Guided by the wood grain, Santa Claus’s features slowly came alive under Iwata’s carving knife. It must be some kind of faith that breathed life into each distinct sculpture. The nuances are precisely what attract Iwata’s customers.
“Tracing the wood grain naturally results in faces that may tilt towards the right or left, slightly upwards or downwards. I try to factor in a little change every year, be it the volume of Santa Claus’s beard, the thickness of his belt, or the method of colouring. Just a tiny change – just to get closer to the way I imagine Santa Claus,”
The eyes of Iwata’s Santa Claus made me realise: the character is but a symbol. That was the first time I studied his face so carefully.
“One day it occurred to me: my visitors are not here for Santa Claus. They’re looking for their own image reflected in him, in the stream of memories evoked – something important that no one else would understand. So I began spending more time on Santa Claus’s look,”
Does the character Santa Claus mean anything to Iwata?
“It makes me sad when I think about it. I wonder: why does he insist on bringing hope to children year after year? I myself know very little about the world, but I do know that it’s not at all beautiful, no matter how much we want it to be the case. TV channels are flooded with news against Santa Claus’s morals. He must be devastated. At 51 now, I seem to be able to understand him better. Children are truly the world’s treasure, full of potential. That’s probably what Santa Claus saw in them, or at least believed that’s what he saw and what he wanted to look over: hope,” If that’s what prompted an old man to put on the Santa Claus suit, it doesn’t sound like a myth after all.
How did Iwata get here?
Iwata spent his childhood between America and Sweden because of his father’s work. Since high school, he had been working as a sculptor’s and an aluminium artist’s assistant in an academy, while also learning to paint. At 19, he embarked on a journey around Europe starting with Venice. He then enrolled in an academy where he attended Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s painting class. Upon returning to Japan, he realised that few appreciated the medium, so he turned to furniture-making and eventually, forestry to better understand the raw material. Since 2010, he’s been working under the pseudonym “gennou”.
“I began my practice because of my wife. When I picked up the paint brush again to colour her Santa Claus, my hand trembled with joy,” Wood has since replaced the canvas. Of course, all roads lead to Rome.
Asked what the most incredible thing about his process was, Iwata said creating Santa Claus itself was enjoyable, but he also looked forward to moments that really touched him, “Once, my Santa Claus reminded a customer of someone they had lost. I promised myself then and there that I would always give my all to what I was doing.”
“Maybe I, too, am looking at myself through the image of Santa Claus,” Maybe that’s why his work is full of uncertainty. “It’s like the parable of the blind men and an elephant – sometimes I don’t even know what I’m up against. It’s like groping in the dark, or staring at myself.” Perhaps, to create a mirror, one needs to first be the mirror.
After the interview, I received an email from Iwata telling me about an anecdote. I was all the more certain that things happened for a reason.
Few days ago on Instagram, he found an old friend whom he met while studying abroad. Too much has happened since Iwata’s return to Japan, and the two has drifted apart over 31 years. Seeing how well his friend is doing moved Iwata to tears. “Looking at my Santa Claus – I, an Asian, sculpting a white Santa Claus with blue eyes – it then occurred to me: that’s his face.”