Guidance from Afar-The inspired art and life of Julliena Okah
Most artists are encouraged to pursue their craft, their dream, their vision, by family members or by teachers in school. As a child in post-World War II Tokyo, Julliena Okah was already practicing on the piano and violin, but her real encouragement came from “the others.”
Okah currently has several pictures on view at 608 North in Redondo Beach. In the words of gallery owner Kevin Holladay, “Julliena is not only a very talented painter, she is also a violin virtuoso and was gracious enough to play at the opening of ‘Another Summer with the Ladies.’ This was probably the finest art exhibition opening that 608 North has had and possibly one of the finest in the South Bay, thanks in part to her performance.”
Okah has followed an artistic path that has led her through most of the world’s countries, and she has even lived in 14 or 15 of them, including Austria and France.
We met up the other day and tried to make ourselves heard above the blow-by-blow commentary of a World Cup soccer game. Along with the mundane sounds of traffic and other customers, it made for a curious backdrop to a tale of soul searching, spirituality, and paranormal experiences.
The latter began when Okah was six-years-old. None of us are comfortable when someone we’ve just met brings up the subject of “alien abduction,” but many of us have had peculiar experiences of our own that seem to defy rational explanation. Okah’s first encounters with unworldly beings occurred in a forest near her home. Others followed. As she’s written in her memoir, “the fact is that my subsequent otherworldly experiences have ruled my entire life. Both my career and my spiritual understanding have been built on what I learned on the other world.” Okah, whose Japanese first name is Kayoko (Julliena came later) was born in Kyoto, where her mother’s ancestors have lived for centuries. If you’ve been to Kyoto, or even if you’ve only read Murasaki Shikabu’s “The Tale of Genji” (I’ve done both), you must be aware that Kyoto – with its hundreds of temples and shrines – embodies a sense of the sacred and the divine. Things happen in this world, to paraphrase Jorge Amado, that would even astonish God.
What inspires and motivates an artist doesn’t matter. It could be the serenity of nature, an image of the Madonna, or an attractive individual. What matters is that the artist puts this inspiration and motivation to good use, and does something creative with it.
This, Okah has done. Her story would be interesting even if she had withheld her paranormal experiences. And, in fact, after realizing how skeptical people were when she did mention what she’d seen, she pretty much kept quiet about it after that. But she always knew these weren’t just dreams or hallucinations: “Dreams are fragmentary, but my memory was sequential and in great depth.”
Okah began playing violin professionally at 19 while attending the Geidai Music Academy and Tamagawa University in Tokyo. A chance encounter (with a professor) led her to the study of German philosophy, and the existentialism of Friedrich Nietzsche in particular. She attended Waseda University and her graduation thesis was titled “Development of the Consciousness of Art by Nietzsche.” She was also drawn to Beethoven and to the various composers who had lived in or performed in Vienna – and so she went there to study music.
The life that followed is explained in some detail in her book, “One Life, Many Worlds,” which is available through Tate Publishing, or from Amazon, but Okah then worked for some 30 years as an entertainer, primarily as a strolling gypsy violinist on cruise ships. It was the fabled Liberace who’d urged her to create her own show, which she did in 1984. Okah says she performed on over 500 cruises, employing a technique she calls “the dancing violin.” Pictures of her in costume, swirling about as she plays, are impressive.
What’s interesting here is that, especially at moments of crisis or uncertainty, things fell into place for Okah and opportunities opened up. Of course, it takes courage, or simply faith, to walk through those doors. For example, on what might appear to be a whim to other people, Okah bought a condominium in Nice, in the the south of France. It was an effortless purchase, almost as if it was meant to be. She’s also lived in New York City and in Florida, and in India where she studied Indian philosophy.
In 2001, after five months in Peru, Okah returned to Nice. On the first day of September she was painting her room. As she did so, “my hand mysteriously started to move and began to paint something on the wall. My sudden desire to paint artistically was enormous, and I went immediately to buy materials. I painted non-stop with watercolors and oils for months.” It wasn’t many days later that airliners were crashed into New York and Washington, D.C., and overnight cruise ship bookings dried up – and so, providentially in her case, Okah had time to paint. She was performing and spending her days in Florida, and it was there that she first began exhibiting her work.
She’d kept her New York apartment for 22 years, until 2008, when she settled “permanently” in Southern California.
That’s just a taste of what seems to have been an extraordinary life so far. Some of it may test the bounds of credibility, but Julliena Okah is past being overly concerned with what other people think about her life story. As she says, “I don’t care. It happened.”
“Another Summer with the Ladies” remains on view through July 19 at 608 North, located at 608 N. Francisca Ave., Redondo Beach. (310) 376-5777 or go to 608north.com.