An Interview with Terry Ogata
Along Fifth Avenue, between the Metropolitan Museum and the Guggenheim, dozens of vendors offer a wide variety of arts, crafts, and souvenirs. Among them, nearer the Guggenheim than the Metropolitan, is Terry Ogata, a gifted portraitist interviewed recently.
Where and when were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1973. I grew up there.
Did you enjoy drawing as a child? Were there any artists in your family? Did your family encourage your talent? Was there anyone who was a particular inspiration? What was the first artistic achievement of which you remember being particularly proud?
I was not a particularly good student as a child, and art classes were a blessing for me. I used to be an avid golfer, and I drew lots of golf clubs. At that time, woods were made of real persimmon instead of the metal used today. There were something aesthetically beautiful about them—especially vintage golf clubs by MacGregor in the 1950s and 60s.
My grandfather was a gifted painter as a child and he seriously contemplated pursuing an art career. He was also an ace baseball player in school, and a professional baseball team came to recruit him. His art teacher advised him to pursue baseball instead of art for practical reasons, and soon he became a household name in Japan—Victor Starffin. He is now a legendary figure in Japanese baseball history, and there is a baseball stadium named after him. He died young—at forty—long before I was born, but I feel I am following his childhood dream to be a painter. My great-grandfather was a Japanese monk who also painted. He went to Russia to study mural painting.
My parents admire artists, and they support my chosen career. My self-portrait was chosen to be exhibited in a middle school festival open to the public. I didn’t know until I saw it on the wall, and it was surprising. I certainly felt proud seeing my art showcased for many people to see.
Do you think that hometown and your family background significantly influenced your art?
Since my grandfather came from Russia, I looked rather different than other Japanese children. I was often stared at and sometimes was picked on. I also had a sister who often intimidated me, and my parents were working most of the day. I might have been a lonely child, but the seclusion really gave me an opportunity to appreciate people and animals.
I learned that I could be admired by admiring others more. As a portrait artist, it’s essential to admire the subject, and the more admiration I have toward the subject, the better portraits I create.
When did you come to the United States?
I came to the US in 1988 to attend high school in Paradise Valley, Arizona.
Where did you study? Why did you choose that place to study? Were there any particular art instructors who encouraged and/or influenced you?
I went to Syracuse University for my undergrad. Their admissions staff came to my high school in Arizona, and moving to the East Coast was enticing.
At first, I wanted to be a cosmetic surgeon for women, and I started out in premed. But one day I saw videos of some gruesome procedures and knew it wasn’t for me. I also started to philosophically object to the idea of altering the natural human body through invasive procedures.
Syracuse had a large art school and there were lots of art students living in the dorm. I soon realized that art could be seriously pursued in college as a course of study; it seemed much more fun than math or science.
Around the same time, I saw Lust for Life, a biographical movie about Van Gogh, who was played by Kirk Douglas. I was inspired and decided, “Let’s do this instead!” I switched my major to painting and was fortunate to study with Jerome Witkin—a well-known art teacher and master figure/portrait painter. Studying with him alone was well worth paying four years of private college tuition.
After completing my bachelor’s degree, I moved to Manhattan to attend the New York Academy of Art for my master’s. They had the only program in the nation to focus on traditional figurative art and all courses (except art history and perspective) had live figure models posing. Their instructors included Eric Fischl and other established artists. They also had a great visiting artists program, and I remember sitting in a lecture by George Segal just before he passed away. The school was located few blocks from SoHo, which was the art hub at the time. I could walk to the Mary Boone or Gagosian galleries during my lunchtime or after school. And 560 Broadway was full of art galleries; I did a group show of my self-portraits there.
During summer recesses, I also attended classes at many places: UCLA, Cornell, Skidmore, NYU, Columbia, the School of Visual Arts, Fashion Institute of Technology, and Parsons School of Design. After all those classes, I felt I had more than enough education but real learning only came after finishing school and it came through trial and error. There is only so much an art teacher can teach in the time allowed. Mastering art takes decades of practice. What the best art teacher can do, however, is make students believe that making art is the most important thing they can ever do with their lives. They must also make sure that even at a serious and professional level, students do not lose the fun aspect of the creative process. The process should be something like the way children freely express their inner visions with their doodles. How much fun an artist had with a piece often shows up when others view the piece.
Which artists do you most admire? Why? If you could own one celebrated masterpiece, which would it be?
My favorite artist is Renoir and I would like to own Bather with Blonde Hair (1904–1906).
But it’s really Renoir’s entire body of work and style that are impressive. He did a series of bathers and another of young girls, and all of them are just as good. His paintings take me to a beautiful place where everything is so gentle and lovely. I am convinced that this is the artist who loved women most and really captured the essence of female beauty. His most celebrated masterpiece might be Bal du moulin de la Galette, but I would rather own a more intimate, single figure portrait to which his affection for the sitter is clearly felt.
Boucher is another artist with heavenly vision and great love for women. It’s really the Rococo period in France with which I feel a strong intellectual affinity. Portrait painters from this era are my favorites. This might be the time when French aristocrats were the happiest and splurged most on arts, antiques, and costumes—including commissioning portraits showing off all those wonderful possessions.
In which medium do you most enjoy working? Why?
Oil is actually my favorite, because pigments are suspended in oil, and pigments don’t get in the air unless sanded. I do not use solvents, so it’s totally non-toxic. Its slow drying time gives me a chance to blend edges and add subtle details. Acrylics dry too quickly for blending, and pastels give off a toxic dust and are a health hazard after long-term use.
How did you start working as a street artist? Where are you generally located? Is there a real difference in these locations?
I started working on Coney Island, and moved to 34th Street across the street from Macy’s, and then to Times Square, and am now located on 88th Street and Fifth Avenue. The customers at the current location are generally better educated and better mannered. I also get more opportunities to draw nice dogs and children, and I can park my car next to my booth—not possible in the other locations.
When it rains, I get to walk to the Met, the greatest treasure the city has to offer. The Church of the Heavenly Rest on 90th Street is another great place that I enjoy. In short, the area is a wonderful location to do a business as an artist.
What are the best things about this job? The worst things?
The best thing is the privilege to freely stare at total strangers while I get paid for it!
If I did the same on subway, I would be in a trouble. About 90% of my customers are rather attractive young women, and I ask them to take photos for my oil painting projects and they usually agree.
The worst thing is that the air quality and noise level are quite annoying when the traffic is jammed up.
Working as you do, you are exposed to all sorts of human behavior. Can you share any particularly amusing or interesting episodes?
A man came to me and told me he was proposing to his girlfriend. He told me to write “Will you marry me?” on the portrait when it was finished. I thought he was joking, but he really brought his girlfriend for a portrait. I did exactly what he asked me, and they are now happily engaged.
Another interesting episode occurred when I was working in Times Square.
A little girl came to me and asked in a rather serious tone of voice, “Do you love her?” I didn’t know what she was talking about, but she pointed at one of my portraits on display. I looked carefully and only then noticed that I had three portraits of the same woman on display. I was amazed how closely this little girl was looking at my paintings and the level of maturity for her age.
Doing quick portraits provides an income, but in the best of all worlds (and if you were independently rich), what kind of art would you pursue?
I would pursue oil portraits of young blond girls, perhaps holding kittens, with nice backgrounds of mountains and lakes. I would like to select the model and direct all the details including the costumes as opposed to having clients make decisions as in commissioned portraits.
To date, which do you consider your best work?
This dog pastel portrait I just finished is my best work so far this year. It’s nothing ambitious, but it has the Old Master feel to it for the first time in dog portraits. I almost feel that while the dog’s outside is covered by fur and animal features, the inside has a spirit just like a human. I can really feel her love and happiness through her expression.
I think your animal portraits are particularly good and show a great deal of affection for these creatures. Have you grown up with animals? Do you have any living with you now?
Yes, I had strong love for animals as a child. Alas, I lived in apartments where cats and dogs were not allowed but I had all kinds of fish, turtles, frogs, insects, hamsters, and birds. I also had an illustrated book of animals and that was my favorite. I wished one day to own a house with a yard so I could have a dog. When I went to malls, I would stop at pet stores first and stay the longest. When I rented my own apartment in Manhattan, I immediately adopted a cat. She passed away last year at sixteen. Now I live with the another cat who is currently sixteen years old.
I feel that you are more gifted than most others selling their work in this way, but are there any others you care to mention whom you regard as especially talented?
The landscape artist C. Brown is professional and serious with presentation. Her style and subject matter are reminiscent of Edward Hopper but somehow more intimate. It’s obvious she had some formal training in painting. Unlike most other street art, her work has a potential to appreciate in value over time. I have a feeling she also shows at galleries.
Another artist I admire is the T-shirt painter at 86th Street and Fifth Avenue. He is more of an illustrator than a fine artist, but he paints all those NYC landmarks without references, which is admirable. He is creative with perspective and the placement of figures is beautifully done. I also admire his good sense of design and draftsmanship.