Painter and poet Satsuki Shibuya started her career in music, but it was art that called to her. After a mysterious illness, Satsuki started to explore her authentic self, a journey that changed her life. We talked to the L.A.-based artist about embracing authenticity, spirituality and her love of yoga.
Tell us about your background. How did you come to be an artist?
After changing career, I started a design studio. I started to feel a lot of pressure and stress, I had lots of sleepless nights. I was constantly pushing myself to do more and to be more, and to hustle and to make money, and to grow my business. I was always on the go, trying to achieve a success that I felt I wanted. About two years into that I completely crashed with a mysterious illness. To this day, I don’t know what it was. It’s been about eight or nine years now and I have come a long way physically. At the time I was bedridden, I couldn’t do anything and completely had to let go of all the work. I was in a very dark place for a while, questioning what it was I wanted in life, what was I doing with myself? Was it all worth it?
My doctor suggested I see a psychologist because nothing was wrong with me physically. And so, I thought, let’s give it a shot. After a few sessions, he sat me down and said ‘look I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you mentally, but I think it’s spiritual. I think you need to go find out what that’s about and reconnect back to it. Maybe reading some books, something that calls out to you.’ I hated reading books back then, but I took his advice and started to look into a book – you know, any book that would call out to me – and that’s kind of where the journey started.
It was like I was waking up again and I remembered when I was little, sensing energies. It’s almost as if, through reading these books and learning the terminologies of this other world, energies and auras and things like that, I was able to finally put into words what I was experiencing since I was young. I hid it for a long, long, time. Even when I was younger, I remember I would meet someone for the first time and I would say whatever came to mind – as a child you don’t really have a filter. I would say to a complete stranger, ‘why is it that you’re this and this?’ And that person would look at me and say to my mum, ‘wow, why does your daughter know that or why is she saying that?’ I quickly learned that I see the world in a very different way. I sense it in a very different way. At that time – not that my mother meant any harm – but I was told that I was wrong. So, through this process of reading I started to slowly feel like I was waking up to the part of myself that I had trapped away for a very long time.
As I started to reconnect to this spiritual aspect of myself, a lot of things started to come into play. My health started getting stronger, mentally I started getting stronger. Things started to make sense in the world again and I didn’t feel like I had to be fake or hide behind a persona anymore. I could be myself, in whatever way that that may be.
I started to slowly feel like I was waking up to the part of myself that I had trapped away for a very long time.
About two years into this process of reconnecting back to my soul, my spirit, I was having tea with a friend. I remember very distinctly, I was going back to the kitchen to put away our teacups and I literally heard a voice saying, ‘you have to paint’. Before that moment I’d never had an experience where I heard a voice. I don’t have any painting background, I never studied painting, I never even considered painting. I tried different mediums and nothing was clicking, I thought you know what? This is a bunch of garbage, maybe I’m just losing my mind. But when I picked up watercolour it was just like, ahhh, instantaneous. The medium really spoke to me. I remember one morning I woke up and I thought, you know what – I’m just going to paint whatever I feel. What I’m sensing inside, what does that look like? The painting that I created at that moment, I will never forget – I thought, this is it. This is exactly what I want to paint. That’s kind of how everything started.
What does spirituality mean to you?
Spirituality is – in essence – who we are as beings. Spirituality is about connecting back to our spirit, the essence of who we are and why we are on this planet. I believe that a lot of people might shy away from of the idea of spirituality because of how it’s been warped out of context. Some people might think that spirituality is religion, or some form of yoga. Those are all human constructs and that’s not what it’s about. I think it’s very simple and pure in its condensed version - spirituality is in nature, it’s in the air we breathe, it’s in the sun. It’s in the music that we listen to when we’re moved, it’s in art and the colours that speak to our soul.
I believe that, as an artist and a creative, one way that I can connect people to the idea of spirituality, is through the paintings I create or poetry I write, even my new podcast ‘Tapestry of Messages’ is a way for people to experience the essence of spirituality without being bogged down by what they think it should be. I like to take it out of any kind of container that it’s in and to be able to present it in a way that I think speaks universally. Even if you don’t speak the same language you can sense spirituality, you can feel it. Through that experience people start to realise that spirituality is what I experience and what I am, as I am.
Spirituality is energy and we sense positive energies like love and negative ones like anger. All the different emotions are necessary because of the dualities that we have within this earth. There is no black without white, there’s no night without day, and so we wouldn't be able to understand one without the other. But even within that context I choose to focus on, and almost celebrate, the lighter energies that we have on this planet. I think that it's very necessary for us to continue to understand that while, yes, [there are negative things happening in the world], there are things that we have in our everyday lives - even moment to moment - that are very joyful and are simple joys. Being able to use the bathroom when we want to. Being able to eat the foods that we can choose to cook. We can even choose the vegetables that we want to eat. Some people don't have that luxury. Even being able to get out of bed or breathe, not everybody has that luxury.
Your art has evolved from visual to include poetry. How did that evolution come about?
The poetry came about unexpectedly. I was journaling and I would go into this trance and see words popping up in my head. I would write these down not worrying about sentence structures or context. Sometimes they would come through like old English words I’d never heard of, so I would Google them later. Before I knew it, I was receiving, out of the blue, a quote in my head and, little by little, it became more poetic and I was fusing my own experiences with these messages from the universe. That’s how the poetry started developing.
I feel like the poetry is more potent than painting, not everybody gets art because not everyone is interested, sometimes visual art can be a hurdle. We all have likes and dislikes but with words it is a part of our communication, it is a part of life. I felt that my poetry was connecting with people more directly than the art at times. I can express things more directly through poetry, where painting can be left for the other person to interpret which, in a way, is what I love about art.
Where do you get inspiration from?
I feel like I get inspiration from everyday little moments, a lot of times it's kind of the nuances that I sense. Like the seasons changing, the smell when the sun rises or the sun sets, someone's laughter, the vibrations I sense looking at flowers blooming, it’s the very minute details that really bring a sense of peace and calm. A lot of times, when we're rushing through life, it's easy to bypass these moments and not notice. Even during the tragic moments, where we might be going through difficulty or sorrow, even in those moments, I find that there's this underlying beauty of life. And even if it's difficult, everything is cyclical and it's not always going to be that way.
The whole idea of balance, the yin and yang and the black and white, even though there are difficult times, through the difficulty, if we live through it, we're able to come out on the other side stronger, wiser and more aware. With my poetry and art, I want to capture these nuances, these moments in life that are fleeting, and almost freeze them in that moment, so people can always revisit them.
Where do you start with a piece and how do you know it is finished?
I just let the paint brush guide me. It's never planned and the same when it’s finished, it’s very intuitive. I think that very much strongly ties in with my spiritual practice. The more I let go, the more I don't think about it and the more I just allow things to be and happen, the more the outcome is aligned.
Anytime I allow the flow to take over, I notice I’m able to create work I’m more connected to. If I feel out of balance or I’m stressed or pushing things to happen it never turns out well. You can really see it in the work, it looks very chaotic. I don’t shy away from that, but the work I feel drawn to is when it feels simple, natural and flowing.
If I feel out of balance or I’m stressed or pushing things to happen it never turns out well.
How does being born and raised in California and being second generation Japanese inspire you?
I never considered how my background influences my work but, funnily enough, I started to realise that it probably is in my subconscious. A lot of people tell me my work reminds them of Sumi-e, a Japanese style of ink wash paintings. I know when I go to Japan, the traditional artwork really speaks to me and it makes me feel at home in a visual way. There is also a huge part of me that feels American, being born and raised here.
Inside I know that those worlds are mixing, the East and West, but I try not to think about it when I compose my work, because then the more rigid and contrived it starts feeling. I do, however, want to be a bridge between the two cultures, and to let people know that it is possible to see eye to eye with one another, even if we’re different. That, in many ways, we are actually one and the same.
What do you do on days when you're not feeling motivated to create?
I don't create, I don't force myself. I used to try to paint once a day and I’ve realised that for me it doesn’t work to force it. I paint when I feel like painting, I write when I get messages. I take my work seriously but, at the same time, I’m not about to create for the sake of creating. I never want to burnout from being creative and I think the fastest way to do that is to force yourself to do things you don’t want to do.
How do you hope your work makes people feel or think?
I hope that my work is a catalyst for love, peace and harmony. And as cliché as that may sound, I feel that our world is desperately in need of that.
Now I am almost into my forties, I am comfortable saying that I’m on this planet to create. It’s a way of communication. My hope is always that the painting or the poetry or anything that I create will be able to facilitate a space so that the other person can take a moment to breathe and appreciate life. When we have a little bit of space to breathe it allows us to think and express ourselves in a way that we truly want. When we’re up to our necks or knee-deep in something it’s hard to be gracious and compassionate. When we realise that there is space, a moment to breathe, and within that breath we're able to expand, we can understand that there's more to life than just rushing about.
You recently welcomed a new life into the world, has that changed you as a person and changed the way you think about things and if so, how?
Yes, immensely. I call her my little Zen master because she humbles me every day, every second, and pushes me beyond the point of breaking. She's teaching me patience, something that I thought I had a good grasp on, she’s teaching me to enjoy being in the moment because babies live moment to moment. And I thought I had a good grasp on that. But no, she really is in the moment. And so, I've learned that every moment leads the next that connects to the next. It's one thing to see it, but it's completely different to live it. And that's changed my priorities, changed my focus of creativity.
Do you have any daily routines?
I used to have a pretty structured day before my daughter. I would wake up, meditate, do yoga, journal, have breakfast, and go to the studio to paint. After that, I would rest, make dinner and then wind down for the night. That used to be my schedule.
Now it's completely different. In the morning, if I can eat, use the restroom and wash up, if I can get those three done before my daughter wakes up, I am set. It is gold. I'm thinking, okay, today is going to be a wonderful day! If she's still sleeping, then I usually try to do something for myself. Then it’s very intuitive. Do I feel like reading? Do I feel like replying to emails or do I feel like researching something that's been on my mind? I try to use a little bit of that sliver of time to do something for myself, and I try to do this throughout the day.
What’s your go-to exercise?
I've always loved yoga, it’s the cornerstone of my well-being, it's really transformative. I wanted to be a true pupil of yoga, because it is so transformative. It is an experience that matches my body, mind and spirit, that’s how much I love yoga and how it makes me feel. I look forward to it so much.
How do you relax?
Meditation is a huge one for me. I try to meditate every day, five minutes at least. I love reading, it’s relaxing but it's also very activating because I love reading material that awakens the spirit.
When the weather gets colder, I love having a cup of tea and something sweet. That's also very relaxing for me and I definitely give myself space to enjoy that. Whether it's cookies with tea or a piece of chocolate, it’s something that I really look forward to.
You talked about reading unlocking your authentic self, what books made their mark on your consciousness?
I feel like when people ask me for a book recommendation, I always say pick a book that calls out to you.
The book that started it all for me was The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by the Dalai Lama. It was the book that called out to me for some reason, I don't know why, and that's how my journey into spiritual book reading began, he opened it up for me.
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle is a huge one for me.
There's a book that I just finished reading recently that I loved called Spiritual Growth Being Your Higher Self by Sanaya Roman.
The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy by John Brehm was kind of the gateway into poetry for me. I really loved it and it was really a fun read.
Letting Go: The Pathway to Surrender by David R. Hawkins. As an audio book it's pretty relaxing. There's something about this book, energetically, that shifts the mind and I'm not sure what it is. Every time I read it I feel like my mind is going to another dimension.
If you're interested in spirituality and how it works with the mind, try Frequency: The Power of Personal Vibration by Penney Peirce, she writes about spirituality, science and the integration of the two. It was a really interesting book.
What is your favourite quote, either your own or one written by someone else?
It's a quote that I wrote myself but it's definitely from the universe:
By doing what you love, you inspire and awaken the hearts of others.
When I got this call, when I downloaded it, it changed my life in so many ways, I think it connects to a very fundamental part of us. And for me, it's definitely been a way that I've connected with many people around the world and has changed my life in a very big way. It’s something I continue to come back to as well, when I start questioning the work that I do. Each and every one of us can connect back to who we truly are, to live authentically. By doing that and by being true to ourselves, it awakens other people and it makes them want to live that way. And so, I think it's really important for each and every one of us to honour this part of ourselves.
It's important that we all understand and realise that we are good enough just as we are with imperfections and everything and anything beyond that. There may be things that we want to work on but it's for ourselves, it's not because we have to.