February 20, 2014 12:00 am JST

Banana artist's work gains global audience

KEISUKE YAMADA

I've always liked to draw, but I never thought I'd be sculpting bananas. I've been called a "banana sculptor" and a "banana craftsman," and some people may have seen my work on the Internet. I sculpt fine details on peeled bananas.

     Recently, I sculpted a horse to celebrate the Year of the Horse. The tools I used to create this piece were a flat spoon I found in our kitchen and a sharpened toothpick. That's it. One could use a sculpting knife, but I think it's more fun to use everyday tools.

     I've found it's better to use a ripe banana with brown sugar spots than a green banana. Softer ones are easier to work with. I begin sculpting by peeling just one part of the skin, using the rest to support the banana.

    I start by creating the outline, using a spoon to shave off large swaths of the banana. I don't toss out what I've scraped off; I eat it. I sculpt, then I eat, sculpt and eat. I repeat this process until the work is finished.  

     After I've created a general outline, I delve into the details. Using a toothpick, I draw lines, working in millimeter units. Eventually, the banana starts to brown. That's when I brush on some lemon juice to slow the discoloration.    

     You can't cut too deep into a banana. The core of the fruit, where the seeds used to be, is soft like jelly and not suited for sculpting. All sculpting work on a banana has to be done within about a centimeter of the surface of the banana.    

     Depending on the subject, it can take one to three hours to make a sculpture. I can't draw an outline, so I constantly make mistakes. I began showing my work on the Internet in 2012, but the number of works worth displaying is about 30. Behind all those works lie many banana trees' worth of mistakes.

     There's a personal reason I began doing this. One day, after graduating from high school, I got into a big fight with a good friend, and we never spoke again. When you don't have friends to hang out with, you have nothing to do with your time off. Being alone is not fun, even when you have games to play and movies to watch.

    One day, I found a banana on a table in the living room. I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be funny if I peeled off the skin and out came a face?" So I tried it. I was lonely, so I sculpted a smiling face. That was the beginning. 

     About a year later, on a whim, I decided to upload my work to Pixiv, an online social networking site where you can submit your illustrations. I got amazing feedback -- 10,000 people accessed my work. Somebody called me a "banana craftsman," and I got many comments asking for more. That encouraged me to go on and do sculptures of anime, movie and other characters.

Banana dragon

My happiest memory was when I made a dragon, hoping to lift the spirits of people affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. I uploaded the work with this message: "Good luck East Japan." I got comments from people saying things like, "Thank you. That made me smile."

     It felt strange knowing that there were people on the other side of the world who enjoyed my work. The negative thoughts I'd carried around in my head after I had the fight with my friend disappeared. I threw all my discontent at the banana, and then the banana rescued me from a dark place.     

     British newspapers, Brazilian TV broadcasters and German Internet media firms did stories on my sculptures. A banana importer gave me 160 bananas as a gift, asking me to use them. That made me happy, but it would've been nice if they'd given me the bananas in installments -- not all at once. I feel grateful for the unexpected connections I've made.     

     I'm sure real sculptors and artists who make figurines can do a much better job of sculpting a banana. But I dislike competing. And I don't see much point in honing one's skills in something like this.

     Sculpting bananas is fun. Eating bananas has the added benefit of keeping us regular. And I'm happy if I can bring a smile to people's faces.