“To Jolt, Not Beautify”: Alexa Hatanaka of PA System on the Artistic Process

Hatanaka and her partner Patrick Thompson, travel the world making work as PA System. They work collaboratively in textile, printmaking, painting, video and public art.

Alexa Hatanaka, half of the interdisciplinary art duo, PA System, spent time in St. John’s this fall, participating in St. Michaels Printshop’s Visiting Artist Program.

Hatanaka and her partner Patrick Thompson, travel the world making work as PA System. They work collaboratively in textile, printmaking, painting, video and public art. They also founded Embassy of the Imagination (EOI), an arts initiative for youth in Nunavut with a focus on creating community art projects.

A lot of PA System’s work is large-scale murals realized through the process of painting together, they often only have a loose idea of the imagery they want to include before beginning a piece.

“…so much of it evolves intuitively and in reaction to one another. Playfulness, trust, taking risks and collaboration are useful things to insert into the world.”

Hatanaka believes the purpose of public art is not to ‘beautify’ public spaces but to jolt people into an awareness of their surroundings. She likes that it is accessible for anyone to embrace or critique and that there are opportunities to hear people’s reactions to the work as it’s being made.

“I do really value public art and creating to serve a purpose beyond commercial art sales or personal projects … the work serves to stimulate thinking, conversations, to bring issues into the public agenda, or just remind people to have a sense of wonder—it’s easy to forget.”

Hatanaka grew up in Toronto and it’s still her home base but she and Thompson are constantly traveling to exhibit their work and create murals. Being on the road so much means that Hatanaka usually prints by hand, the Visiting Artist Program was a welcome opportunity to spend some time in a studio, working with a printing press.

“While at St. Michael’s I was creating prints of a hat that was left behind by a dear friend that died this year by suicide…I’ve been looking at the hat a lot and wanted to figure out how I may honour him, or just give myself space to sit with the loss a little bit. It just looked so empty and anonymous, but it wasn’t always.”

Hatanaka often turns to printmaking and weaving to make work that is more personal and draws on her own recollections. She likes tediousness of working in these mediums, the meticulous, time-consuming processes of weaving and carving imbues the finished pieces with meaning.

“When my grandma was sick I also made linocut prints of her. I drew on them from life and worked on them while sitting with her because she couldn’t hear anymore and it was a way to interact without having to talk very much. I think the process of carving the blocks is very contemplative for me and the physical gesture of carving the lino can be very expressive, so it lends itself to personal work.”

Hatanaka says that physical work of carving a lino block is very different from painting. To achieve something specific requires a lot of control especially since it is impossible to undo a cut in the block.

“..the catch is you can’t ‘erase’ what you’ve done. You’re committed to the decisions you’ve made and that makes the work very honest and intentional.”

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