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Palmerston North artist Naga Tsutsumi. Photo/Nicola Edmonds.

How a Palmerston North artist turns fast-food into art

Food becomes the landscape in Palmerston North charcoal artist Naga Tsutsumi’s latest exhibition.

There should be a warning taped to the door of Naga Tsutsumi’s studio: “Don’t enter if you’re hungry.” The Palmerston North artist is currently working on a fast-food series for his next exhibition, Vanished Travellers (Zimmerman Art Gallery, 1-31 October), and elaborate drawings of burgers, pizza and bowls of pasta line the walls.

As with so much of Tsutsumi’s work, the devil is in the detail. Look closer and you’ll see people strewn across the pizza, sitting atop the burger and wading through thick noodle soup. It’s about using food as a landscape, he explains. “I loved fast food as a student, but my wife Emu won’t let me eat it! So I decided to create these 2D images where food is so much more than what it seems, where a burger becomes an island, pasta a volcanic mountain and soup a hot spring.”

Although art was his first love, Tokyo-born Tsutsumi – the great-great-grandson of a samurai warrior – was headed for a career as a salaryman, like his father. “No Japanese parents want their child to be an artist,” he says. But two years into an economics degree he bailed, and headed to the United States to do a Master of Fine Arts.

Tsutsumi creates his artworks using charcoal sticks made from tōtara twigs that are first soaked in water and then burnt in his backyard kiln. Photo/Nicola Edmonds.

Back in Tokyo, Tsutsumi was working 14-hour days in marketing when he spied a job advertisement for Palmerston North’s International Pacific College (now called the IPU New Zealand Tertiary Institute). “Even though I knew nothing about New Zealand, I wanted to do something different with my life.”    

He spent 13 years working in graphic design and teaching art at the college, but in 2015 left to become an artist (you can see his work online at nagatsutsumi.com) Now the 51-year-old spends his days painting, and being with his daughter, Koharu, who’s eight. Part-time graphic design for an Auckland-based Japanese magazine helps pay the bills.

Tsutsumi is inspired not only by the Renaissance masters but also by Japanese manga cartoons (“the expressions and action are beyond reality”) and so far has held more than 30 exhibitions in the US, New Zealand and Japan. Although he paints in oils and acrylics, charcoal is his preferred medium. “Charcoal was used in cave drawings, and I enjoy working with such a primitive tool. I also like that it’s natural and comes from the earth, which is also why I use paper, not canvas.”

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Left, a pizza from his fast food series, which also features, burgers and noodle soup. Right, another work from his studio. Photo/Nicola Edmonds.

Driven to find a cheaper, local alternative to the expensive charcoal he’d been using, Tsutsumi spent two years experimenting. “I tried willow, oak and rimu, which were too hard. But tōtara provides the perfect texture and colour.”

His tree-doctor neighbour provided some off-cuts and Tsutsumi taught himself how to soak the tōtara twigs and then burn them in a kiln he built in his backyard. “I’ve now got to the prototype stage where I’m happy with the kind of shading and sculpting result the charcoal provides.”

Having spent so long around tōtara, Tsutsumi has fallen in love with the native tree. “After I finish the fast food series, the plan is to do a huge drawing of a tōtara forest using charcoal made from tōtara. That’s my dream.”

This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more arts stories.