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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Drawing on Memories

Feb. 8, 2017

Manabu Ikeda is a master of pen and ink drawing and his latest major work, 3 years in the making, was inspired by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Ikeda made his name in Japan while he was in his twenties but he moved to North America 6 years ago. His studio is in the basement of a museum in the US state of Wisconsin, where he uses layers of lines to create delicate worlds on a large scale.

"Most of the time, my ideas come from the detail," he says. "I don’t allow myself to be limited by my own rules. I always want to be exploring new territory.”

Ikeda’s work has made him famous around the world. The Chazen Museum of Art in the capital Madison sought Ikeda out to offer him a residency.

"He's perfect, I mean, the way he can draw, his hand, eye coordination is incredible," says Russell Panczhenko, director of the Chazen Museum of Art. "I always prefer artists like that, so he was perfect for us."

At the time of the 2011 disaster, Ikeda was living and studying in Canada, where he was taking part in a government-funded art program. One day, he received some unexpected news about one of his earlier works.

Ikeda's best known piece to date was "Foretoken." It was created 3 years before the disaster, and depicts a civilization growing out of a melting glacier. But after the earthquake, Japanese museums decided to stop exhibiting the work because it was reminiscent of the 2011 tsunami.

That changed the way Ikeda approached creating art.

“After the disaster, I realized my paintings could possibly upset people. There wouldn't be anything enjoyable about the work if what I painted actually came true. I didn’t feel like drawing anything for a while,” Ikeda says.

The following year, Ikeda visited the tsunami-hit area to see the devastation first hand. He zeroed in on one pine tree that was still standing from among thousands that were destroyed by the waves.

“I started to think I should make a piece about revival," he says. "I felt that my role was to create art that could touch observers’ hearts and give them solace; something well executed and enjoyable to look at. It was as if I managed to find a new motivation to work.”

Ikeda started his piece in the museum the following year. He spent months drawing images of debris he'd seen from the earthquake and tsunami. Then he drew a tree over the entire work, standing strong and healthy.

Ikeda reflected his and his family's life in his artwork, including the birth of his second and third daughters. The artist wanted to channel his feelings of hope into the painting.

As he reached the final stage of the art work, he drew a flower. Inside the flower, he drew small motifs.

"In the middle of the flower is a woman welcoming a baby, representing new life," Ikeda says.

The flower’s stamen represents a woman, and the pistil... a baby. The entire scene symbolizes the blessings of new life. In drawing the flower, he wanted to portray the preciousness of life he felt from his own family.

“Under every circumstance, even in the face of disaster, human life and other life cycles go on. Trees and nature will eventually regrow, and the world will begin to weave itself together again. That’s what I think,” Ikeda says.

While he was working on the piece, Ikeda wanted to see people's reactions, so he allowed the public to observe him for one hour each day. Visitors could watch him as he drew, and then watch as he stepped back to study the drawing itself.

One young visitor named Sid showed a particular interest -- he was visiting Ikeda’s studio for the sixth time. Sid has watched Ikeda work on the picture from the beginning, when he was still drawing the rubble, and the work’s message has resonated with him.

"I feel that up on the top, it's definitely more of the chance and the goals, and the dreams, and all of the hope, that all mankind actually does have a chance above all the rubble," Sid says.

Finally, 3 years after he began working, Ikeda put the final touches on the painting. At the bottom is a pile of debris but as your eyes move upward, the world becomes brighter, with a tree in full bloom.

Humans and animals can be seen on a journey toward a world of hope. Seeing hope in new life, Ikeda named the picture “Rebirth.”

"I did what I could do for now. I don't have any regrets about this work," he says.

The following day, a ceremony was held to celebrate the completion of the painting. In front of a large audience, Ikeda spoke about his feelings toward the picture.

“For 3 years, I drew this picture and thought about new life, whether it springs from nature or a disaster, a new body or a lost life. There are so many ways for a new life to be born, and yet it’s never easy. I think there are always struggles and difficulties, and new life is born as a result of them,” Ikeda says.

His masterpiece "Rebirth" not only offers a message of hope, but it also serves as a reminder that it's possible to overcome any difficulty and to get back on one's feet.