Kellen Hatanaka’s characterful paintings explore North American-Asian identity

9 August 2019

“My work is centred around identity, specifically Asian identity within the context of North America,” says artist Kellen Hatanaka. In his vibrant, character-focused paintings, the iconographies and symbols of American and Asian cultural identity are brought into contact. He states: “I’m interested in exploring Asian identity in general, but also my personal connection to it and how to understand that connection as a person of mixed race. When I started this kind of work it was more about exploring collective Asian identity in North America, but the more I learn, research and explore these themes, the more personal the work becomes. This process has really helped me to learn a lot  about myself, my heritage and my connection to my ethnicity.”

Having graduated from the illustration programme at OCAD, Kellen worked principally in the digital sphere of creating, putting most of his energy into commissions. It was upon moving from Toronto to Stratford and renting a studio of his own that Kellen gained “the space to experiment” and to explore painting as a medium of artistic expression. “In the paintings I am creating now,” he says, “there is definitely evidence of stylistic influence from the work I’ve developed for client projects. However, my painting practice is a deliberate departure from that work. The style in which I paint is still in its infancy and expanding and changing all the time.”


Kellen Hatanaka: Backyard Smoke

Working principally in acrylics on canvas, Kellen creates paintings that draw on the illustrative compositional and chromatic techniques learned during his studies. His figures are expressive, his forms retaining a charming naivety. “Lately,” he tells us, “I’ve been trying really hard not to create overly laboured studies. I find my best work comes from spontaneity rather than working with an overly resolved study. Periodically, I will take photos of the painting in progress to look at it from a different perspective. I often take these process images back into the computer when I want to experiment with adding or subtracting elements in the piece. This process allows me to work out compositional issues efficiently, but has led to some breakthroughs as well. I’ve found the juxtaposition of the painted elements and super flat vector shapes in the mockups can be quite interesting, so I’ve begun experimenting with trying to replicate that sensibility when I get back into the studio.”

In terms of sourcing imagery and inspiration for his work, Kellen considers himself to be a visual hoarder: “Inspiration comes from anything and everything. I’m a collector and I keep a library of books, records, films and objects in the studio and office for reference. I also keep an ever-growing reference folder on my computer for images I come across that I want to use in future work.” Kellen continues: “One show in particular that left a lasting impression on me was Henri Matisse: The Cut Outs at MoMA. Up until that point I had only seen his paper works in print or digital and experiencing those in person was a very moving, visceral experience. It’s the first show that I had a very emotional response to. His ability to remove extraneous details and distil the subject matter down to its simplest form to create extremely clear and communicative imagery is something that I think about constantly and strive for in my own work.”

For Kellen, his current practice is focused on cultivating a visual aesthetic that serves the exploration of those ideas surrounding personal and collective identity: “There are a lot of themes and issues I’d like to discuss through my work and I’m exploring the best ways to communicate those ideas. I also plan on incorporating 3D pieces into my practice and seeing the opportunities that can create.”


Kellen Hatanaka: Camera Tricks


Kellen Hatanaka: Japanese Arrangements


Kellen Hatanaka: Ichiro


Kellen Hatanaka: Board Breaker


Kellen Hatanaka: Wheel of Fortune


Kellen Hatanaka: Game of Death


Kellen Hatanaka: Double Double

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About the Author

Rebecca Irvin

Becky joined It’s Nice That in the summer of 2019 as an editorial assistant. She wrote many fantastic stories for us, mainly on hugely talented artists and photographers.

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