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[Photograph]  Ayami

[Text]  INOUE Hideki

This article is a translated version, which was originally published in Japanese language on 19 December, 2020.

Reading time:4 minutes

(Date updated)22 March, 2022

(About this story)
KAWABE Hiroko quietly runs her colored pencils over her paper in the new studio at 〈Atelier Yamanami, Shiga Prefecture. A skillful portrait artist, her drawing style is characterized by smooth lines and the use of vivid colors, favoring bright, pop-art color combinations. The musician Kiyoharu numbers among her fans and has used her work on one of his album covers. He praises her work highly, commenting that her works make full use of both the light and the dark. I visited Atelier Yamanami to meet the artist who has captivated so many.


What lies behind the bright colors

《Women》/Paper, pens, colored pencils/ 544×767mm / 2019

《Women》/Paper, pens, colored pencils/ 544×767mm / 2019

《Body》/Paper, pens / 300×210mm / 2016

《Zoo》/Paper, pens, colored pencils/ 213×300mm / 2012

《Butterflies》/Paper, pens, colored pencils/300×210mm / 2016

I arrive in Shiga Prefecture’s Atelier Yamanami. There in the quiet studio, a woman sits facing a desk. Her colored pencil moves slowly over the paper. I’m just thinking to myself that she seems concentrated on her drawing when she stares off into the distance. Then she returns once again to the world of her drawing. Her gaze moves alternately between the paper before her and the reality around her.

Kawabe is known as an artist for her drawing style comprising colorful tones and soft lines. She appears to have an interest in fashion, and her drawings are populated by slender, stylish women who look like models. Blonde, glitzy girls crowd the paper. The brightly drawn people in her works break into energetic dance.

Kawabe has recently been drawing African tribespeople, influenced by the vision of the world captured by photographer YOSHIDA Nagi, whose works feature ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples. With their beautiful, colorful clothes and accessories, the tribespeople of Africa must have struck Kawabe as the ideal models for her work.

Because each of Kawabe’s drawings fills the entire surface of her paper, some part of the piece is almost always cut off where it meets the edge. Where have those un-drawn sections gone, I wonder. I find myself imagining these un-drawn things. When we view her art, we are, in essence, imagining the vast world that she has drawn.


Unhesitating lines and bright colors. Many have been captivated by the appeal of these pop-art drawings. Kawabe’s drawings seem to particularly fire the imaginations of those working in the creative sphere. Many of her works have used in designs for stationery and accessories.

A variety of merchandise featuring Kawabe’s works.

Drawings created as a means to live

Kawabe is hard of hearing and uses hearing aids. For her, the act of drawing has been a necessity of life. Due to her hearing loss, she had difficulty speaking and reportedly began drawing in order to communicate how she was feeling to her parents.

She used her drawings to communicate urgent messages like “my stomach hurts” and “I don’t feel well.” For her, drawing is a communication tool equivalent to speaking, seeing, or listening. Our first glance shows us the brightness and sophistication of her drawings, but these are built on the skills she acquired as a lifeline. This could explain the vitality alive within her drawings.


Staff member IZURIHA Tomoko is the same age as Kawabe, and the two seem to get along well. Kawabe breaks into a smile as Izuriha approaches. They talk together using simple words, gestures, and writing.

“I’m going to the store—do you need anything?” Izuriha asks.

“I do,” Kawabe says with a nod, before writing a note with a pencil and handing it to Izuriha.

A well-known musician, Kiyoharu, has been completely captivated by Kawabe’s work. Kawabe’s drawings were used on the cover of his album “JAPANESE MENU/DISTORTION 10,” his first new album in almost two years (the limited-edition first press cover features art by OKAMOTO Toshio, also of Atelier Yamanami). Kiyoharu has an interest in art and encountered Kawabe’s drawings when he visited Atelier Yamanami.


“My overall impression was that her work was colorful and cute, with the sense that within this were elements of complexity and a kind of addictiveness, that were skillfully and subtly counteracted by her color sense,” Kiyoharu recalls of his first impressions when he encountered Kawabe’s work.

I found myself wondering why Kiyoharu felt that Kawabe’s drawings, with their pop-art style, fit in with his own cool vibe.


“I don’t think pop-art is just colorful—I could see that Kawabe’s style makes full use of both the light and the dark, and this made me want to use her work as soon as I saw it.”

Kiyoharu’s CD is sitting on Kawabe’s desk when I visit.

Kiyoharu saw beyond the surface level of Kawabe’s pictures to register the dark side within. Kawabe’s works express more than just the colors and shapes before our eyes. They possess a sensitivity that allows her life to come through in her lines and colors. Kiyoharu, a fellow artist despite their different modes of expression, reacted to this sensibility.

(About embedded content) Kiyoharu “Yume Oi” (Chasing Dreams) Lyric Movie short ver. from “JAPANESE MENU/DISTORTION 10”

Kiyoharu has high praise for the other artists of Atelier Yamanami in addition to Kawabe: “These are the works of people who can see a world completely different than the field of vision visible to people without disabilities, like you and me, and the senses that we use to understand things. So only they can create these works, and no two individuals can create the same thing. I think they are the ultimate original creators.”

Many people have fallen in love with Kawabe’s talent. Yet Kawabe herself shows no sign of putting on airs and goes very much at her own pace. Today, as usual, she gazes into the distance and runs her pens over her paper. And then, when she loses focus, she flings herself onto a nearby sofa and lies down.

At Atelier Yamanami, this won’t get her into any trouble. “She basically sticks to her own pace,” Izuriha laughs. Kawabe has no shortage of supporters at Atelier Yamanami. I figure this is why she draws, happy here.

Kawabe quietly falls into a doze. In contrast, the inhabitants of her unfinished drawing are wildly loquacious. They wait merrily for Kawabe to take up her pencils again.

Related people


(Profile of KAWABE Hiroko)
Kawabe was born in 1987. She lives in Mie Prefecture. She has been a member of 〈Atelier Yamanami〉 since 2006. Her favored subjects include people, animals, and landscapes. Many of her works have been turned into accessories and other merchandise.