Kiyomi Oliver Brings Emotion and Japanese Flavor to Painting
Photos and Words by Andrea Daszkiewicz
On a warm sunny day in mid-September, William Shakespeare and his actors pile into the car I’m sitting in to get out of the sudden rain. The playwright laments about not being able to write a new play, only to be told he’s not actually William Shakespeare.
The Bard is being played by Kiyomi Oliver (they/them), in the upcoming Fringe Festival production of Dashboard Dramas. The seasoned actor makes it look easy and is incredible to watch. Theatre is but one facet of the art-filled life that Kiyomi leads, the other major piece: painting. Kiyomi’s delicate watercolor paintings capture the soul and life of each subject – usually pets. They work from a reference photo provided by a client, but they always manage to capture the spark in the animal’s eyes and the love the pet exudes. The result is an honest and stunning interpretation of the furry friend.
After the Dashboard Drama rehearsal, I sat down with Kiyomi to discuss their journey with watercolors and forays into the art community. They’re still wearing the mustache and beard from their performance – a subtle reminder that behind this artist’s brushes is a skilled thespian on the stage.
Flower Power: What has your journey with art been like?
Kiyomi: [laughs] Complicated, I guess. I had been doing it throughout my entire childhood, and then I took a long hiatus after senior year of high school until 2021 during the pandemic when I had a ton of time, so I got back into it, and now it’s invaded my entire life.
You say “invaded” like it’s a bad thing.
No, no, not a bad thing at all! I like that it invades my life. It’s my main job.
What medium did you start with?
My friend sent me images of ukiyo-e style art, which is a Japanese wood block style painting. I knew I couldn’t do that specifically, but I was so interested that I just took my watercolors and tried to imitate it the best I could. I learned later on that doing watercolors/ink work in that style is called sumi-e. It lifted off from there. I went into marker work after that, and recently I’ve been playing with oil pastel too.
What drew you toward animals?
They’re the most meaningful paintings I can think of. Other things like landscapes and people can invoke feelings, but our pets are our babies and to have them memorialized is a different form of honoring them. The very first person I gave a painting to had a pet that passed. When I gave it to them, they started to cry, and I started to get emotional too. I liked being able to share that moment with someone else. It feels like I’m doing something good and purposeful.
When someone looks at your paintings, what do you want them to feel?
It depends on the painting. I want them to feel comfort, but if it’s just a goofy painting, I want them to see the silliness behind it. I want them to ask questions too – why did you put this detail in it or why did you come up with this idea? I like hearing other interpretations as well.
What’s the hardest part about creating a painting?
The hardest part mentally is making sure that you’re respecting the person’s pet, especially if it’s a late pet. But, as far as technicality goes, when you’re trying to figure out what pose they should be in, or if they don’t have any good pictures of the pet, you have to figure out what details you can take artistic liberties with without straying too far that it becomes unrealistic, in terms of looks or even personality.
If you’ve seen any of Kiyomi’s work, you know they’re instantly recognizable by a few elements: the red stamp which is their signature in Japanese, the gentle nose-kiss their cat gives as a painting send off, and the elegant cherry blossoms that frame the pet. Sometimes the pet is lying in a bed of petals, and sometimes the petals are softly floating downward. “Sakura,” or cherry blossom, is symbolic of human mortality and serves as a reminder that life is both fleeting and precious.
A lot of your paintings have cherry blossoms in them. Can you tell me more about that?
I started using them more in the spring since they’d already been in bloom for a few weeks. It happens to be the most requested background. It’s also reminiscent of Japan.
How does your Japanese heritage come up in your work?
I thought it was a good time to promote my commission startup during May, which is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. A startling amount of friends wanted to support, especially since this was right after #StopAsianHate had been simmering for a bit. People tend to request either the sakura, or even specifically ask for my Japanese signature, or hanko, which I researched and handmade out of an old pink eraser.
Kiyomi grew up in Rochester, and it was clear they love the city when we talked about it. We discussed Rochester’s perfect location, lack of natural disasters, and the plethora of things to do as part of its charm. While an eventual dream of theirs is to live in Japan, they wouldn’t leave Rochester anytime soon, as the lively culture and theatre scene is comfortable and perfect just for them.
Do you have a network of artists in Rochester that you lean on for support?
Allison Roberts, 100%. She is one of the more successful artists I’ve seen around here, and she’s been a mentor on top of being a good friend. Since I’ve started doing commissions, I’ve gone to her for pricing questions, how to promote, and what to do for the holidays. I’ll miss her big time when she moves. Seeing others in the community that paint too, and seeing their various styles, it’s one of the few things that inspires me when I’m in a rut.
Find Allison at https://allisonroberts9.wixsite.com/alli
How do you want those in the art community to see you?
I’d like to be respected, but also flawed, because I still have a lot to learn, and I want to be able to learn from them.
If you could paint or design a piece as an homage to anyone or anything in Rochester, what would you do? For example, I’d love to see a giant cat scaling the Kodak tower.
Yo! That’s a great idea! I’d maybe paint my cats, Godzilla-sized, rampaging the Rochester skyline. It’d have be Ukiyo-e style and the people in the background can be screaming and going “aww” at the same time.
How can people support or connect with you?
My biggest tool has been social media – Facebook and Instagram in particular. If people want to help, they can always share any of my posts on their stories or news feeds, or recommend me through word of mouth. Positive reinforcement is so effective and the support never goes unappreciated. I’m very grateful I can do what I love as a living.
Follow Kiyomi Oliver on Instagram @the.edamamenby. You can also find them on stage frequently in Rochester, including at this year’s Fringe Festival.