paper around my image.

So when I see you paint, and, obviously you thoroughly control it and know how it's going to behave, but how did you to learn to manage that?

Anne: It’s mostly about the paper! Honestly, you get what you pay for :) And it’s also about the brushes. The brush makes contact with the paper, and you get this little frisson of excitement!

All the handmade papers are different, it's like talking to different people.

Cathy: So you've been on an exploration, and had a bit of trial and error, with Japanese paper?

Anne : That’s a great way of putting it, and I've only just started, it's a very beautiful world, the world of Japanese paper, as you can imagine.

Cathy: I was going to ask if you import it directly from Japan or do you buy it from a supplier in the UK?

Anne: Some of it I have imported directly, but there's Shepherds here and there's Japan Fine Papers that also supply. One of these days I'm going to book myself onto a paper trail around Japan, and go to visit all these makers.

Cathy: Do you ever use Echizen paper?

Anne: I bought some beautiful Echizen paper in Kyoto and used it to paint four long banners of a Golden Beech in Kew.

The story goes that around 1500 years ago a woman took pity on the people of Echizen because they did not have rice fields. She showed them how to make paper using fibres from local plants. Having imparted this knowledge and means to make a livelihood the woman disappeared upriver and became known as "Kawa-kami Gozen". She is now enshrined as a paper goddess in Okamoto Otaki Shrine.

Cathy: What is it like when you put the ink onto it?

Anne: There's two sides to this handmade paper. One side is shiny, and the other side is matte. Painting on the matte side is going to make (I'm sure there is a special name) the mark you spoke about Cathy, where the water spreads out a little bit into the paper. The shiny side is for doing calligraphy when you want a very clear sharp line.

Anne shows me this beautiful painting of hydrangeas to illustrate how she can utilise the properties of the ink spreading through the fibres of the paper to create a soft, receding outline. She explains that the closer petals are a little sharper-edged, and how this has to do with how much water there is on the brush. She says, ‘I absolutely love this because hydrangeas are all about water, aren't they?’

Anne: Yes, I love this effect of the pigment, the paper, and the water.

Cathy: That is so astonishing, and to be honest, it's quite breath-taking to see your painting up close!

hydrangea painting by Anne McKenzie

Anne shows me a double-sided sheet where she has fused two sheets of Mitsumata paper together. The transparency of the two sheets enables the rear painting to show through the sheer paper of the top sheet. It creates the effect of flowers on a misty day, with closer flowers sharper and more defined.

Anne explains that these paintings are pieces about the environmental change after the summer, and how she wanted to get some sense of space in a gentle way.

Anne: You know when you see one flower close to you and then the next one's a bit further way. I wanted to give that feeling in one piece. You can see that it’s as thin as anything, and it’s very flexible. I feel a bit like a midwife, I'm just there with the pigment, the amazing plants, the brushes and the paper and I'm letting it happen!

Cathy: Do you see your art evolving, because I think that's what usually happens, isn't it, you keep moving through phases.

Anne: Totally. When I look back on pieces that I made at the beginning, I think, Oh!

Cathy: But that's the artist’s curse, isn't it, when everyone else would say it's amazing!

And now that you've done the olive trees, what have you got your eye on next?

Anne: I'm going to go back to Shodo. I've got another person who you might like to know about, Yu-ichi Inoue.

Japanese calligraphy

He’s one of my heroes. He took to Shodo, and he became part of the Bokujin-kai (Ink People Society), in the 1950s and 60s. They influenced a lot of the abstract expressionists.

This is the kanji for hana, meaning flower.

Cathy: The flow of the ink in it is powerful, and I love the expressive splashes. Anne, I was looking at one of your paintings of hydrangeas on Instagram, and I noticed that you painted the green leaves first, and there were little speckled splashes of green on the white space of the paper. You did the lovely violet petals of the hydrangea last of all. Your expressive splashes, are these originating from Shodo?

Anne: Yes! I saw an exhibition of Yu-ichi Inoue in Paris, and it was so inspiring.

Cathy: I've seen these very freestyle expressive calligraphy painters who walk across the paper and have massive brushes. Is this Shodo style coming into your inspiration?

Anne: I love the full immersion of using the movements of the entire body.

Anne shows me a beautiful brush where the hairs appear to extend for about seven centimetres: perfect for painting swishy letters or stems of bamboo. And she explains to me that when this long brush is loaded with liquid it goes down to a perfect point.

Anne: I bought this from a supplier in Tokyo because I thought it's quite humorous and quite eye-catching. It's a bit Harry Potter, isn't it? I hold it at the very end and can make the most beautiful swishy circular marks.

Cathy: But that’s so interesting, because I would always hold a watercolour brush right at the tip, most probably on the metal bit, which inevitably makes you sit quite hunched up when you’re painting an illustration. Whereas your long-handled, long-haired brush enables free expression!

Anne: That's what's nice about the large format of paper and brush - you have to just go for it! That's also where the yoga comes in. I agree with you about those inspirational Shodo practitioners who do the massive paintings. There’s Yu-ichi, really going for it, it’s fantastic!

Cathy: When did you start doing this sort of artwork? What was the moment when you first put that brush to paper and it began something new?

Anne: It probably started when my dad died - before he died, he said, I've done everything in my life I wanted to do, I've had a great life, which for a daughter was a great thing to hear.

After that I came back to London and thought, what do I really want to do? I don't want to leave something incomplete. I really want to explore Kew Gardens and I want to explore Japanese art - that was the catalyst of it.

I got on with it. I got myself a membership to Kew. I bought some paper and brushes and off I went. I got the cheap paper and I got the cheap brushes just to see if it would click.

And it did click! The people at Kew are amazing. Everybody's always been encouraging.

It's been a very life affirming way of communicating. I think that's another thing about Shodo, it's writing, and it's communicating more than the sense of the character or word. It’s the things you can't put into words that come out in the brush strokes.

The working process

Cathy: Do you go frequently to Kew?

Anne: I try and go once a week, in most weathers. The paper does survive amazingly – I have been caught in the rain, rolled the paper up in the backing felt and let it dry. The paper is more resilient than it looks.

Cathy: Do you have special kit for transporting everything?

Anne: I look like I’m wearing everything I own, especially when it gets cold! I have a backpack with a yoga mat, a ground sheet, the pigments all mixed up ready, a roll of paper and the brushes.

I choose a tree or plant that calls to me, unless I'm doing a particular project, I sit down and I’m there for however long it takes - a couple of hours probably. I think four hours is my absolute maximum, then I roll the painting up, come home, and then stretch the painting out.

Cathy: You stretch the painting afterwards? You apply water to the back?

Anne shows me a large painting spread out on the wooden floor, on top of a big sheet of Perspex. Anne explains that she puts the paper on top of the Perspex and the pigment is fixed with the casein and is allowed to dry. Then Anne places the painting paper face down, and she paints the back of the painting with a special brush and water gently smoothing the paper out.

Cathy: It must be interesting, you must see parts of the painting emerging.

Anne: It is quite lovely, because the pigment and the fibre with the water meld together. When I wet the paper I need to do so very carefully and very mindfully, because the fibres are not woven, they are lying on top of each other and when they are wet they realign a little. The pigment gets fixed in there. It’s a bit like felting.

Cathy: I can imagine you being really interested in making the paper as well - the way you describe that you sound like someone who'd love to be there!

Anne: We did go and visit one small paper maker and they let us make our own little sheets of paper, which is really, really fun. We didn't do all of the stripping of bark and the mashing - it must be very hard work.

In a big basin the fibres for the washi paper - the mitsumata or the kozo or the gampi are mixed with a binding agent made from hibiscus root (tororo-aoi) or hydrangea extract (noriusugi). Then a special frame, which is made of very finely slatted bamboo, is dipped into the wet washi mixture. The frame is moved vertically front and back ‘take, take’ (bamboo, bamboo) and then horizontally side to side. It is lifted, the liquid drains through and the fibres settle on the frame.

This dipping process is repeated several times depending on how thick the paper needs to be. The result is layers and layers of very organic fibres on top of each other.

Pine Trees

Anne introduces a tree painting that has been a big influence in her art. Pine trees lean into and away from the sea breezes.

pine tree painting

Anne: A Japanese friend, who is a tea master, told me that there's a word, matsukaze, which means when the kettle is ready to make the tea, just before it boils it makes a noise which is like the wind blowing through the pine needles. It also suggests the pine trees by the shore that lead you to an imaginary, wonderful land of your dreams beyond.

Cathy: It's connecting me to all sorts of little snapshot memories. I remember the sound of the kettle beginning to boil in the chashitsu. I think it’s because you become so present in the moment that your awareness and your senses are heightened. And I remember when I went to this lovely tea ceremony at Daitokuji with my friend Mai, the sound of the breeze in the willows that were just outside the teahouse. I did a meditation class at the temple Shunko-in when I was staying there, and I remember, even though I was inside the temple, being so acutely aware that the flow of the land towards the city was falling away because we were nearer the mountains.

You're reminding me of one of the things that I’m finding most striking in the book that we plan to read for our next January in Japan book club, The Old Capital by Kawabata Yasunari. It’s the idea you mentioned of the dream world beyond the bubbling of the kettle – and those moments that are rooted firmly in the present. I love the idea that there is the old otherworldly capital that continues in parallel with the present day :)

Anne, it's been the most fascinating conversation. Thank you for everything.

Anne: I've loved it, Cathy.

Anne McKenzie is an artist practicing Japanese sumi-e living in London, UK.

Anne is currently exhibiting her artwork at the Winter Sun exhibition

The exhibition runs from 12th November 2022 - 21st January 2023, Monday - Saturday, 9.30am - 4pm.

Instagram: @annemckenzieart


Honzo Zufu Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens Collection, Kew.

Hokusai Katsushika, Bullfinch and Weeping Cherry Blossoms, 1834.

Hasegawa Tohaku, Pine Trees, (Shōrin-zu byōbu), 16th century, Tokyo National Museum.

Yu-ichi Inoue, Hana, Kamiya Art.

Yu-ichi Inoue, Kamiya Art website.


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