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Karissa Narukami: The world as seen by an artist

Karissa Narukami creates worlds.


That may not be true for herself; to Karissa, she is simply painting the world she sees. But for those lucky enough to have the opportunity to view her art, it is immediately apparent that in her world, there is so much more.


“There’s people who try to do art, which is beautiful,” Cory Dingle, executive director of the Norval Morrisseau estate says. “And there’s people who do art, which is beautiful. But then there’s a very, very small, small percentage that we call a natural-born artist.”


This will not be your typical article about an artist and their passion where I interview the artist, walk around in their space and try to formulate an idea of who they are. I am not able to do that this time.


Instead, with the help of Cory and Karissa’s older sister Aiko Narukami, I will try to take a peek behind the curtain.


Why not talk to the artist herself? 


I was unable to for a very good reason, one that I will address later.


A moment at Art Vancouver


Karissa working on A Joyous Day
Karissa working on A Joyous Day

Karrisa has been doing art in some form or another since she was two years old. That side of being an artist, save for a period during the COVID-19 pandemic, has always been a part of her.


But once the artwork is completed, what comes next?


Artists can try to apply to galleries, but it can be difficult to gain entry for newer, unestablished artists. They can create an online presence and try to sell their work directly to art appreciators, but it can be difficult to gain an audience.


There are also art shows like Art Vancouver, the international art fair put on annually by the Vancouver Visual Art Foundation. It was at last year’s Art Vancouver that Cory happened to pass by a booth that caught his eye.


“I was walking the floor, and I stopped and I looked at [Karissa’s] art,” Cory said. “And I was immediately taken by it. And I walked into the booth, and the booth was empty. And I walked into the booth, and I could see it was an unprepared booth in that sense. There was a lady standing there. And I said I was amazed at the art … and when I say amazed, I could tell it wasn’t graphically created, it wasn’t done with a projector. I was enjoying the colour palette, the perspective, the thought process, the detail, all those things that we kind of look for. But there was something more esoteric, magical about it.”


It was this feeling that led Cory to refer to Karissa as a natural-born artist, something he has vast experience with. Cory has dedicated his life to understanding the natural-born artist in his work with the Norval Morrisseau estate.


Norval is arguably Canada’s most famous artist. He has been called the “Picasso of the North” and is considered the founding figure of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada. He is a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and a member of the Order of Canada.


He is a natural-born artist. And so too is Karissa.


“Those people are put on the planet by the Great Spirit to give us art,” Cory says. “Now, everybody can give us art, but there’s a uniqueness to these people where they have to do art. They have to do it. There’s no other thought process in their head.”


It is extremely rare for Cory to feel this way. It has happened only a handful of times, less than that even. But when he walked into Karrisa’s booth at Art Vancouver, he knew.


“I was walking. I saw the art. I got these goose pimples. And I went to the person standing there, and I said, ‘Is this your art?’ And she says, ‘Oh, no. It’s my daughter, Karissa’s.’ And she pointed over to Karissa.”


But Karissa’s mother was struggling with the business side of being an artist, a struggle most artists of any genre feel. She did not know how to price art. There was no sign-up sheet or method of contact. The presentation of Karissa’s art was simple, but Cory saw things that could be improved. 


“And I stood there and stared at her while I was processing what I was going to say,” Cory says. “And I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to take over your booth for the next couple hours, and you’re just going to sit there and watch and learn from me.’”


The first job was a quick one: understanding what art should be worth.


“And then I started saying, ‘Well, how much is this painting?’ And she said, ‘That’s, I don’t know, 700 dollars?’ I said, ‘No. It’s 5,000 dollars.’ Right? And then we just started working the booth.”


With Cory’s art connections and the relationships with people he knew at the exhibition that day, they immediately sold two paintings for a collective $7,500. Cory also bought one of Karissa’s pieces for himself.


“I think I paid 3,500. I totally shot myself in the foot,” he laughs. “I should have nabbed it for 700. But I paid good money.”


From an art show to the moon


Karissa working on Moment of Elegance
Karissa working on Moment of Elegance

The NASA Lunar Codex project is a series of six time capsules that are being launched to the moon. They include the works of artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers from 234 countries, territories and Indigenous nations.


Codices Orion, Peregrine and Nova have already been launched. Codices Serenity, Freya and Polaris will be launched between August 2024 and February 2025.


“They’re collecting all the greatest works and greatest artists of the world and they’re putting it on these gold nanofiche [discs], radio-shield, the whole thing,” Cory says.


Initially, Cory tells me, only Norval was selected from Canada.


“I gave them the speech about the natural-born artist,” Cory says. “I said, ‘I know you guys are getting Picasso and Chagall and Gogh and Morrisseau. I get it. But I need to show you this natural-born artist.’ So, I showed them one of the paintings that I actually bought from Karissa.”


In the end, the Lunar Codex project selected two of Karissa’s paintings to be included in the time capsules. But at the time Cory was coordinating all of this, neither Karissa nor her family knew anything about it.


It was not until a bit later, at an exhibition of Karissa’s work that Cory was invited to, that he was able to tell anyone.


Karissa’s aunt was setting up the event and helping me. And I said to Karissa’s aunt, ‘I need a speech. You need to put me on the mainstage and let me have a speech.’”


During his speech, Cory told them where Karissa’s art was headed. Karissa, her family and everyone at the event were stunned, but as the reality set it, there were tears and cheering throughout.


“I was able to convey that it really took that whole community to go to the moon,” Cory says. “I thanked them all. You know? Because her aunt pitches in. Her sisters pitch in. The dad. The cousins. No artist sits in a vacuum, right? We need all these people. So, it was wonderful to thank all them, that we’re all going to the moon together.”


An artist first


Karissa’s sister, Aiko, says her sister is an artist first before anything else.


“That’s the first thing that comes to mind,” Aiko says. “She’s just the embodiment of creativity in everything she does. She never does anything 50 per cent. It’s always 110 per cent. It’s always her way. Otherwise, it doesn’t sit right with her.”


Aiko describes Karissa as sweet and kind. She is someone who values and is protective of her family and those close to her. 


Karissa is all these things. Karissa is also autistic.


“More than anything, she’s just very focused in her own sense of what her reality is. I know she sees things very differently from other people,” Aiko says.


Karissa was diagnosed with moderate to severe Autism Spectrum Disorder at two years old. At 26 years old today, it has influenced her art in many ways.


She was very young when her family began to understand that she sees and experiences the world in a different and unique way.


Karissa working on Princess Chieko
Karissa working on Princess Chieko

Aiko recalls a story of one of Karissa’s first pieces. It started with Karissa on a drive with her parents.


“They were driving past an amusement park. And Karissa was just looking at it through the window. But the moment she got home, probably when she was maybe four or five [years old], when they got home, she recreated the scene from the car. She had the Ferris wheel in the right spot. She had every single detail mapped out. Even the colours and everything. My parents were just like, ‘Okay, well we didn’t expect that!’”


Karissa has a topographic memory. Her memory enables her to remember the shape, design, contour and structure of people, places and objects to an extremely high degree. It allows her to create paintings with amazing levels of detail. And combined with her unique way of seeing the world, the art Karissa creates provides a small window into what she sees.


“You can give her the prompt, ‘Can you paint, I don’t know, a tree with fruit on it.’ And so, she’ll take that. But then, recently in one of her paintings in the past, she did a tree. But the fruit were, instead of apples and oranges, were little tiny galaxies in ornaments and orbs.”


I asked Aiko what she would want people to remember about Karissa.


“Karissa’s just like anybody else,” she says. “I don’t want her to be mistaken for somebody who is their disability. She’s so much more than that. And I think you can see that in her art and what she puts out. And she tries to convey that, not only in her art but how her speech is. Because it’s still a bit hard to make it out, but you can see how when you ask her about a painting, oh gosh, it’s every word she can think of, and it’s right in your face. It’s how excited she gets about it.”


By Nathan Durec


To learn more about Karissa, the Karissa Narukami Autism Foundation and her art, please visit https://www.karissanarukami.ca.

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