The practice of creating rock gardens has existed in Japan for over 1,000 years, functioning as both a visual art form and a meditation aid. It makes sense then that a series of videos from artist Yuki Kawae showcasing his zen rock garden designs would find such a receptive audience in this particular moment. As the hundreds of comments on his Instagram uploads indicate, the videos have provided a simple moment of calm for the many viewers who are feeling anxious and overwhelmed after enduring months of quarantine and global unrest.
Kawae began the practice as a way to clear his own mind. After finding some respite in caring for plants, he decided to carve out space in his typically small Bay Area apartment to create a small zen garden. His early uploads in the fall of 2019 found a small but receptive audience, including many of his close friends. But a few reshares from larger accounts and publications this spring brought Kawae’s audience into the hundreds of thousands, with many transfixed by the short clips of him carving out his minimal, precise geometric designs.
“As a person in the creative field, I think this is the least I can do to help the current situation,” Kawae says. “I am truly happy to share the videos and feel a sense of community with others who are going through a similar situation.”
Though his zen gardens have garnered a huge reach, Kawae’s practice includes painting and woodworking, which he cites as his favorite mediums. He would like to one day combine those mediums into a large-scale, public exhibition, where visitors can perhaps practice their own hand at zen garden design. But he is humble about his skills, despite their popularity. “I didn’t learn this from anyone and did not train under any masters. So please don’t say I am a zen master,” he adds with a laugh.
Read on for more on how Kawae taught himself to create his soothing designs. And if you’d like to give the practice a try yourself, be sure to watch our IGTV video below to learn how to make your own zen garden at home.
How did you first get started in creating zen rock gardens?
I started this practice way before the pandemic started. I tend to overthink and stress a lot, and it wasn’t healthy. I did however realize that I am at ease whenever I am taking care of plants. Seeing greenery flourish was so pleasing and it made our living room feel full of life. That led me to always want to have a wabi-sabi inspired zen garden in the near future.
However, we live in the Bay Area and we don’t have a garden space. I don’t like to wait so I just made a coffee table-size garden. I immediately found that focusing on this lets me be clear minded because if I was over thinking anything, I would mess up. Even though it is ok to mess up since it’s just sand, that notion of this easy going approach and at the same time great amount of focus was really good for me.
After making a coffee table-sized zen garden, I went home to Japan and visited my grandmother’s 100-year-old home in Kyoto. I asked her if I could rake lines on the pebble garden (it’s called karesansui in Japanese). She was so surprised but was happy to let me do it. After it was done, she was astonished at how good her garden could look. Stones that were placed in the garden which we never see came back into the spotlight.
Where do you get the inspiration for your designs from?
Inspiration comes from various places. Sometimes it’s a math and geometry-driven concept merged with what is possible on sand with wooden rakes. Sometimes it’s just a curiosity about what kind of patterns different rakes can make on sand. Then I make and test the rake. Sometimes it is from nature, like the waves of the ocean, or Saturn’s rings or the Moon.
As for the planning, I do measure the distances of marbles or the zen garden width and make the rake according to the right dimensions to achieve the pattern I aspire to make. Often new patterns get discovered through trials and testing.
What was the initial response to the videos? When did they start to gain traction and viewers?
When I first started posting videos, my close friends were very intrigued by it and liked the videos so I kept going.
But the biggest turn around happened in mid-April. I had about 1,100 followers before then and one account called Rated Modern Art was doing a “Satisfying Sunday” series. The series curates different artistic creations that are relaxing to watch. They included me in their Sunday post on April 12. After that it was all out of control. People shared my videos one after the other, which was overwhelming yet amazing. Maybe 80 percent fear and 20 percent excitement.
Were you surprised to find a bigger audience? Has the growth been incremental or all at once?
I am for sure surprised. I knew there were a lot of people out there in the world, but this makes me realize wow there really are a lot of people out there. I don’t think I’ve seen anything in quantity like this. For example, one rice bowl contains about 3,000 rice grains. Fifty-five bowls of that. I just can’t visually imagine how many people that is. I am truly grateful that people like what I do. It honestly is a treasure.
Growth has been incremental since April. I don’t really like data analytics, I just go by my gut instincts so I don’t focus on the numbers much when I’m working.
Has the quarantine impacted your own approach to your art? Has it been difficult to find inspiration or source materials?
No it didn’t impact my approach. In fact it enhanced it more I think. I always loved to work on my own time so the lockdown is in a way a comfortable style of living. On the other hand my wife is dying to go out to socialize. Life has flipped because I have been going out because she wanted to, now we are staying in all the time.
I know this is odd but I enjoy the limitation, it makes the product more focused and defined.
As for the materials, many were at home. Since I make the paintings in the backdrop, the zen garden box, and the wooden rakes I had a lot of materials to make things out of.
Your other work includes plants and woodworking. What do you enjoy about those particular mediums? What other mediums do you work in?
I love woodworking. I loved making furniture quite a lot. But due to lack of space (real estate here is crazy), I just put that project on hold and do other things I like.
I like woodworking because I think there is this threshold where it is just enough for wood to become furniture, and not sanded enough to still look natural. I strive to achieve this type of balance in aesthetics. I enjoy seeing the saw markings and the rugged tree bark texture in furniture. I especially enjoy carving it with a chainsaw.
The process is almost like preserving part of nature and bringing into the interior space. Fallen wood will eventually decay and become soil for new trees as part of the circle of life. At the same time, a stoic piece of lumber with a beautiful bark can function as a table surface while still reminding us of its original form. This reminds me to be humble and appreciate what nature is giving us.
Other than that, like I said above, I’ve been making large scale paintings which I use as a backdrop of the zen garden and a few other areas in my apartment. Most of the paintings are inspired by the ocean or the jungle.
I believe this indoor zen garden is in its initial form as part of my bigger dreams. One day I’d like to have a life-sized zen garden exhibition where we all can enjoy the zen garden, large scale paintings, wooden sculptures and plants. Perhaps a portion of this exhibition could be space for people who want to give the zen garden a try. But who knows when that will happen.
What projects are you currently working on?
I will continue to do zen gardens, but if and when possible, I would like to do it on a bigger scale when I find an appropriate space. Right now my zen garden is an object, I would love for it to become an environment. I enjoy practicing spatial design.
I have some unfinished artworks but I think they will be a secondary project. Some collaboration possibilities in the future maybe but I don’t want to talk about it and jinx it. I am very superstitious.