Gemma Wilson is a multidisciplinary designer and illustrator from Rotterdam, Netherlands. For her graduation project at the Academy of Fine Arts in Leipzig, Germany, Gemma produced woodblock prints to illustrate the Japanese origin myth of Izanami and Izanagi. In October 2019, she moved to Japan to pursue postgraduate research at the Tokyo University of the Arts (Tokyo Geidai) where she focuses on mokuhanga or Japanese woodblock prints.

I met Gemma at Tokyo Geidai’s Japanese Language Class which started almost two months ago. As a precaution against COVID-19, we only attend this class online. Through our simple interactions in Japanese, I took interest in Gemma’s answers to our teacher’s questions. When our teacher asks something as simple as きのう何をしましたか?(What did you do yesterday?), most of us answer with very basic Japanese: ごはんを作りました (cooked food), 本を読みました (read a book), or へやを掃除しました (cleaned our rooms). However, Gemma had much more interesting answers. Once, she said she was doing a project designing a kimono. (And she had to ask our teacher how to say that in Japanese. And yes I have forgotten how to say it…)

I became curious and wanted to have an actual conversation with her (in English). So, I sat down with Gemma via Zoom to learn more about the kimono she’s designing, how she became interested in Japanese woodblock printing, and what it’s been like for her to finally study art in Japan. In this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, she also shares how she’s been making the most of her stay in Japan despite limited movement in Tokyo because of the pandemic.


The book Kojiki 1 consists of ten two-coloured woodcuts that retell the ancient story of Izanami and Izanagi, the two deities who give birth to the eight great islands of Japan. The theme of death is at the centre of the narrative. It is a story about the opposite poles of life and death. (From Gemma Wilson’s website: https://gemmawilson-illu.com/kojiki)

How did your interest in Japanese mythology start?

I visited Japan before for a few months. I was part of a community art project in a small town in the countryside of Japan. I heard about these stories while I was there. 

Where in Japan was this? What was the community project that you did?

We did the project in a small town in the countryside called Shikano, in Tottori Prefecture.

It was a project that some of my friends were involved in. It was organized by Das Japanische Haus, which is an organization in Leipzig, and NPO Shikano. The project was called, “freehand revolution!” It was only a one-month project, but I stayed for a total of three months because that was the longest stay that my tourist visa could allow. Then I decided to come back and visit Tottori again to research these stories for my graduation project and write my thesis. So I was also here in Japan writing my thesis for three months on a tourist visa. 

Gemma Wilson participating in the “freehand revolution!” project.
Photos by Mako Mizobuchi.

Back in Liepzig, did you have classes that focused on Japanese art?

No, that was my own interest.

How did you end up coming to the Tokyo University of the Arts (Tokyo Geidai)? 

A friend of mine studied in Vienna before, and she took classes in Japanese woodcut there. After she came back to Germany, I became very interested in Japanese woodcut, so I wrote an email to her professor in Vienna. Coincidentally, the professor at the time was busy transferring from his job in Vienna to teach at Tokyo Geidai, so I was just very lucky, and we stayed in contact over the years. Eventually, I asked him to supervise my research at Geidai. 

I’m not very familiar with Japanese woodcut. Is it the same as ukiyo-e and nishiki-e

Those are the traditions they are based on. Japanese woodcut is called mokuhanga.

You say you also did woodcut in your university in Leipzig, what is it about woodcut that draws you to explore this medium?

I was drawn to woodcut by both its aesthetics as well as a technical interest. By working within this technique, I learned a lot about color separations and how to stylize my images. At the beginning I was often caught off guard by the material. For example, the grain of the wood would influence my image in a way I hadn’t anticipated. This led to some disappointment, but also many happy surprises. During my studies in Leipzig I slowly learned how to control the result. Since coming to Japan I switched from the European oil-based technique to using water-based colors. The Japanese technique gives me a lot more options and room to experiment. Since this technique differs so much from the technique taught at my old school I am quite excited to be surprised by the result again.

You started studying in Tokyo Geidai in October 2019, so you had the chance to go to actual classes before the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Yeah, that was so good, because my Japanese is still not that good. During actual classes, I can see what people are doing and just copy them and learn by doing. But now when it’s online, sometimes there’s like, lots of interesting conversations and I’m not getting half of it.

What types of classes were you taking? 

The Printmaking Department (Hanga Kenkyuushitsu) did Introductions to Printing Techniques so I did the mokuhanga (Japanese woodcut prints) course and I also did a lithography course. I also took the nihonga (Japanese painting) course. The Global Student Support Center also offered a course on Noh theater. These other courses taught me more about Japanese culture in general. 

Did you go to other parts of Japan to research or did you stay in Tokyo most of the time?

Most of the time I was in Tokyo, but I also went back to Tottori because that’s where one of the stories that I was working on actually took place. The story is “The White Hare of Inaba,” so I visited the beach there. I also went to Izumo to visit some temples that are connected to the gods in the stories. 

Have you been working on making the prints for the book? 

A little bit. It kind of came to a halt when the coronavirus started, but now I bought some of the materials I needed so I can get started again. I bought some wood. Some of the materials I could borrow from the university now, so I borrowed a few good knives. 

Do you have a studio where you are now?

In the last two months (during the COVID-19 state of emergency) I lived with a friend who has a gallery and artist residency called “roku haus” in Choshi in Chiba Prefecture, so that was really helpful. 

But now you are back in Tokyo?

Yes, at the moment my room is only 8sqm but I’m carving the woodblock in here. I live in a sharehouse so I have to keep the mess in my room. 

You mentioned the other day that you were also printing on a kimono when you were in your friend’s studio. 

Yeah, that was a fun project because I couldn’t continue with woodblocks at that time, so I started working with kimonos. 

How did you manage doing that? Where did you get the kimono? How did you learn how to do it?

Gemma experimenting with kimono designs. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I’m not really specialized. There’s a really nice kimono shop and the owner used to work as an English teacher so we were able to talk a lot. He gave me some of his old kimonos. He said, “If you want to do an art project you can have them. Go ahead.” So I was really happy about this, but I was also a bit scared. I didn’t want to ruin these kimonos. He also kept coming by, asking how’s the project going, which was a huge motivation to finish the project. It was nice. I made one with stencils. And I wanted to spray graffiti on them. But then I found out that the kimono kept drinking the ink. Then I figured out that I need to put some sort of glue underneath it. And the second kimono I made is inspired by Japanese doors. I wanted to actually make it out of paper and fabric. I had a really hard time doing that as well, because I never worked with fabric before. So I tried a sewing machine but that wasn’t very successful. In the end I ended up melting plastic to connect the plastic on the paper. It’s all made rather improvised, just like finding all these techniques. 

That was really cool. You were able to experiment with so much. There are a lot of people who don’t realize that they can come to Japan to study contemporary art. Especially to study this way where you are able to experiment. Do you remember the time that you said to yourself that I’m actually gonna go study art in Japan?

I actually wanted to do an exchange already during my undergraduate studies, but because my school did not have a partnership with Japan, it was not possible. I actually tried to convince my school to set up a partnership, but that would take so long.

After graduating, I was looking into other options, how would this be possible. I applied for and received a one-year scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service / Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD).

There’s this idea that when you’re not in Japan, when you look at Japan, it feels like a lot of the arts and crafts in the country are inaccessible to foreigners. There is this idea that you need to know the language, or that you have to be an apprentice of like this sensei and you have to stay in the countryside and stay there for several years before you are able to understand what’s happening. And obviously that’s not really true. Of course, you could do that, too. But there are other ways of learning. How has your experience of learning mokuhanga been like?

For me, it’s interesting because the printmaking department has two teachers. One is from Japan and one is from Austria. I think it already makes it more accessible for foreigners because both teachers are able to speak English. I think quite a few foreigners chose this department because it is more open.

Like I said before, I think also with art–because it’s so practical–the language barrier isn’t much of a problem because everybody who is learning art is busy thinking of how to express themselves visually. So it’s actually very easy to communicate in that way that you just see what other people are making, and you can see, “Ah, this is really interesting.” So you just end up looking for a really long time, and they notice you looking and then there’s already some kind of friendship going on. And you can learn from what other people are doing more easily. 

That’s a really good answer. I never thought of it that way. I mean most of the time when you are in an art class you can’t even explain things in your native language anyway. You just show how to do it. Just to end, do you have any tips or anything you want to say to artists who are also interested to study art in Japan?

It’s very interesting to go abroad. Even how we perceive art can be so different. In Europe we have an idea of what art is. In Japan I like the concept of beauty and also handicraft is not so divided with art. In Europe we have handicraft and we have art. For me that was really interesting to see that this is not set in stone as well. Oh, I don’t know…I don’t have any clever tips… Just try it if you’re interested! (Laughs.)


Thank you, Gemma Wilson, for sharing your unique experience! Check out her works at https://gemmawilson-illu.com/.