Chiharu Roach

Brush with Figures

by Brett Levine     

Photo by Jerry Siegel


For Chiharu Takahashi Roach, the path to becoming a professional artist was anything but expected. “I received a degree in early childhood psychology in Japan,” she explains, “so I didn’t really imagine I would make a career as a painter.” The opportunity to travel to America and to assist a mural painter revealed a passion Roach did not even know she had. She returned to Japan, but traveled back to the United States a few years later, enrolling at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“I studied three dimensional design,” she says, standing in a studio filled with birch panels in various states of completion. “Now,” she says, “I work in acrylic paint and gesso. Most people think it is pen and ink, but actually, I take a brush and cut the bristles from it, testing it all the time, until it will make a line that is as fine as I need. I actually can’t buy brushes that are premade to the size I would like. And the problem is that if a brush is too fine, it won’t hold acrylic paint.” Roach actually works on the floor, squatting over a custom-designed board she can rest upon as she pulls incredibly long strokes across her surfaces. Then, rather than move the work, she moves herself. “It is really easy to simply pick up the rest and rotate it. It’s far easier than having to turn the work,” she says with a laugh.

Roach’s paintings explore a range of subjects, with an emphasis on women, communication, and the psyche. “As someone who comes from a different culture, I spend a lot of time being misunderstood,” she says. “While there is always a gap in spoken communication, I find that I can always communicate with art. When I first came to America, I was really frustrated by the fact that it was so hard to convey what I was trying to say, but now, through my works, I can enjoy the misunderstandings.”

Collectors, curators, and viewers must enjoy the misunderstandings too, because Roach’s works are being incredibly well received. Her honors include a third place award at Magic City Art Connection in 2012, a second place award there in 2013, and a first place award at Alabama Power Company’s From Black and White to a World of Color exhibit.

Her most recent paintings are all drawn from photographs of women she knows. “I was taking a photography class at university and I needed a model,” she explains, “so I photographed my neighbor’s daughter. Some time later, my neighbor died, and I started to think of how I could remember her. I had the photographs of her daughter, and she became one of the first subjects for a painting. The objects that are woven through her hair are what I imagine she is seeing in her psyche.” The psyches Roach imagines are wild and varied, including everything from owls, ravens, and foxes to pigs, tigers, and elephants.

Roach focuses on women in part because she feels a particular empathy for her subjects. “I sometimes think that even my way of painting is very female—It is very soft and very delicate, it takes a long time, and I think it is very quiet. I normally paint women simply because I feel like I understand them.”

Recently, Roach brought this sensitivity to the foreground with paintings in both From Black and White to a World of Color at the Alabama Power Company Archives Museum and 50 Years of Hopes and Dreams: A Gathering of Art to Bring Birmingham Reconciliation. “I felt both honored and motivated to be able to participate in projects that challenge and address discrimination,” Roach says. “As someone who has experienced discrimination, I recognize that Birmingham is changing. Younger generations have different views of culture and identity, whether it is African-American or Asian, and that is evident in all the creativity and innovation we see in Birmingham.”

If she could offer a single observation about her work it would be, in her own words, “I am an artist, but I feel like I am constantly developing.” Viewers can see her work for themselves at Flame Works 2013 on Dec. 6–8, or on Facebook at Chi Takahashi Roach Art.

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