'Live The Moment' - Masa Iida interview

Artist Masa Iida

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Masa Iida is an abstract painter and musician from Yokohama, Japan, living and working in London. When he was 15 he first felt and realised what inspiration was. He couldn’t explain what it was then but wanted, needed to recreate it for catharsis. At the age of 20 Masa moved to New York, where he deepened his understanding and learnt to appreciate the differences between Western and Japanese cultures, and used them to his advantage through his work. He moved to London in 1996 to pursue a music career as a singer/songwriter however in 2015 he started painting to add other dimensions of his creativity. His background in music encouraged him to see a truly more of spiritual side of painting as a consequence.

Masa’s main source of inspiration is Zen brushstroke drawing, “ensō” . In its purest form Ensō is a circle created by a single brushstroke. Masa’s work is a visual interpretation of impermanence; a collection of ever-changing moments he is experiencing. He is strongly influenced by the Buddhist saying, “Fine snow falling flake by flake. Each flake falls in its own proper place. Everything could and should rest in its own proper place”. For him “a fine snow flake” is a fine brushstroke; “A proper place” is the right place on the paper where a brushstroke was destined to be, and hence he doesn’t follow an erasing and adding formula. Once he creates a brush stroke trace he starts from there. There is no going back because Masa values each brush stroke trace as a reproduction of each moment; although he focuses on creating shapes and combinations of colours, non painted empty blank space is equally important.


“A trace of brushstroke is created by an act of adding. On the contrary, non-painted empty blank space is done by a concept of subtracting. Focusing on these two elements is the crucial method of my work” – Masa Iida

Masa believes that when his paintings go beyond dualism (adding and subtracting): when the balance between painted area and non-painted blank space has totally equal existence, they create a meditative state which viewers would be trapped in, seeing nothing on paper…

…nothing exits on paper.

It’s like you can not hear anything when you hear two opposite sounds at the same time.

It’s like you can not think or feel at the same time…..

It’s like you can not live or die at the same time……

And you are beyond dualism

And you are in an ultimate state.

Masa recently completed his first solo exhibition in Japan at Gallery Toukou which represents him in Tokyo this past January. Recent exhibitions include The Coffee Jar, Halfadozen Gallery, and Hampstead Summer Festival Art Fair in London, He is currently working on new paintings which he is planning to display early next year at Gallery Toukou.

“When I’m in a moment, I’m free from any thoughts but one with that moment. There is no past or future in a moment” – Masa Iida


What has been your life and artistic journey up to now?

It has been great but also tough. But creating art is who I am. Without it…who am I?

For me creating means focusing on inspiration which is intense and has strong energy. Inspiration comes in a flash and then I try to recreate that energy using some medium. Painting and music are my mediums to recreate inspiration. My life revolves around inspiration. It’s fantastic.

You are very knowledgeable and obviously influenced from Japanese and other Eastern cultures. How has Western culture influenced you?

For me, Western culture is built on the beauty of structure and adding while Japanese culture is built on beauty of flow and subtracting. Beauty of adding means you add something to make something. Each part is interrelated so the whole thing needs precise structure. While beauty of subtraction means there is something then you subtract something to make something. This process creates fear and is somehow eerie because something becomes smaller and smaller; it involves the fear of vanishing. But through this natural flow it—the art or inspiration—also becomes polished.

Flow is a good thing but at the same time it is difficult to grab precisely what it is, because of the movement and the ambiguity that this movement creates. Inspiration, art and life do not stay in one place. It’s hard to know what it is. Because of my understanding of Japanese culture, this was something scary for me and I had a problem with it. It was beyond my comprehension.

When I moved to New York City in my early 20’s I remember I was so relieved from day-one living there. It was a strange experience because although it was my first trip to a Western country I suddenly felt like my innate understanding about the difference between Japanese and Western thinking, and my feelings towards myself, were justified. I think the reason behind this experience was that I immediately recognised Western culture which was built on the beauty of adding which is totally opposite to Japanese culture which is built on the beauty of subtraction. My New York experience saved me from the mental struggle I experienced in Japan.

During my stay in NYC I grew especially appreciative towards Western culture when I had trouble controlling my emotions because I didn’t feel sense of vanishing or fear. Everything was concrete so I can grab something and use it to solve problems. This is my Western influence—something concrete you can see and grab. Not vanishing or eerie. These days I’m not scared about Japanese culture anymore as I have experienced and researched a lot more about it. I have my own thoughts and really appreciate my own culture now. And it inspires me a lot. I love the sensitivity and aesthetics of Japanese culture. They are in my blood. So what I aim to do in my art is channel both cultural influences.

Conveying the experience of creating into words and explaining it and teaching to other people must be hard. How do you manage to do this? How much is theory vs practice in acquiring this knowledge? can anyone learn to create?

Can anyone learn to create? Yes, and you don’t need to learn!. For me just grab a brush, dip it into paint and then draw the line. That’s it. You create something. If you try to intellectualise in that moment you start having a problem. Creating should be more intuitional and trusting what you have deep inside you..something within. Intellectualisation should come after. Don’t get me wrong intellectualisation is good. It helps a lot to find out the influence of what you are creating.

I’m reading books about Japanese aesthetics and culture and re-organising my thoughts behind my creation. I’m so inspired and reassured when something ambiguous in my mind becomes clear and I can start knowing why I create this, my tendency in creating, or my attraction to certain things, thoughts and ideas. Explaining in words is hard but it’s great training to see my creation or creating process with objectivity. Great thing is that words are telling me to see my creation and creating process from a certain angle so I can understand something new.

You can apply this knowledge to actual practice. Practice shows everything beyond the knowledge and something you can’t express in words. It’s hard to teach people but by teaching I can be objective towards what I do. As a result my mind become clearer.

Explains to us how important is experiencing the moment for you to create. Have you tried other more conventional ways of painting? what happens if you are not in the moment?

I took painting classes when I was little and studied a basic graphic design for two years at a preparatory school when I was a teenager. So I did conventional painting.

For me being in a moment has two types or ways to be in the moment: One way is a Zen-like selfless state. You focus on the sound around you or your body but not on your thoughts or emotions. Another way is that you focus on your thoughts and emotions. They are contradictory but for me both are being in a moment because you are experiencing something at this moment which never comes back. You experience different things every moment so whatever happens you can only experience it once in life. Why don’t I accept it and appreciate it?

Actually there isn’t a moment you are not in a moment. You are always within it and life is built on consecutive moments. And I believe each moment has eternity within itself.

What is the relationship between your art and your music?

Creating music and art is basically the same thing. They come from the same source in me (maybe a source above?), the difference is just in format or medium.

Recently I found an interesting contrast. Not matter how abstract I am with a painting it is far more concrete than a catchy pop song. You can’t touch or grab music…it’s in the air or like air. Music needs time to be listened to. So music is totally abstract medium. On the contrary even the most abstract painting is concrete. Painting is an expression of something but is created with paint and paper…a tangible medium. Also, you don’t need much time to look at a painting. You can see it in a flash of a moment and feel something.

Another thing is that since I started painting I can see or feel colour in sound. Let’s say when I play my guitar I can see or feel colours in the sound I’m creating. Awareness of colour in sound makes me more focussed on sound itself because it’s a superb guide for what type of sound I should create. I can see the characteristic of, and direction where, the sound should go. As a result I become more attached to the sound and dig deep into creating great sound with great focus. And I’m really sure there is music influence in my art because my art has flow and they are gestural.

Alternative ambient Zen pop duo O-ARC is the creative collaboration between Masa Iida and London-born guitarist & co-writer Neil Mason. Masa and Neil met in Camden, London in 1999 while playing on different projects. It was in late 2002 that Masa invited Neil to contribute to the recording sessions for Masa’s first EP and they have been performing and composing together ever since. The duo feel that their music suits being played in unconventional spaces, and consequently gigs have included ICA London, Tate Britain, Whitechapel Gallery, Comme des Garçons Boutique in Dover Street Market, and Art Car Boot Sale at Brick Lane.

How important are the materials you use in the ultimate creation?

Very. For me material means medium of collaboration. Let’s say when I use water colour my creation is the result of collaboration with water colour and my creativity.

I would rather use hand made materials and here is why. The Gallery Toukou (which fortunately for me represents my paintings in Japan) sent me Naowashi which is hand made paper from Saga prefecture in Japan. One of the owners of the gallery told me that using this paper means my creativity is collaborating with this paper and a result is a work of collaboration.

I was gobsmacked when she said this as I thought paper is just a medium to creating my art. But she was totally right. Because Naowashi is handmade. Each paper has different fabric structures. But the crucial element is that it has energy from the person who made it and you can feel it if you appreciate the quality of paper.

So before I paint I usually just look at it, touch it, feel it, then appreciate how fortunate I am to use this paper. The paper in front of me is the only one. No reproduction. It is like a moment in life which never comes back.

What would be your dream collaboration?

As I said, the materials I use is itself a collaboration. But in regards to collaboration in more of a conventional term I would say my dream collaboration is…………ah…….ah…..I don’t know really at the moment…sorry.

What are the internal and external factors required for you to be able to create

One of external factors is good physicality. My brush stroke is created by hand and arm movements. If my body becomes tense my painting loses flow. Although having said this it is not a bad thing because I’m still in that moment. I accept any moment I’m in because there is no good or bad moment. How you see the moment judges the moment. Looking at trees and flowers for colour combination is another one. I also love being in a traditional Japanese rooms as well as looking at ikebana (Japanese traditional flower arrangement) as their spatial understating is sublime.

One of internal factors is inspiration…the totally intense abstract energy which I love. Another one is emptiness. What I mean by emptiness is not conventional western term relating to unhappiness, loneliness, desolation or no energy etc…, for me emptiness is purity. There is nothing inside so inside is purely pure and full of possibilities.

How do you see your artistic path evolving?

The more I do the more insightful towards who I am and what I create I become. I can clearly see or feel what I couldn’t see or feel before. So the artistic path is a self-discovery process. Something unknown becomes known and then realized. But there is still something more unknown so I try to make this new unknown territory known….I love my evolving path. It’s full of joy and contentment.

To find out more about Masa Iida’s work, visit masaiidaart.com

Follow Masa on Instagram!


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