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Shota Kawahara’s “Inspiration” Finds an Audience

Re-Invent Gallery’s current show Inspiration unites clean presentation and progressive work with the intimate and quiet atmosphere of small town America.  Japanese artist Shota Kawahara’s solo exhibition of bright, visually graphic paintings and installation work call to mind the various pieces of artists like Yayoi Kusama and Basquiat, complete with clean lines, bold colors alongside wild, gestural strokes.  Yet despite the innovation and scope of the art on display, perhaps the most surprising part of the show was the location; instead of a sleek, sterile gallery in Chicago’s River East gallery district, Kawahara’s show drew an enthusiastic crowd in the town of Lake Forest, a suburb about 45 minutes north of Chicago.  The north shore town has previously been home to galleries and art fairs featuring stunningly crafted landscapes and floral paintings, but has never had a history of embracing progressive, contemporary art.  A fact one would never  have assumed based on the excited gathering at Kawahara’s opening.


Artist Shota Kawahara and one of his paintings, Photo Courtesy of Brian Willard

Re-Invent Gallery was started by two Lake Forest natives, Kristin Mikrut and Cecilia Lanyon, who wanted to create a gallery in their hometown that presented contemporary art and talent not usually seen in smaller communities.  With backgrounds in both art and business, the two decided to create an innovative space that merged a contemporary art gallery, a retail store, as well as rental studio space all in one location.  As the business and building began to settle, Mikrut and Lanyon began scheduling artists to exhibit and Kawahara was on the top of Mikrut’s list.  Mikrut first met Kawahara in a residency program in New Zealand and the two became close friends.  It was serendipity that Kawahara was to be in the Midwest just as Mikrut and Lanyon were to open Re-Invent and were renting out studio space for artists in residence.  Kawahara quickly settled in Lake Forest and set to work on a collection of large, ambitious paintings that pressed his technical precision and artistic boundaries.

Shota Kawahara, Photo Courtesy of Brian Willard


Kawahara begins all of his paintings with paper and pencil, creating sketches of both organic and geometric forms.  Once satisfied and thoroughly inspired, Kawahara scans his drawings into a computer and begins using an illustration program to clean up his lines and begin overlapping the designs to create elaborate compositions.  The result is an arresting barrage of tessellations and patterns in bold reds, cadmium yellows, and rich blacks that command attention and hypnotize immediately.  Despite the work’s intense components, the pieces ultimately warm and calm the viewer, rather than scare them away- inviting rather than assaultive.  “I just want these paintings to make people happy,” Kawahara answered, smiling, when I asked him about his inspiration.  I noticed at the opening that most of the attendees were clustered around each of the paintings rather than chatting in the center of the gallery space as is common at openings in Chicago.  It would seem the acrylic paintings were small campfires providing warmth to the viewers who were huddled around them.


“Inspiration” crowd, Photo Courtesy of Brian Willard


For a town with a history of relegating art to a decorative artifact, the Lake Forest community appeared to thoroughly embrace Shota Kawahara and his work.  In the brief moments I was able to speak to Kawahara, he commented on the installation in the center of the gallery floor, a collection of tree stumps covered in white script and dressed with rose petals, leaves, and pieces of colored glass.  While he had never attempted installation work before, his friend Kristin Mikrut had encouraged him to translate some of his poetry into art pieces, which ultimately resulted in the organic and whimsical piece You Are Free.



“You Are Free” by Shota Kawahara, Photo Courtesy of Brian Willard

As impressed as I was by Kawahara’s achievement, I still questioned how the typically conservative community of Lake Forest would regard this work.  Before I left for the evening, selecting one of Kawahara’s postcards and saying goodbye to him, I overheard co-owner of the gallery, Cecilia Lanyon, whisper to Kawahara, “The tree stump piece just sold!”  It’s refreshing to see that a thirst for contemporary art does not begin and end at the borders of large cities.  Shota Kawahara’s art and the intimate setting of Re-Invent Gallery prove that taste and culture know no bounds

Inspiration will be on display until September 29th.  Contact the gallery directly at


Look for an in-depth discussion with gallery owners Kristin Mikrut and Cecilia Lanyon on SIFC soon!


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