This article originally featured in the December 2020 issue of Connect.
Carlos Sulpizio (Chiba)
My name is Carlos Sulpizio. I am now a 5th year Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) located in Minamiboso, the most southern part of Chiba. I work mainly at an elementary and junior high school. Although being an English teacher is not my main goal, I absolutely love this job and my students dearly.
My life dream was to be an illustrator in Tokyo. Although elements of that still shine through, I feel that my goals have shifted a bit due to my experience on the JET Programme.
My placement is in the countryside of rural southern Chiba, filled with rice fields, mountains and beaches. This varied environment is full of a wide breadth of exciting painting challenges and gives me a chance to use a broad palette. I decided to paint my surroundings as soon as I arrived. The golden rice fields swaying like waves in the wind, the amazing rainbow palette sunsets, and the beautiful lush mountains were all there for me . . . especially when the homesickness and anxiety kicked in.
My first winter here was very hardーI was going through relationship problems, it was my first time living alone in my life, and the very cold and short winter days were depressing. It is the worst time to make a heavy decision like recontracting. However, I got through it and decided to stay another year. Painting in my house was a great help. I also sometimes made the three-hour trip to Tokyo to meet friends and had different adventures there. When spring came around, I decided to paint outside more often and take advantage of the amazing scenery around me. I also became closer with my community and students. I had a few hanami adventures in Yoyogi Park and painted many sakura.The short lifespan of peak sakura inspired me to go out and paint them in person as much as I could. From there, my method and style gradually began to blossom into what it is today. “Anytime, anywhere” is my motto. I bring my paints and sketchbook with me literally everywhere I go. The only time I part with them is when I am in an onsen. I even have my stuff with me in the classroom, just in case!
Bringing Art into the Classroom
I am very lucky with my school board and placement, as they have been very supportive of me and my illustration work since the start. When I first came to my school, I showed the teachers and students some of my art, and I guess it established my presence as the “foreigner artist” type of character. It was great for my self-introduction as well, since showing my artwork and university thesis gallery was a great way of talking about myself without too much talking. What I love about the world of image-making is that it transcends language. Anyone from anywhere can understand a feeling from a painting. They can even make their own interpretation of it!
The school also asked me to make the flyer artwork for our school’s undōkai (sports festival), so I did! It was a great experience, and I now do the flyer design every year. The principal frames the originals and keeps them in the school entrance. It is interesting to see the progression over the years.
I often use the blackboard in class, drawing characters that the students like, or explaining a scene from the textbook to do a skit with the students along with myself and the Japanese Teacher of English (JTE). It’s great for listening and understanding practice for all ages.
I also like to encourage my students to draw and doodle whenever they can! Some students show me their sketchbook weekly and ask for comments. I am always blown away by what they are capable ofーand at such a young age! It inspires me to draw even more.
One important thing to note is that it is worth it to ask questions sometimes. Don’t let the fear of “overstepping your boundaries” take complete control of your life. If you want to be more creatively active with your job, ask the school if it’s ok to drop in on an art class! Doodle more and share it! If you’re musical, maybe stick around with the brass band, or play the piano when the kids leave. Don’t think of yourself as a burden; your placement is lucky to have you. I asked my supervisor if I could do illustration work outside of the school, knowing that my contract says we can’t. He told me I could do so as long as no single transaction exceeded 100,000 yen. Of course every situation is different, but I think it is worth it to ask instead of fearing the unknown. I even sometimes leave the staff room and paint the beautiful nature surrounding my mountainside school (provided I have finished all other work) during periods with no classes. Deskwarming is a beautiful thing if you apply a sense of direction to it!
My Recent Projects
One of my favorite projects I have completed while being on JET is the Tomiyama Furusato Karuta project. My local municipal leaders asked me to create 44 illustrations based on our town of Tomiyama, its scenic locations, and its interesting history. It was a volunteer project, so I was hesitant at the beginning. There wasn’t a profit margin eitherーthey made it clear that this was for the purpose of making the town happy and nothing else, so I wouldn’t be able to get royalties either. 44 illustrations is a lot of work, and asking someone to do something like that for free is a bit disrespectful to myself and to other illustrators. That being said, I asked if I could have some boxes to sell so I could make some money and share my work with the community. I also realized that this kind of project would make my students and community really happy. I decided to do it with them in mind as well as for the satisfaction of having some sort of legacy after I finish JET. With that, the year-long project began, and I was taken around the town with locals to find different spots to draw for use in the karuta game.
After monthly meetings and a ton of back and forth, the cards are finally printed and done! I have a few boxes left to sell. I am quite happy with how the project turned out! My favorite card is of princess Satomi Fuse and her dog husband, Yatsufusa. They are from the local tale of Hakkenden, which took place in the lower Chiba area.
I also met a lovely music fest community made up of members both inside and outside of Tokyo, with very like-minded people who love to dance and smile past the sunrise. I particularly like the disco and house crowd. I often go to music festivals and do live painting, sometimes as staff and sometimes just for fun. I love the great energy at these events, and I like to use it in my artwork. I plan on having an exhibition with the 40+ pieces from live events that I have accumulated since 2017. These pieces have more of a fantasy or psychedelic flair to them, while combining nature and the stage in the foreground. It’s really comforting to have this family of friends, both from Japan and overseas. This community has given me a sense of home and stability, and I look forward to partying again when Corona has calmed down a bit!
As I write this now, I am reflecting on my JET experience as a whole, and it seems that art was there the entire way. When I was depressed, when I was ecstatic, when I was neutral . . . art got me through it all. After breaking the chains of waiting for “motivation,” I have found a method of creating that enables me to have more output than ever
before. . . . “Anytime, anywhere, a painting can be made,” be it on a train, the middle of Shibuya scramble, on the top of a mountain during the freezing sunrise . . . in a plane looking out the window, on the beach, on the bus, in the classroom choose to create. Accept that nothing is perfect, your expectations will rarely be met, and you will never be the best. Once you accept those three things, you are free and can create out of love instead of fear or concern. Love is the life force of art, and I feel a lot of love from my school and community. I am so grateful to JET and my incredible supervisor for this rollercoaster of an experience. If you went back in time and told first-year Carlos that it would be like this, he wouldn’t believe you. . . . But change happens to all of us for better or for worse. I recommend focusing on the better. Use the “better” with every brush stroke.
I never want to stop.
Carlos Sulpizio is a fifth-year ALT from Canada working in Chiba Prefecture. He studied illustration at Sheridan College, Canada. He was first inspired by video game illustrations at a young age. You can see more of his art on his Instagram.