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Uncovering Kyoto through calligraphy with Katie Graham

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Katie Graham during her VAWAA with master calligrapher Chikako Shirai in Kyoto, Japan

Over the past 25 years, watercolor artist Katie Graham, has taken her passion for art with her on the move to places like South Africa, the US, and the UK. As a mother of three and current Hong Kong resident, she takes every opportunity to learn about new cultures through her work and family’s experience in a foreign land. And while her craft has taken her to explore the world in watercolor, Graham’s beginnings laid roots in other mediums. 

Chikako Shirai's mother and master calligrapher with her student

“For many years I did portraiture photography and I began to get frustrated with the technology required to create a digital picture. In my search for a new creative outlet I discovered the world of watercolour. The ability to pick up a paintbrush and create a picture with my own hands, was magical,” she says. 

In her day-to-day, you can find Katie in her studio at home, the artists’ go-to escape to create while being close to her family when they need her. She draws inspiration from “my daughters and children in general, their energy and inquisitiveness is infectious. They remind us about everything that is most important in this world. I am inspired by nature, because there is no better designer. And we are all surrounded by it - even in an urban juggle like Hong Kong!” The hustle of the city and trials of motherhood have meant that the artist’s travels rarely on her own. And then came VAWAA

“With watercolour one needs to have intention and purpose and really commit to every brushstroke. I felt that there must be similarities with calligraphy and I wanted to learn more about this from the perspective of a calligraphy artist.”

What was a causal scroll through Instagram, turned into a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Kyoto to study calligraphy with the legendary Chikako Shirai. You may be wondering why calligraphy? We had the same question... “I am a watercolour artist. And with watercolour one needs to have intention and purpose and really commit to every brushstroke. I felt that there must be similarities with calligraphy and I wanted to learn more about this from the perspective of a calligraphy artist.”

Katie Graham with Chikako Shirai

As Katie’s first time in Kyoto, she got to delve into local culture past calligraphy. The artist, among many other things, gained insight into how “The elderly are really revered and honored in Japan, and it’s very obvious in public places. I also experienced this first hand as I spent much time with Chikako and her mother.” 

Chikako's beautiful mum who is 84, taught for many hours with passion. The collaborative learning amongst women of all ages was really special.

Once again, art acted as a catalyst for deeper connection. Katie’s most cherished VAWAA memory expresses just that, “My favourite day was when I joined a lesson and practised with Chikako students, some of whom had been practising with her for 20 years. Chikako's beautiful mum who is 84, taught for many hours with passion. The collaborative learning amongst women of all ages was really special.”

Katie Graham and Chikako Shirai's mother 

While gaining new perspectives, one also tends to find certain cultural similarities. The earthy tones and themes in Graham’s work also take precedence in Kyoto’s undeniable connection with nature. “My art is very much a journey of my own identity. I have South African heritage and have explored this in my work. I love to work with watercolour paints because they are so organic and natural and sourced directly from the earth, from around the world. This has a special kind of meaning to me when I am painting.”

Kyoto by Katie Graham

Kyoto by Katie Graham

When all's said and done, the ability to learn and connect with local artisans leaves you with more than just pictures and memories of a place you’ve been to. Katie says it best, “Whilst there I was able to emerge myself in the calligraphy and find a new perspective which gave me a new energy in my art. I was excited to get back into my work and play and experiment more.”

Written by Natalie Stoclet
Learn more about a VAWAA in 
Chikako's studio.