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Gaku Tsutaja

Gaku Tsutaja was drawn to the Purchase College MFA program for the chance to reconnect with an artistic community.

As a returning adult student, Tsutaja cited concerns about being older than the other students and returning to academia after her initial studies in Japan. But they faded quickly owing to the supportive community that helped Tsutaja discover the power of a visual language.

“I really liked the program [because] I could develop in two years. In the beginning, I was surprised that [Faye Hirsch] invited students to her house for a welcome…I was nervous because I’m an older student and my English was really bad… but I had a visual language developed and it [was] straightforward as an artist to connect to the atmosphere in a small community.”

The Right Environment to Explore and Grow

She praises her teachers and mentors for pushing her to develop further as an artist and to apply her art history research to new projects. Texts assigned by historians Faye Hirsch and Jonah Westerman inspired her work and informed her how it connected to a larger social discourse. 

The guidance and perspective she received from Matthew Bollinger, Kate Gilmore, Rachel Owens, and Warren Lehrer were invaluable to her studio experience.

Bollinger gave her some invaluable advice on how to achieve her vision.

“He knows the artist’s process inside and out. I showed him a planned drawing for a large scale video installation idea for my thesis. As he knew that a large project would take up an entire semester, he advised me to work on several smaller projects for trial and error during the MFA,” she says. “I think it was the right choice—I could develop much more with his guidance.”

Her original idea would then become a reality.

“That unrealized large-scale project then became a commissioned piece after graduation,” she says.

“During the MFA I developed and tested many ideas, which led me to my post-graduation activities. Matt’s mentorship really helped me.”

She found the environment here open to exploration of the themes she wished to probe.

“I created a work based on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident during my first year of the MFA. From there, my focus became the impact of nuclear warfare, including weapons and energy, due to research in Japan and the United States.

“I could challenge this political topic smoothly in the Purchase MFA environment. Feedback from teachers and classmates encouraged me so much—The Purchase College community has a great passion for social justice.”

Professional Work

Tsutaja had her first solo show at the Ulterior Gallery in New York during her MFA program and has been busy since graduating in 2018.

Her second solo show was during the pandemic in 2020, at the same gallery, which received reviews in Artforum and the New York Times. 

She created a work commissioned by The Rubin Center for the Visual Arts at the University of Texas in El Paso in 2021. From there, it traveled to the Hawaii Triennial 2022.

In 2022, she had a solo exhibition with her piece on nuclear issues at the Maruki Gallery for The Hiroshima Panels in Japan

Inspired by Personal Reality

Tsutaja cited the impact that the nuclear plant accident in Fukushima, Japan, had on her family as a motivating factor in her work.

“Within five years after the accident, we stopped talking about it because we have a tendency not to think about tragedy. We are all busy to construct our daily life,” she says.

“My father as a civil engineer went into Fukushima and gave me a chance to look at it. Once you research the situation, there are many political controls with mass media that create the [social] atmosphere. I want to reveal those invisible traps that make our eyes blind.”

With Oppenheimer out in theaters this summer, Tsutaja had mixed feelings about the movie. 

“It has really made me think because it is entertainment in Hollywood and a lot of people [will] watch but it doesn’t include the critical points which have never come to the surface because of the politico-military agenda; the damage and the danger of radiation. It satisfies the audience without telling them about the reality for future generations. Many victims and hidden history [are] behind it, so I need to balance and raise the history which is not visible.”

What’s Ahead

Her dedication to highlighting the hidden histories of nuclear fallout will be showcased at future exhibitions internationally. In 2024, Tsutaja will have a solo presentation at Feria Material vol.10 in Mexico City, and the 2025 group show at the Rockhampton Museum of Art in Australia will follow, focusing on the 80th anniversary of the atomic bomb.


*Quotes edited for grammar and clarity.