AAPI Heritage Month: A passion for painting the Lowcountry

Updated: May. 27, 2021 at 12:49 PM EDT
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BEAUFORT COUNTY, S.C. (WTOC) - When you drive around the Lowcountry, you cannot help but notice the natural beauty.

You may also see that landscape recreated on buildings, signs, and benches.

“I feel so good. I’m in heaven.” Aki Kato arrived in Beaufort 18 years ago.

“I think this is my adopted home now,” he said.

But he felt like the Lowcountry had been calling him for much longer.

“I saw The Water is Wide when I was in high school. I still remember vividly that landscape,” Kato said.

The movie, based on the novel by Pat Conroy, would stay with Kato for decades.

“When I end up here, I realize this film was made in Daufuskie Island between Savannah and Hilton Head,” Kato said.

His journey to the Lowcountry started in Yokohama, Japan. He left his home country in 1976 with a dream of studying art in the United States.

“I mean, the reason that I started painting was, I wanted to make my parents proud and happy,” he said.

After graduating from college, Kato would go on to work for one of the top manufacturers of hand painted furniture.

“I don’t consider myself an artist. Actually, I really call myself craftsmen or blue collar artist,” he said.

That line of work brought him to Beaufort in 2003. When the company shut down three years later, he took a job teaching at the Technical College of the Lowcountry. One of his students turned out to be Pat Conroy’s sister.

That connection led to a commissioned painting you can now see at the Pat Conroy Literary Center.

“Pat believed in circles. That sooner or later you’d meet the people or come to the places you were meant to be, and I think that’s been Aki’s experience,” said Jonathan Haupt, with the Conroy Center.

If you look around Beaufort, you can spot his work in local schools, businesses, and the Visitor Center on Hunting Island.

“This took me about six, seven months to paint,” Kato said.

“To see what he can do when he’s got an entire building to work with is just incredible,” Haupt said.

And his latest contribution to his new, adopted home is a place to sit and soak it all in.

“This is all the Lowcountry and Coastal Empire is all about. This is the place I’m going to be for the rest of my life,” Kato said.

Kato was one of six artists chosen by the City of Beaufort to paint new benches unveiled earlier this month.

His bench, a tribute to Pat Conroy, is on Bladen Street in front of the Conroy Literary Center.

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