Looking at the works of Norimitsu Kokubo is like a glimpse at the drawings we did as children. Details of our surroundings that caught our attention—buildings, cars, people–are reproduced in busy detail; landmarks from different cities stand next to each other, brought together by a simple desire to have our favorite things in a single picture.

The comparison with our own juvenile art ends quickly, however, once when we take in the full scale of the artwork. As children, we only had patience for details on a few things: Outside of our favorite building or car; the rest of the paper is hastily filled in with broad strokes of colour pencils and crayons. Kokubo’s drawings, on the other hand, are massive, filled with details right to the edge of the paper.

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On 21 Jan, Kokubo was in the Enabling Village to film a Channel NewsAsia documentary and meet with the young artists of Pathlight School. Besides touring the gallery at the Art Faculty, he also had a lively exchange with his newfound friends and fans.

Outsider art

Kokubo’s works are regular features of the Art Brut exhibitions in Japan as well as in Europe. Art Brut, or outsider art, refers to works by artists who are self-taught and perceived to be on the edges of society. For the 21-year-old Japanese artist who was diagnosed with autism in his second year of elementary school, drawing is a routine of comfort and his main outlet of expression.

Visitors crowd around Kokubo as he demonstrates his craft.

Visitors crowd around Kokubo as he demonstrates his craft.

Kokubo draws inspiration from real places, which he learns of from newspapers and the Internet. He is particularly captivated by the skylines of socialist cities, particularly those of North Korea and China, with their high-rise buildings, expansive public spaces, and colossal monuments. Military vehicles such as missile carriers also appear often on his two-dimensional city streets.

There’s always room for more detail

Kokubo’s typical work starts not by composition, but by diving into details right away. He uses a variety of papers, and relies heavily on fine-tip gel pens (0.28mms are among his go-to tools).

Photo of Norimitsu Kokubo at his 'Live' drawing demonstration

Watching Kokubo draw ‘Live’ is quite an experience.

At the art demonstration he gave after the dialogue, one corner of the drawing paper was already densely filled with buildings and streets. Kokubo explained that, once he reached the edge of the paper, he would attach another to let him continue his work. How long did he take to finish a work? “Smaller pieces take about one to two weeks, depending on the complexity and how intricate the picture I have in mind,” said Kokubo.

Photo of Norimitsu Kokubo’s drawing tools, which comprises pens, colour pencils and gel pens of various fine tips.

Kokubo’s drawing tools.

Kokubo’s largest piece of work “Super World” (which was not on exhibit) spans 10 metres long and took him six years to complete. Kokubo explained why it took him so long: he became quite obsessive about some details, and kept going back to rework them. Eventually, in order to make progress, he had to set the work aside for a few months to calm down before resuming.

Kokubo discusses his works with the emcee during a live panel wit his parents

Kokubo discusses his works with the emcee during a live panel with his parents

Despite his growing influence as an artist, Kokubo is very much like a typical, independent youth: While not operating a SAORI loom (he works as an artisan, weaving textiles for bags and scarves five days a week), he helps with the household chores, such as washing the dishes. He also recently obtained his driver’s license, and has brought his parents on weekend trips to Kyoto, an hour away from his quiet hometown in Shiga-ken.

And he does look forward to having more exhibitions outside of his hometown. “Going to somewhere bustling once in a while is refreshing as a change,” he said.