A clock ticks on the white wall of the small art studio classroom in the Chazen Museum of Art. The click of a closing door interrupts the hushed voices of visitors and docents. Heads turn. But not the head of the world-famous artist Manabu Ikeda.
The museum’s artist in residence is cordoned off by white-topped tables and neon green chairs. He concentrates, during this final hour the public is invited to observe, on the last of four panels that will complete more than three years of work — his masterpiece. Each millimeter of the 10-by-13-foot piece — the largest he’s ever attempted — is densely drawn with meticulous detail, using acrylic ink and pigment. Each inch exposes a rich new miniature realm.
The heat is on today. The piece is due to be unveiled in less than a week. Since 2013, Ikeda has been working overtime — nearly every minute the Chazen is open — with much of his social interaction coming from the time observers and docents were present.
Slight and wearing wire-rimmed glasses, a gray hoodie and a patterned beanie, Ikeda is immersed in a tiny section of the long panel on the table before him. His hand holds a fine-point pen. Beneath it, through quick, surgical strokes, a shade of periwinkle deepens. Pausing momentarily, he uses his hand to measure something on the hardened paper that only he can see. Close by, the white silhouettes of tree branches hold indigo flowers aloft.
Begun in July 2013, the work was scheduled for completion in August. A skiing accident dislocated Ikeda’s right shoulder in January 2016. It forced him to learn to draw with his left hand in order to finish the work. Since then, the theme of recovery took on another meaning for Ikeda.
Ikeda’s art encapsulates the coexistence of man and nature. This yet-untitled work is inspired by his native Japan’s rebuilding after the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima Daichii nuclear disaster.
The completed panels depict a looming, mountainous tree rooted in the ocean, growing from what appears to be the detritus of civilization. Heaps of mangled, multicolored metal and chunks of world landmarks are washed up around its roots. The tree’s gnarled and weathered limbs are strewn with man-made wreckage like airplanes and train cars. Nearing the top, ruin gives way to blossoming pastel orchids and fuschias. Throughout, the eye is attracted to intricately crafted details like moss, caves and the white outlines of traveling camels and birds in flight. Homages to Madison also appear among the miniatures. A Bucky Badger flag and a warped green interstate exit sign reading “Chazen” are intermingled in the flotsam at the base of the tree.
Ikeda also incorporated his own accident and subsequent recovery in the work. In the upper left corner are images of his skeleton and the network of nerves that send messages from the brain through the arm.
He says, through a translator, that he’s developed a more profound feeling of recovery since his work in Madison began. In the last three years, he was seriously injured and his best friend died. But, also, two of his three daughters were born.
“I have now felt the hurt and the damage, but have experienced resilience and the power to come back,” he says. “After destruction, there is new life. There is pain, but new life prevails.”
As the clock strikes 3:30, docents usher out stragglers. Ikeda stands and stretches. Much work remains to be done in private before his self-imposed deadline of Nov. 17 — his youngest daughter's first birthday.
Time spent on work: 54 hours a week for 175 weeks
Ink bottles used: 20
Pen nibs: 400
Number of special paper canvases made in Japan: four
Work will be on display: 23 days between its Nov. 18 unveiling and Dec. 11
Editor's note: This article was corrected to note that Nov. 17 is the birthday of Ikeda's youngest daughter, not his middle.