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Getting Real: An Interview with Realist Sculptor Kazuhiro Tsuji

Kazuhiro Tsuji’s career as an artist has followed an unusual course, beginning in the world of film and special effects before turning to fine art sculpture. We spoke with him about what he finds inspiring, what influences him and his creative process.

Getting Real: An Interview with Realist Sculptor Kazuhiro Tsuji

I’ve always liked the three-dimensional aspect of the finished work – I like being able to touch the work after I’ve finished it.

Getting Real: An Interview with Realist Sculptor Kazuhiro Tsuji

Kazuhiro Tsuji’s career as an artist has followed an unusual course, beginning in the world of film and special effects before turning to fine art sculpture. We spoke with him about what he finds inspiring, what influences him and his creative process.

Kazuhiro Tsuji has been famous for years with his incredible hyper-real sculptures of celebrities, historical figures and fellow artists. Born in Kyoto, Japan, Kazu is a contemporary hyperrealist sculptor living and working in Los Angeles. After 25 years as a special effects makeup artist in Hollywood, Kazu shifted focus in 2008 to devote himself to fine art sculpture, constructing larger than life three-dimensional portraits.

Make Up For Ever: What kind of child were you? Did you spend a lot of time in your own imagination?

KT: When I was child, my parents both worked a lot, so I was often left alone and I had to occupy myself. When I was 5 or 6, I would leave kindergarten and go to artisan shops to the artisans creating their wares. I enjoyed watching things being created, and I also liked sculpting and painting. I started sculpting dinosaurs in kindergarten – I didn’t like being in class, so I would isolate myself in the corner of the classroom and sculpt.

Make Up for Ever: Did you always prefer sculpting to other art?

KT: Yes. I’ve always liked the three-dimensional aspect of the finished work – I like being able to touch the work after I’ve finished it.

Make Up For Ever: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

KT: That’s an interesting question because to answer it we first have to understand the concept of being an artist. If we consider being an artist is creating something from imagination, then I was doing that since I was a kid.

But I didn’t have a concept of being an artist myself and making a living at it until much later. In Japan at the time, it was not considered possible to make a life for yourself as an artist.

Make Up For Ever: How did you get started?

KT: When I was in junior high school, I was trying to figure what I wanted to do. I considered many different professions, and that was reflected in my hobbies – I would build model houses when I thought I wanted to be an architect.

I liked the idea of ship or car design, too. I didn’t actually like the idea of special effects makeup because I didn’t know there were other special effects than horror films.

When I was 17, I found an issue of Fangoria magazine and read an article about (award-winning special effects makeup artist) Dick Smith. He was speaking about doing makeup on an actor to transform Abraham Lincoln and I thought, “That’s what I want to do!”

Make Up For Ever: How did your mentor, Dick Smith – the “Godfather of Makeup” - influence you?

KT: When I saw his work, before knowing him, I was impressed with how realistic it was.

The aesthetic of his work was inspiring – it’s so different from other’s work. Once I met him, I learned he was not only creative, but also very innovative. He was always trying to improve his methods, so I learned a lot from him.

Make Up For Ever: What draws you to hyper-realism as opposed to the fantasy of surrealism?

KT: I got over the fantasy stuff when I was a kid. Realism for me is the highest level of the art because to really do it well you have to be really disciplined and study your craft. I like that challenge. I also love nature, the human form, animals – they’re perfect in their existence so that’s why I like hyper-realism.

Make Up For Ever: You’re sculptures include busts of Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali. What is it about those artists that inspired you to use them as subjects?

KT: It’s not about what they have done; it’s about who they are. When I pick a subject, it’s about what’s going on my own life.

When I did Dali, for example, it was just after Dick Smith’s passing. Before he died, we talked about his life and particularly about his internal struggles. I was also trying to work on myself, and I then I saw a documentary on Dali. I understood how much he struggled and suffered to stay energetic and creative. That was what inspired me to create his portrait.

My portrait of Warhol came out of a transition time for me. That was after I quit special effects and dedicated myself to fine art. Warhol did the same, leaving behind commercial art and moving into fine art. He was reborn as an artist, so I was drawn to him at that period in my life.

Make Up for Ever: What else inspires you?

KT: I’m always intrigued by how people live, how they spend their life, how they project themselves to the outside world.

Make Up For Ever: What is the most satisfying part for you of the creative process?

KT: I do everything from beginning to end, so when everything comes together into one piece that moment is the most satisfying part.

After spending months on a piece, finally seeing the end result is very satisfying. It’s a complex feeling – when I work on a sculpture, I put everything I have into it over several months. Then when it’s finished, It’s like I die and am born again.

Make Up For Ever: Where do you go when you’re looking for fresh ideas for your work?

KT: Actually, nowhere in particular. They just come to me. Lots of ideas come when I’m travelling, driving – basically, when I’m away from my work. When I’m travelling, I’m forced to step away from my work, from my studio. That’s when ideas start to grow and take shape in my mind.

Make Up For Ever: What book is on your nightstand right now?

KT: (Laughs) A notebook. I write down the ideas that come to me when I’m sleeping – or when I can’t sleep!

Make Up For Ever: What are you working on at the moment? What’s next for you?


KT: Right now I’m making my workshop bigger so I can do more. I’m doing a design for my next piece that I will be starting on in a few weeks. But I won’t tell you what it is!