The Man Behind a Larger-Than-Life Abraham Lincoln
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s never too late to follow an artistic passion.
By Neil Parmar
Study Abraham Lincoln’s face the way Kazuhiro Tsuji has and you may see, as the Japanese artist does, “dignity, sadness and strength. It’s a great face, because it has everything,” says the 47-year-old.
We took a gander ourselves, at OZY Fusion Fest in New York’s Central Park this summer. There, we gazed at Abe in a way we never had before and heard Tsuji speak about his work during a panel with fellow artist Zaria Forman. Tsuji’s bust of the 16th U.S. president, to be displayed at the festival’s Good Sh*t Bazaar, is twice life-size to make everyone feel childlike while viewing it. “I wanted to create a scale that’s larger than life,” he says.
Sculpting faces any larger than that leads to technical quirks, Tsuji notes, as it becomes tricky to find the right length and texture of hair while also producing realistic-looking facial details. Most of Tsuji’s portraits — which have included Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol, and have been praised for being among “the most talked-about pieces in the room” (Miami New Times on a Scope art show) and “stunningly realistic” (the U.K.’s Daily Mail) — are made of silicone skin, fiberglass resin and, yes, human hair. His Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, if you read between the wrinkled lines on Abe’s long mug, is meant to elicit the depressive moods the leader suffered, something that Tsuji says he became all too familiar with before he left a successful career behind the big screen as a special-effects makeup artist to fulfill a different kind of artistic passion.
As a kid, Tsuji was introverted, disengaged in school and too busy sketching designs in notebooks to worry about grades. Star Wars inspired an interest in special effects, and in high school, he started thinking about a career in special-effects makeup. A book depicting how actor Hal Holbrook transformed into Lincoln for the 1985 TV miniseries North and South spurred Tsuji to create a 3-D mold of his own face along with his own special-effects makeup. The soft-spoken artist eventually made his way from his hometown of Kyoto to Tokyo and then on to Hollywood, where he spent 25 years working on movies such as Planet of the Apes, Men in Black and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button while sharing a couple of Oscar nods for best achievement in makeup along the way.
It took several years, but his first post-Hollywood portrait became that of Lincoln.
Yet, Tsuji says, “I never really liked to work in the film industry; I didn’t like the superficial things about it.” The idea to switch tracks arrived in 2002, when he unveiled a bust of his friend and mentor, legendary makeup artist Richard Emerson “Dick” Smith, at Smith’s 80th birthday party. Guests reacted with such emotional vigor to Tsuji’s creation that he vowed to transition out of the Hollywood hullabal
Video DurationIt took several years, but the hyperrealist sculptor’s first post-Hollywood portrait became that of Lincoln. The initial one was purchased by an art collector, while a second sold to a theater. His third edition was on-site at OZY Fusion Fest. “When I create a portrait, I like to create from the inside out, rather than what someone looks like from the surface,” says Tsuji.