It’s All Imagination

Cerebral palsy has not prevented Riki Asai from becoming an artist with a huge following, or from experiencing all the world offers

Melissa Moniz
Friday - April 22, 2005
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Riki Asai and his mother, Miwako, communicate
in their own way; below, his painting “The Source”

A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path. — Agatha Christie

The comforting warmth felt just being around Rikiya “Riki” Asai and his mom Miwako supersedes any awe-inspiring talent that this young man happens to possess. The mother-child admiration shared between the two is enough to humble, inspire and uplift anyone who comes their way.

Riki’s talent as a world-renowned painter who happens to have cerebral palsy is simply an added chapter in their storybook of hope, where imagination reigns and each page holds its own happy ending.

“Mother tried to make imagination development in his mind,” says Michiyo Nakamura, Laser Eye Center of Hawaii Japan Division manager. (Because of Riki’s handicap, Miwako translates for Riki here, and because Miwako speaks Japanese, Nakamura translates for her into English).

“Riki cannot throw the ball, but mom shows through imagination to throw the ball. She tells him story and he uses his imagination and ideas to inspire him for art. That’s where his early drawings came about.”

Aside from keeping Riki happy,Miwako’s focus has always been to allow him to experience everything the world has to offer. His physical limitations never hinder Riki, but instead add complexity to his charming character.

“In my book I read to Riki all the pages are white and we talk and we can see, and with our imagination we fill the book,” says Miwako. “Riki and I, we use our imagination — like PlayStation2 where Riki is the character in his wheelchair and he’s the hero of the game.

“It’s like playing basketball or running — he cannot, but inside his imagination he can do all those things.”

Now through July 1, a selection of the 20-year-old’s artwork is on exhibit at the Laser Eye Center of Hawaii’s Art of Vision Gallery. The exhibit, “Expressions from the Heart,” is an exciting glimpse into Riki’s amazing world, and just a handful of his award-winning abstract and floral works exhibited throughout Japan, Hong Kong and the U.S. Admission is free and gallery hours are Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 946-6000.

“When Riki was a child he got a disease from a medical drug reaction and couldn’t see, and he was very, very scared,” says Miwako. “He remembers that and decided to show his pictures at the Laser Eye Center.

“Some people take sight for granted, but he realizes that it’s not to be taken for granted, and also he wants to share his happiness with people.”

Riki’s happiness is best seen through his contagious smile, but for those not lucky enough to have that every day, one of his paintings is a worthy alternative. The color, life and imagery radiate from each of Riki’s paintings, and are the pages he colors in mom’s storybook.

Born in Japan, Riki developed cerebral palsy after not receiving enough oxygen during a very difficult delivery. Cerebral palsy is a condition that affects thousands of babies and children each year. Most have trouble controlling muscles and many have trouble walking, talking and eating.

When Riki was 4, he visited Shriner’s Hospital in Honolulu for treatment. A year later, Riki and Miwako decided to make Hawaii home.

At just 5 years old, Riki’s interest in watercolors was sparked when he spotted a watercolor set in a toy store at Ala Moana Center and insisted on bringing it home. From then he refused to be without it, and although he was unable to hold the brush, he started painting with the brush taped to his hand.

“He always want to hold the brush and so I never force anything, and so no classes,” says Miwako. “He paints his feelings.”

When asked his favorite painting, Riki calmy flips through his book Riki, one of seven books about him or featuring his paintings. He stops on the painting “Thank You Mike” and points to it.

“His favorite is always changing and depends on his feelings at the time,” says Miwako. “He likes everything and cannot choose which is his favorite because every day feelings change.”

“Thank You Mike” is his favorite for this day. Mike Lueck is Riki’s stepfather and his former special education teacher at Thomas Jefferson School. The story behind the painting is, when Riki left for Japan Mike stayed in Hawaii and Riki missed him so much that he did the painting to say thank you to him.

Riki’s first painting exhibited at the 14th Annual Hawaii Academy of Arts show when he was 7 years old. Another painting was accepted accepted the following year, where he won the Japanese Consulate General Prize.

“Riki takes one day to a couple years for each painting,” says Miwako. “He draws when he gets feeling inside, otherwise he doesn’t want to draw.”

Sold throughout the world, Riki’s paintings average $6,000 to $7,000 a piece. Postcard-size paintings are $1,200 and only originals are sold.

“The quality not good for posters and reprints and so not accept that,” says Miwako. “He always use a strong color, so hard to reprint to have the quality.”

Riki Asai works on another masterpiece
painting with vibrant colors

But Riki’s paintings weren’t always for sale. It took Miwako a while to accept letting go of Riki’s art.

“Used to be I didn’t want to sell anything because everything precious treasure,” says Miwako. “Since we became Christians I realize I cannot bring everything to heaven, so I try to share with everybody and to make people happy.”

Still, not all Riki’s paintings are available for purchase. There are some special paintings that Mom chooses not to sell, one being “Kiss & Mom,” a painting Riki made for his mom when she was sick.

“Later I will possibly donate it to the children’s hospital,” says Miwako.

Riki’s imagination is already working on his next project. Having just visited Japan during cherry blossom season, Riki tells his mom through sounds and sign language that he is really eager to paint.

“We took a car ride and both sides there’s cherry blossom trees, and Riki says it’s like skiing in the spring snow,” says Miwako. “The impression of cherry blossoms still in his mind and stay in his mind. He decided on the title already for next art work, “2005 — Spring Snow.”

Riki’s limited ability to talk hasn’t stopped him from communicating his messages of strength, encouragement and hope. Instead of words, Riki uses the universal language of art to tell the world his remarkable story and hopefully pass on the power of appreciation and love — values passed to him from his endearing mother.

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