Toriizaka Art Gallery: Supporting Communities Through Art

Combining Love For Art And People

A home-style gallery with a cause.

When gallery Toriizaka Art was founded in Tokyo in 2006, its purpose was to showcase and sell the works of talented, yet largely unrecognized, Vietnamese artists. Now, nearly a decade on, the gallery is supporting various communities through numerous fundraising events. This Friday, it will gather supporters for a charity evening to help Japan’s disadvantaged youth.

Doubling as the home of Karen Thomas — the venue founder and curator — as well as a gallery, Toriizaka Art offers a unique opportunity to experience fine art. Walking around each beautifully appointed room without the crowds of most galleries, it doesn’t take long to relax and appreciate each piece, even imagining how it would look on the wall at home.

A glimpse of Toriizaka Art Gallery.

American by birth, Thomas has spent the past 22 years in Tokyo, “raising a family, volunteering in support of a number of non-profit organizations and traveling throughout the world with (her) husband and sons developing an understanding and appreciation of many different cultures and traditions.” But one thing she always had passion for was collecting art, and after one thing led to another, she opened the gallery in Tokyo’s Hiroo area almost 11 years ago. The gallery features a diverse selection of exceptional art, primarily from Vietnam and it also holds a number of benefit exhibitions annually supporting non-profit educational organizations and initiatives associated with local charities.

Karen Thomas at her gallery Toriizaka Art in Tokyo.

For Thomas, the decision to opt for salon style was a deliberate one. She describes herself as “an art lover” rather than “an art expert” and owns all the pieces: testament to her belief in the artists whose works she handpicks and features. The place for each painting is painstakingly decided based on such considerations as room use, position of other artists, color and style contrasts, as well as space. Thomas’ work is also a labor of love and the art is very much a part of her life. In more practical terms, though, while managing the business, Thomas has raised four sons (all now adults), making working at home indispensable.

“When I first visited Vietnam in 2000, I was struck by the bright and distinctive art I saw and I was saddened that the artists were not getting the appreciation they deserved,” she says. After buying piece after piece, and deciding in 2005 to open Toriizaka Art, she has developed relationships with the artists to understand their stories and inspiration. 

On May 19th, the gallery will host an event that aims to gather funds for Mirai no Mori, a non-profit organization that empowers marginalized children through camps and outdoor pursuits.

Each wall teams with beautifully diverse statement paintings: landscapes, portraits, modern reflections, and snapshots of everyday life. The art offers a glimpse of not only old and new Vietnam, but also of how the featured Vietnamese artists see the world.

Dai Hai Phong’s art at Toriizaka Art gallery in Tokyo.

Dai Hai Phong’s brilliant landscapes bring to life villages on the edge of Hanoi through effervescent colors, layering and texturing. His purpose is to present the Vietnam he loves while preserving the disappearing cultural geography of his youth. Regarded as one of Vietnam’s most successful contemporary painters, his fan base is growing worldwide, but many of his talented peers have not been so fortunate.

After graduating from Vietnam University of Fine Arts in 2008, Nguyen Dinh Vu chose to create figurative art that express his emotions and makes a statement. His mix of monochrome and color coupled with abstract thinking is sure to intrigue the viewer well after leaving the gallery.

Nguyen Dinh Vu’s art is on display at the Toriizaka Art gallery in Tokyo.

There are also pieces offering reflections on Japan: a painting of Mount Fuji in the form of a Coke can; a kimono-clad lady carrying shopping bags under the train tracks in Yurakucho; and a Buddhist monk walking with his back to the viewer, into the distance.

Others, such as those by Hanoi University of Fine Arts graduate Doan Thuy Hanh, focus on children. Growing up in Vietnam’s post-collectivist system, she experienced hardships as well as happy times, largely spent with her family or drawing in sketchbooks. She tries to capture these aspects of her life on canvas.

Paintings at the Toriizaka Art gallery.

And now this art serves as an inspiration for Karen to host a fundraising event in support of Japanese children who also have experienced hardships. On May 19th, the gallery will host an event that aims to gather funds for Mirai no Mori, a non-profit organization that empowers marginalized children through camps and outdoor pursuits.

Established in 2013, Mirai no Mori works with abused, neglected and orphaned children in Japan. It estimates that almost 30,000 such children live across the country in about 600 welfare institutions, about half of which are large-scale with up to 20 children living in one dormitory. Due to the cultural and legal obstacles of adopting or even fostering these children, almost all spend their childhood in care so the NPO is working to empower and prepare them for adult life.

Mirai no Mori is a non-profit organization that empowers marginalized children through camps and outdoor pursuits.

The gallery will host the Friday event to fund one of the organization’s programs, Back to Nature, in June. Volunteer supporters of the program will travel to the outskirts of Tokyo for a day of games, English communication, and outdoor cooking with children from care homes in Metropolitan Tokyo and neighboring areas.

“We used to offer only summer camps but we wanted to keep in touch with the children throughout the year so we started our Back to Nature monthly programs in August 2016,” says Kozue Oka, executive director of Mirai no Mori.

Mirai no Mori representatives will be on hand at the Friday event at Toriizaka Art to explain more about its work. Meanwhile Thomas will offer a gallery tour and introduction to her artistic journey and that of the artists she showcases. With more than 100 paintings to view over a range of wine and party food, there is sure to be something for everyone’s artistic and culinary tastes.


The Deets

Toriizaka Art

Address: 2-20-13 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

The gallery is open only by appointment. For more information see here. The fundraising event on May 19 will take place between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. at the gallery. Cost: ¥5,000 (includes wine, cheese, party food). To register for the event, click here.

Kathryn is a freelance journalist whose work has been featured in The Japan Times, Asia Times, Japan Today and TTG Asia, as well as niche publications in the UK. A former editor of BCCJ Acumen, the magazine of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan, she also works as an editor, proofreader and copywriter. When not traveling to her beloved Kagoshima, where she lived for six years, Kathryn enjoys seeking out Tokyo's best spots to experience Japanese culture, from onsen and hanami to tea ceremony and kimono dressing.

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