Atelier Yamanami /Art Center Yamanami (Shiga)

A place that cares about what they love to do

(About this story)
Many artists are affiliated with Atelier Yamanami in Koka City of Shiga prefecture. The studio’s activities are not limited to art-making and exhibitions but also expand into collaborations with different industries, which has gained them domestic and international recognition. In 2020 with the support from The Nippon Foundation, they opened Art Center Yamanami – a four-story building that provides working opportunities for people with disabilities and functions to facilitate creativity and opportunities to interact with the public. Art Center Yamanami’s 1st floor is “Café Debesso” and the 2nd and 3rd floor are workshops. The 4th floor is set up to be a multi-purpose studio. We talked to Atelier Yamanami’s director YAMASHITA Masato.

(Date updated)22 March, 2022

This article is a translated version, which was originally published in Japanese language on 25 March, 2021.


[Photograph]  Ayami

[Text]  INOUE Hideki


How can we surprise?

The four-story Art Center Yamanami stands next to their previous workshop space. The first floor is a café with a relaxed atmosphere named Café Debesso. The 2nd and 3rd floor are workshop areas and the 4th floor is a studio that can host performances and screenings. The café is open to the public and the other facilities require reservations to visit.

While we were having coffee at the café, the bus with members on board arrived. Some poked their heads inside mischievously when they walked by. We waved our hands to greet them and a couple of members waved back but seemed a little embarrassed. Yamashita watched this interaction with a smile. What was Yamashita’s vision for this art center that took 3 years in its making?

Director of Atelier Yamanami, Yamashita

“I am always thinking on how to surprise my staff and our members. What if we had a tall building a café? Wouldn’t that be a big surprise? If the space was bigger would the artwork become larger? I didn’t really envision an ‘art center’ but rather was just thinking about providing more space and how that would make everyone happy.”

Art Center Yamanami hosts a café on the first floor that is open to the public.

“Because we take in everyone who wants to use our facilities and never turn anyone way, we have had to keep expanding. Although we are located in a rural environment, which is quite ideal, we were running out of space. So, I thought if we can’t expand sideways we must build upwards or underground!”

A gifted group at making “defective products”

Yamashita gave us a tour through the studios which were playing 60’s rock music from the speakers.

In a free-spirited atmosphere with music playing in the background, members were concentrated on their artmaking. At moments some would get up to talk to the staff or come to us to explain about their artwork. Others went to the couch to take a nap when they felt bored. It felt as if the studio staff were letting the members freely do what they want to while being mindful to their needs.

When they did need help the staff immediately offered support. We noticed that both the staff and members were very gentle, and this gave the studio a creative but comfortable vibe. When we told Yamashita that everyone is very quiet and concentrated, his face lit up:

“Is it quiet? That’s a very nice compliment for us to hear. Many of our members have trouble staying still or to engage in one activity for an extended period of time. Generally, welfare facilities are assigned to contracted work for factories. In these types of work our members are very “gifted” at making defective products. However, at Atelier Yamanami we don’t have standards to meet and there are no mistakes. We don’t give instructions and creation can start and finish anytime. Perhaps this is what makes it comfortable here.”

Yamashita is soft-spoken, and perhaps the members sense his gentle personality from the way he talks. Some who were rejected at other facilities with ADHD are quietly making art at Atelier Yamanami. When this topic came up Yamashita gave a sad look.

Anybody would feel anxious if they were uncomfortable. The most important thing is the trust between the staff and members. If they feel safe and that they are treated with care, then I believe that space can become their own comfortable place. We want to become a place that cares about what they love to do. Nobody wants to be in a place that is uncomfortable, even I would act like I had ADHD!”

I don’t know anything about art

At the art center, large working spaces are prepared on each desk for every individual. Everyone can feel each other’s presence and be inspired by others while their privacy is respected. It seems like an ideal space for one to concentrate on their art. We were very impressed by how the space emphasized creativity, but Yamashita tells us that they are a group of amateurs that know nothing about art.

“We call ourselves an art center but if you ask me ‘what is art?’ I don’t really know. The only thing I can say is that art is their way of life. I believe that expression is about building your own world.

That’s why our art center strives to be a place where they can express and build their own world as much as they want. It’s not really about what they can make or if it can win a price, how much we can sell it for. What is most important for our art center is to be a place where one can express their existence in an honest way. It’s not just a place to paint or make things with clay.

I also think that this should not be a place just for our members and staff. Atelier Yamanami has been able to operate since 1986 because of the support from various people including the locals. That’s why I wanted to make it into a place where anyone can stop by when they want.

A place where anyone can eat, be loud, and study. I want it to be a destination for people even if they are not interested in disabilities, welfare, or art – where something resonates. Ideally a place where someone would be curious and want to check it out regardless of having a disability or not.”

Art as “bait”

Sometimes strangers would wonder in thinking it was a roadside station.

“We are so welcome to these visits. It’s like we tricked them! Sometimes we invite musicians to come and play a concert. The reason why we do this is because at Atelier Yamanami none of our welfare facility staff are educated in areas of art and music. I had always thought this was our weakness, but actually we have a lot of individual characteristics that make us unique from other facilities even without that specialized knowledge.

If a musician that our staff used like when they were young came to work, wouldn’t that make them happy? So, let’s get them to come and play a concert! – It’s as simple as that. Many things happen here, and I want that to be recognized as something normal in this town.

Our job was to build the art center. After that, we just want our members to go all out and for the public to visit. With reservations you can see the facilities, and anyone can freely drop by to the café and the exhibition space. Many people ask us why we invite so many people into Atelier Yamanami. The reason is because we want people to see our members not only through what they make but also their humane side, which people call “disabled”, working in the studios.

It may sound weird, but the art is just “bait” for people to come to the art center. We want people to come to Atelier Yamanami to see with their own eyes and understand who our members are. I want people to look at them more than their artwork. This is a place where you can do that through meeting them.

We also want to make the whole town happy and not just our member and staff. I hope that people will think that it’s a good thing to have Atelier Yamanami their town.”

What kind of place will this art center become? People will interact here in various ways through its art, café, studio, and concert hall. Probably unexpected things that will gradually change what we think is “normal” will be born here. This studio in Shiga is quietly creating a lively future.

Atelier Yamanami

872 Katsuragi Konancho
Kouka-shi Shiga
Tel: 0748-86-0334