• Nicoletta Fornaro

Codex Venezia: an interview with Nelson Kishi

Codex Venezia: Nelson Kishi

Venice based artist Nelson Kishi | Venice Drawings

In Cannaregio, along Fondamenta degli Ormesini, at the foot of the bridge that brings you to the Ghetto, there is a small atelier with a bright window showcasing beautiful drawings of Venice and polychrome woodcuts. The space is shared by two artists, and today I am introducing you to one of them: Nelson Kishi.


Nelson is best known for his drawings of cities, apparently fast sketched, and has been living in Venice for over 30 years. Here below our brief conversation.

1) With Japanese origins, Brazilian born, and resident in Venice since... forever. Nelson, tell us a little something about yourself.

Well, we could say I have Japanese blood, a Brazilian heart, and an Italian stomach.

After graduating in Architecture in Brasilia in 1986, I first moved to Rome at the end of November 1989, and by chance, I happened in Venice in February 1990. I was already drawing a lot at the time, but I must admit that Venice has given me a lot of food for thought, and I believe it can be perceived in my work. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been if I had stayed in Brazil or, perhaps, gone to Japan or France... but in the end, I am grateful that my fate crossed with Venice's.

2) You share the studio in Fondamenta degli Ormesini with the printmaker Robin Frood, how's life in Cannaregio? What do you like most?

Robin's works, and the ones of our children, make the visit to the studio broader, wider. I find this a natural way to broaden our horizons, because it is life itself that leads us to plurality and complexity. Anyway, we enjoy sharing this space, and many other things together, like drawing, painting, and... music! What I love about our studio is that it interacts with the nearby canal. We can see the water throughout the day. During the different hours, and with the change of light, we can witness how the reflections of the water dance on our paintings, drawings, and objects, and whatever music is on, be it Bach or Debussy, it seems in perfect harmony with everything. These light reflections tremble and move the objects without actually touching them, but simply making us notice new shapes, perspectives, and colours. I wonder if we make similar movements too when drawing, with the pencil in hand, lighting up certain aspects of life to appreciate them more and treasure them. Another positive fact about the studio are the daily conversations both with locals and foreigners, which I always find surprising and enriching, and often make me think of how different we all are from one another, but also how similar..

3) In the city you are known best for your drawings of Venice. When did you start drawing and what made you want to do it?

Like most of us, I started as a child. After all, marking signs is intrinsic to our being, as much as making sounds or using our hands to create objects, lairs, and so on. Everything happens as a consequence of our curiosity. For me, drawing has become a tool of investigation and learning, in addition to being my work. It is my way to explore the world that surrounds me, the life that, with no rest, keeps expressing itself.

Venice Italy | Cannaregio
Venice based artist Nelson Kishi | Venice Drawings
Venice based artist Nelson Kishi | Venice Drawings

4) I have a personal memory of you. Some years ago I was at the gym in Santa Maria Formosa, when you entered the room accompanied by the manager, and you sat on the small private side pier to draw. I thought 'I wonder how many places and private homes and terraces he must have been to...'

Is it really like this? Is there a particular episode you would like to share with us?

The fact of drawing, especially bird's eye views, has opened many doors, both through commissioned work but also by chance. Naturally, there have also been times when I could not go where I would have liked to, but these 'obstacles', challenging my will, have forced me to find different -creative- solutions, so I am happy because they helped me learn more about my own skills and resources.

There are many stories I could share, but I'll choose a random episode: I was working on a long bird's eye view drawing, which included a vast area and required lots of walks and inspections, in order to have the scene clear in my mind from more angles before putting them together in the final drawing. I was at a good point, but there was a big important area I wanted to define better, which included some buildings and a garden, which I was aiming to visit. The whole area belonged to a Congregation of Sisters and was used as nursing home. One day, I decided to bring the drawing with me and rang their doorbell. I was greeted by a Sister in her 60s who, defensive, replied that the place was private and not open to tourists. I kindly tried to explain that I wasn't a tourist, but an architect, and while speaking I opened the drawing. When the Sister saw it, with all the detailed calli, canals, palazzos and only the lagoon area surrounding their Congregation still to be completed, she melted and asked 'Did you draw this?', and then she welcomed me inside that heavenly garden.

5) Your city drawings, the ones of Venice, Rome, etc., have the amazing capacity of being at the same time minimalistic and rich in details. How do you do it? How do you approach these broad, often bird's eye views?

The bird's eye drawings move from the desire to describe a place in its entirety, how it is made, how it works, how it is used, how to get there, and so on. There were times I found myself in places so beautiful that I wanted to investigate and describe them with several drawings, to add details, connections, and links, and sometimes they weren't enough to describe the place properly. The views from above have been the most complete way I found to say the least possible and let the work do all the job. As already mentioned, this type of drawing requires me to see the spaces and various elements from numerous perspectives, like we do with many aspects of life. We all know that considering a problem from different angles helps us scale it back and evaluate it better.

Venice based artist Nelson Kishi | Venice Drawings

6) I will confess that I love all your works: the Situations, the Portraits, the Music drawings, where people are depicted with honesty. I was happy to read the quotes you chose for the various sections on your website, especially Saul Steinberg's: 'If my life, yours or someone else's were translated into architecture, who knows what incredible constructions, lack of logic, waste of materials, miraculous balances, wrong terrains'. How do you resolve this illogicality in your drawings?

In the past I used to draw more imagined scenes. Then, gradually, drawing from life prevailed. I believe this happened because if we look carefully, life is amazing, being intrinsically concrete and unpredictable at the same time. I am not saying that I have given up imagination, but rather that reality and imagination provoke one another and aren't necessarily counterposed. Anyhow, when I draw, I try not to judge, but to record an experience or presence with my means. People, places, and things are already in front of our eyes, 'solved', and I do nothing more than capture them. Each of us has a personal and unique voice and way to express it, and the results change depending on our tools, on the moment, on fate... and this is where the beauty lies, life is a rich and diverse adventure well worth being lived.

7) The 'Nature' Collection, linked to the mountains, is very elegant, and the quote from Chinese poet Li Po 'We never tire of looking at each other / the mountain and I' , beautiful. What relationship do you have with nature and how does it influence your work practice?

Life and nature can often be interchangeable, if not in the form, at least in the flowing of existence. How nature manifests itself is fascinating, with all the forms of life that inhabit this world. Paradoxically, this infinite complexity of nature is restoring, suffice to think how much we feel the need to escape into the woods, or to the beach, or even to a park, to enjoy a little bit of green. So, to answer the question how much nature influences my work, I will say that I simply try to do it in the most natural way possible. Maybe this will seem something small, but for me it is of extreme importance.

8) The 'Bestiary' too would deserve lots of questions, but instead I will ask you about 'Zoo', the book with all the animal drawings you realised with your son. How did this project take place? Drawing with your son made you notice particular aspects of his or your own approach?

Zoo was realised entirely by Theo. His drawings, which are sometimes ideas, other times short stories, already had a strength, poetry, and irony of their own, there was no need for me to add anything else. My part consisted only in deciding to turn this set of works into a book, putting them together to show and share the point of view of a person of a certain age in a specific period of his life. While making the book, I would ask him 'is it okay like this? how do you want the cover? lots of animals or just one?' and tried to go along with his wishes.

If I were asked to find a meaning in this book, I would say that it is important to listen to what a person has to say, in the case of a child, give him space, allowing him to develop his qualities and passions, and helping him find his way to convey his own ideas. If for Theo pen and paper worked, other children may need other tools. Anyhow, the book was not planned beforehand, but it came together when all the gathered material started having a sense of its own. Children are the proof that we can do a lot with little. They have only few years of experience, a limited vocabulary and knowledge compared to us adults, yet they are able to laugh and make us laugh fully about simple things. Their drawings, especially, are daring, straightforward, and sometimes cheeky. Perhaps, behind this, there is their vitality, which makes them curious and open to discovery.

9) Your works convey your passion for music, the drawings as much as the book 'Notturni Veneziani'. Tell us about this love affair.

There have been moments when I would think to myself : I'll quit everything and dedicate the rest of my life to music'. Mercifully, as Lawrence Durrell would say, laughter intervened. Obviously I was aware of my limits, but finally the time for music arrived when my daughter Olivia, at the time 5 years old, wanted to learn to play the cello. I was so happy of her request, that I decided to take lessons too! Of course, picking up an instrument at almost 50 had no real musical perspective for me (except the cost and time invested!), but from this experience came the book 'Notturni Veneziani' (a musical score with drawings of Venice by night). My drawing improved too, thanks to the space-time perception developed through music. In short, I consider music the highest of arts, or at least the most necessary.

Venice based artist Nelson Kishi | Venice Drawings
Venice based artist Nelson Kishi | Venice Drawings
Venice based artist Nelson Kishi | Venice Drawings

I am grateful for Nelson's time and it was a pleasure for me to chat with him in his studio. I find he has a gentle way of being with others, careful listener and definitely talented artist.

For me, his works are fast and slow at the same time, fast because we see them concluded with lots of people, scenes, and actions going on, yet slow because we could make a close up of each scene and read an individual story. This is a kind of slowness that absorbs and breathes in as much as possible, and I find it extremely intriguing.

If you didn't know Nelson already, I do hope you will pass by his atelier at your next visit.

Meanwhile, I wish you a lovely day! Talk soon ;-)


For further info:

Codex Venezia

Address: Cannaregio, Fondamenta dei Ormesini 2778, 30121 Venezia (Ve)