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A Conversation with SF Artist Levi Pata

The San Francisco art scene is one critical and beautiful. It assisted in building the unique backbone of this city, making it what it is today. While the art scene has changed and grown, it’s still no surprise why artists continuously flock to San Francisco from different parts of the world in their creative and artistic endeavors. Hailing from Paradise, California, and having deep roots in Japan, Levi Pata is a San Franciscan artist who not only recently released a book entitled from a small room, but is also building a reputation for himself similar to the reputation past artists have built for this city.

In celebration of Levi’s U.S. book release this coming Saturday, January 16th in Japantown at Kinokuniya, we sat down and talked with him about the struggles and benefits of being an artist local to San Francisco, the Japanese art movement, and his multifaceted art book, from a small room.

SFP: What initially pushed you to start making art?

Levi: Some of my earliest memories are of me making drawings, from when I was 2 years old even, so I’m not entirely sure why. The first time I felt anything about art was when I saw a Van Gogh painting for the first time up on a projector slide at school. I felt a truth happen immediately when shown his self portrait. I kept that feeling inside for a long time, about this type of connection I felt with artists, until I later realized the reason I felt this strongly was the same reason why I would begin doing it myself.

Has it always been a passion for you, or were your talents found later in life?

As I said, I’ve been making pictures from the start, but I began thinking about them more deeply after finishing high school. That was when I began to take art classes and started to be able to develop my copying skills – drawing models everyday and so forth. Then later I began to see that what I wanted to make didn’t rely much on those skills at all.

Where do you draw most of your inspiration from?

In regards to physical inspiration, I would say from the moon, and cats, and the older things that make up my body. I get inspiration from observing things that are older than humans. I have California Indian blood in me, and I often go up north from here to where our Tribe is from. I get so much good inspiration from that place and everything in it.

As for spiritual, I am most inspired by dreams, and the feeling of being in-between describable areas of my mind. For example, I had a dream where I saw someone painting a large image on a wall, followed by a small sculpture, in methods I had never seen before. I recreated this dream during a live painting in a Tokyo gallery in 2014.

Recently I’ve been thinking more about that when I make a picture– to filter what inspiration to use.

Is there an over-arching meaning or message you have sought to deliver through your art?

It’s changing as I change. Each solo exhibition that I’ve done has had a different statement attached to it. If I think about my work overall, I would say there has been a quietness running through what I tend to make. A sort of eye of the storm feeling. That’s probably also why the moon often comes out in those statements, because it reflects that feeling as well.

Tell us of the struggles and benefits of being an artist local to SF.

One major benefit is I can walk to the ocean in 5 minutes from my house! I can go out to see the sunset, the moonset over the ocean- sometimes even dolphins and whales. I can paint for hours and then walk out to the beach to recharge.

I moved here alone from a small town when I was 18, so SF has opened my eyes up in many ways. I remember being amazed when I moved here to walk down the street and hear different languages, and felt so relieved to be living here. But I guess this also now connects to a part of the struggle of being here – seeing it homogenize year by year. That being said – it bothers me when people here protest “evict Twitter” and the like, because that’s full of a dark sort of irony as a Native person… many protesters here, whether casual or committed, don’t have a picture of these rights they are claiming or what this place is beyond its concrete.

This city is upon the land that the Ohlone people cultivated for many millennia before the missionaries, miners, hippies, and techies. It is a struggle to be amongst local conversations everyday and see that very few can even consider this, before they talk with certainty about what is being taken from them.

You do a lot of work in Japan. How did this start and what has the Japanese art market done for you?

I moved to Japan after finishing City College at the end of ‘08. I went to a publishing company/gallery calledFOIL, which was based in Tokyo at the time, and introduced myself, which is funny to think about now, because I couldn’t speak Japanese. Basically, I walked in alone and said, “My name is Levi. I like your company. I want to have show. How do I have show?” Afterward, with the great help of my wife, who is Japanese, I communicated back and forth, and was able to show my work to the owner and staff. They gave me my first solo show 2 years later.

The editor at FOIL later started her own art book publishing company called HeHe, who created my book last year. The Japanese art market has been very accepting of my work.

Does Japan have something to offer that SF can’t?

It’s a different feel for sure, when I compare the reception of my shows in Tokyo to the one I had in SF. It was more of a hangout, party feel here. In Tokyo, of course that feeling sometimes exists, but there have been more people who come ready to receive the exhibition. I was impressed by people’s openness in Tokyo. There were a lot of first-time art buyers, and a lot of good conversations with people about the works themselves.

Tell us about your book, from a small room. What were you trying to do with this book? What was the process like?

from a small room contains my paintings, drawings, poems, and photographs which are grouped into two halves- moonrise and sunrise. All of the writing in the book is bilingual, in both English and Japanese. Its overall theme reflects cycles, dualities in nature, and specifically the feeling of night and day.

The pictures themselves are very diverse – from small pencil sketches on note paper, all the way up to large oil paintings, all alongside my poems and photos. The title from a small room is a metaphoricaldescribes of the physical place in which the work was created, and where I began making pictures as a child. It also refers to my own mind and inner space I have preserved.

We wanted the book, from cover to cover, to contain the feeling of my work, all the way from the paper selection and font, to the organic layout and grouping of pieces into the feeling of night and day. The cover unfolds into a dual-sided poster; the first half is printed on black paper which gradually lightens to gray as the pages continue from moonrise to sunrise, leading into the soft white paper of the sun half.

When I held the physical copy for the first time, I knew it was made in the right way. We were trying to represent my work as a whole up to this point in time, and it turned out successful without a doubt.

As you mentioned, your book not only features your paintings and visual art, but also poetry. Does your poetry convey something different than your art, or are they harmonious?

Good question. Harmonious. They compliment as the poems and pictures are most often created spontaneously, so even random subjects can have a similar feel to them. Writing was never a goal of mine. My writing began to come out when I first moved to Tokyo- probably as a necessary release from the daily frustration of only being able to express a fraction of what I wanted to say in my limited Japanese at the time. The first poem I wrote was about a towel. I was drying my hands in the bathroom and realized I had seen the same towel in my dream the night before. These kinds of feelings are in my pictures as well.

Your U.S. book release is this Saturday, January 16th. Tell us about the event and any other future goals for you and from a small room.

The event will begin with a short talk on how my life and art have connected so far, my time living in Japan, and how that ties in with the book itself, and where that is leading me next. Connecting to the topics at the end of the talk, I will then do a live painting in-store on a large canvas, followed by a book signing for customers. The store will be arranged with some seating and standing space, so I hope people can come get comfortable and enjoy the show! Although I’ve done several in Tokyo, I’m looking forward to this first live painting in front of an American audience.

What is the next step for Levi Pata?

More like a giant leap… across an ocean. I’m moving soon to Kyoto, where I’ll continue to live and work and hopefully be able to come share something new with you all again someday.

The U.S. book release is going on at 2pm on Saturday, January 16th where Levi will be doing a QA about his a book, a live painting, and a book signing!

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