Chi Takahashi “Chiharu” Roach is not new to Birmingham, but her artwork has only recently become recognized in the art world. Since she began showing in 2011, Roach’s paintings of women with different animals entangled in their manes of hair have become some of the most sought-after pieces of art in Birmingham.
Roach brought her talents to Birmingham after she moved from Nagoya, Japan 15 years ago to assist a fellow artist friend who was a muralist. “Itzko [Roach’s friend] was Japanese and her husband was from Birmingham, so that’s how I ended up here,” Roach explained. “I’ve always loved art and that’s how I met Itzko: at her art show. When she said she needed an assistant I was more than happy to come help her.”
On her departure from Japan, Roach was filled with mixed emotions about coming to the United States. “I didn’t speak any English,” Roach said. “It was an entirely different world to me. Part of me was so excited to take on this adventure, but there was also part of me that kept asking, ‘What am I doing here?’”
After assisting her friend for three years, Roach decided to go out on her own. “I never studied [art] seriously in Japan. It wasn’t until I came to Birmingham that I decided to turn my love of art into something I could be proud of. I wanted to paint things I would be proud to put my name on. Something I could call my own.” After making this decision, Roach got a student visa and then started English classes at Jefferson State Community College. Once she became more familiar with the English language, she pursued her studying of art at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Roach’s art may seem bizarre at first glance, but her pieces have a deep well of emotion behind them. Her paintings are the illustrations of her internal feelings, mostly regarding the loss of a close friend. “A very good friend of mine killed herself six years ago,” Roach said. “When I found out I was so full of regret and anger for her, but also for myself, because I felt I should have talked to her more or done something to help her. So that’s where most of my inspiration comes from: my emotions.”
Roach struggled with the loss of her friend mentally for a long time before deciding the best way to honor her memory was to paint. The face that she uses in her pieces is often the face of her friend’s daughter. “Every stroke is like my own personal prayer,” she explained. “It makes me feel closer to her and it’s my way of telling her that I’ll always remember her.”
This is Roach’s third year displaying her work at local art festivals, but she admits that getting started seemed, at first, like an impossible feat. Roach believes that discriminations against Asian immigrants were what stalled her in beginning her career as an artist. “Fifteen years ago people would look at me like I was a three-headed alien and wouldn’t even talk to me,” Roach recalled. “So even considering selling my art was a huge obstacle for me.”
Over the years, Roach has noticed a considerable difference in the way people view her and her art. “My first art show was Magic City Art Connection in 2011. And [since then] I’ve had people not only buy my art, but they talk to me and they stay in contact with me on Facebook. They genuinely want to hear my story and love my work. It makes me happy that my artwork impacts people in such a way.”
Roach’s work has spread throughout the Birmingham community. Her Facebook page has more than 500 likes and is filled with people posting pictures of their latest Chiharu piece. Roach said that her most popular pieces are those involving butterflies and rabbits. “My grandmother always used to say that if a butterfly comes to you, then that means a lost loved one has sent a message to you. And that always makes me think of my friend, and so the butterfly has a special meaning to me.”
Roach has embraced the artistic community and all of the people in it. “When we’re at the festivals, I really wish we had more time to be able to walk around and see each other, but there really isn’t much time for that.” Roach takes a much more personable approach to the people interested in her paintings. She can recall who bought which of her paintings and has all of her patrons’ addresses so she can send them invitations to her upcoming festivals.
Roach is sometimes overwhelmed by the politeness of the Birmingham art patrons. “Everyone is so nice! Sometimes I’m skeptical that someone could be that nice but these people keep buying my paintings and that means so much to me.”
Chiharu Roach’s next art festival appearance will be at the 2014 FlameWorks Art Show at the Kevin Irwin Studio on 2330 2nd Avenue South from Dec. 5-7. Inquiries regarding her work should be sent to her via private message on her Facebook page, Chi Takahashi Roach Art.