My Journey to Watercolor Street Scenes of the West Village

By Kazuya Morimoto

I’ve been painting cityscapes of historical neighborhoods since 2007, mainly in Greenwich Village, where people call me “Kaz.” 

I was born and raised in Okayama in southwest Japan’s countryside, one of the most conservative regions. Japan is a stratified society. Which level of society you belong to—the school you attended, the company you work for —is more important than what you do. To succeed as an artist you must be accepted by a good art school. There, you learn which art group you belong to. 

As there was no art school in my hometown, I studied sociology and worked at a local company for a few years. However, there was a watercolor class at a local cultural center. I attended for a few years. When I began, a co-worker said, “You started taking a painting class? That’s a girl’s thing to do!!” (Yes, my whole class consisted of elderly women, other than one elderly retired man and myself.)

Eventually, I met Makoto Arimichi, who’d lived and studied art in San Francisco, and opened an art studio for people who took art seriously, not just to train for art school entrance exams in Tokyo or Kyoto. I spent a few years in his workshop, where there was an inspiring art community. One day he said, “People like you, who never studied at art school or belonged to an art society in Japan, better go abroad, to learn, absorb and feel the vibe directly at the site, and start creating with your own experiences. People will accept you more in the U.S. You don’t need to be bothered by conservative society.” Makoto respected individuality.

I took two weeks off to go to New York to look for cool arty experiences and disregard my office desk.

New York was a shock—I felt a crack in my brain. I had never seen skyscrapers before, or such a wide variety of races, languages, noises, and fashion. The art scene, the Met, MOMA, and contemporary galleries were beyond my experience. (I’d never been to Tokyo or Osaka, having spent most of my life close to my hometown.)

Unlike other parents, mine let me do what I wanted. (They probably thought I wouldn’t listen to them no matter what they said.) My father told me I should do whatever I want, with just two conditions: do not rely on family money; do not come back until you become a big shot. My mother was so embarrassed when I moved to New York that she didn’t tell anyone for a long time. I was supposed to be a missing person, even to my relatives. 

Upon moving to New York I registered at the Art Students League. I learned and mastered basics of painting techniques, and learned English by conversing with many foreign students.

A major part of my inspiration and knowledge came from the museums, galleries, and liveliness of New York. But most useful for my artistic development were the various harsh realities, obstacles, and hardships of living here. Most difficult was facing my own existence and finding what to express as an artist. Initially I thought I couldn’t make good art work and, thus, felt totally useless and meaningless. 

Nevertheless, I received some grants that allowed me to visit Europe and accept an offer from friends who invited me to stay at their home. 

I visited Rome, Florence, Siena, Napoli, Venice. I started to sketch with ink in these ancient cities, where the profound history was overwhelming. The following year I planned a more intensive watercolor sketch trip. I hadn’t painted with watercolor for a long time, but once I began, the brush started to move smoothly. After that, it became my custom to sketch in Europe every summer.

In 2007, a few months after returning from my second sketch trip, I was sitting quietly on a bench in Bleecker Park on Christmas Day. I was sad because a woman I was planning to spend Christmas with—a dream girl who looked like Liv Tyler—had left a few days earlier. I’d thought I might commit suicide if I stayed in my small Upper West Side apartment, so I decided to go to the Village where busy crowds could cheer me up. But the Village was totally empty and I became more miserable. While hanging my head on the bench, a woman passed in front of me—it was the real Liv Tyler! While I was frozen by the sudden event, she disappeared. As I looked at a picture of the dream girl, Liv reappeared with her dog. I approached her and asked for an autograph. She obliged and we chatted a little. At that moment, the way I saw New York changed completely. “This mysterious and magical event can only happen here!” My sadness disappeared and my heart started beating rapidly. It felt like each small building was gently shining and snuggling up to me. I decided to sketch in this beautiful magical neighborhood regularly. New York can be beautiful. 

There is an accumulation of history in the Village. Many historical streets and sights still remain, though, sadly, the beautiful streets and old-fashioned cafes and restaurants are in danger of disappearing, or losing their character to gentrification. Where are the Bohemian spirits of the past? I have hoped to preserve their legacy and history in my painting. 

 The millions of New York stories inform my work, in which some people find special value; some smile, some cry. The Village is a special place for current and former residents. I share the full-of-life dramas while I’m painting on the street. (I want to respond to everyone’s requests but it’s not possible.) When asked if I paint from photos, my answer is “NO.” I am not just painting cityscapes, but also my experiences. 

Covid-19 blew the whole world and many people left New York. 

Yet more people have contacted me than ever before. “I’m leaving New York so I want to buy your painting.” Because some would like paintings of other neighborhoods as well as of the Village, I decided to go to other historic areas of the city. 

I have realized that I enjoy painting for others, not just creating art for myself. Although many old buildings and remnants have been demolished since I started painting here, my mission is to keep painting on the street as long any of the history and magic of the West Village remains. I will keep preserving and sharing in my painting as long as my spirit lasts and my brush runs.

CORNELIA STREET CAFÉ artwork by Kazuya Morimoto.
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