Artist Hopes to Fuse East, West Through Buddhism


KYOTO — Simon Fitzgerald, a self-proclaimed struggling artist, had been inexplicably attracted to Buddhism since he was a teenager growing up in Essex, England.

It was only after coming to the Kansai region much later that he was finally able to reconcile his intense curiosity of Buddhism with the reality of being a respected painter.

Fitzgerald, 29, recently took his vows to become a Buddhist monk of the Tendai (esoteric) sect — a move that, more than anything else, has led him back to his western artistic roots.

“It’s a very accommodating situation where you can live your own life and practice Buddhism at the same time,” he says.

By day, Fitzgerald teaches at the Kyoto City University of Arts, a position he has held for the last year or so. An alumnus of the college, he also finds time to work on his own paintings for art gallery exhibitions.

At other times, however, he visits the nearby Jurinji Temple, donning traditional robes and practicing the various meditation techniques prescribed by his teacher.

He traces his long-held interest in Buddhism to grammar school studies of world religions he had at the age of 13.

“From that point, I was hooked. I felt an incredible pull toward (Buddhism),” he said. “That revolutionized the way I thought from then on.”

It was the practicality of Buddhist teachings, he said, that initially fascinated him about the ancient eastern religion.

“It made sense to me somehow at that time. The idea of self-help, which is very evident in Buddhism, seemed a very common-sense way of doing things to me.”

Upon arrival in Japan five years ago, he continued studying art in Kyoto, delving even deeper into Buddhist teachings.

The result was that surrealistic, sarcastic “parodies” of Japanese Buddhism began appearing in his paintings.

“I was slipping from the western art world in a sense,” he said.

After some time, Fitzgerald sought to return to the basics of art that had interested him in the first place.

He continues painting western abstract images — an Osaka art gallery exhibition is planned for November — and credits Buddhism with helping to lead him back to the forefront of contemporary art.

“It’s made me more western in my work,” he said. “It’s very peculiar.”

Fitzgerald says his life hasn’t changed much since becoming a Buddhist priest. He goes to work every day, is married to a Japanese woman and occasionally drinks beer.

Although he takes the Buddhist teachings seriously, he says most Japanese find it difficult to really accept him as a “gaijin” Buddhist artist.

Nevertheless, Fitzgerald has his sights set on becoming an internationally respected painter who can help bridge the eastern and western art worlds. “It’s a very important job to do, I think.”