By John Sammon —
Momo Cha is an artist who is able to produce works of art that brighten the day for pedestrian passersby who can view her sidewalk creations free without venturing into an art gallery.
But it is also art that can make a statement, a statement against the recent acts of violence directed at Asian people by ignorant haters seeking a scapegoat.
“I drew a scene of a woman in a kimono enjoying the blooming cherry blossoms for AAPI month,” Cha said, “because I wanted to bring peace and harmony to the Japanese American community so that we may show our love and appreciation for Asian heritage. It is stronger than acts of violence and hatred.”
AAPI is the annually observed Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month each May calling attention to the contributions both ethnic groups have made to American life.
Cha is an artist who does a variety of artwork forms. Among her more unusual efforts have been sidewalk chalk murals displayed at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin (640 N. 5th St.). The artworks are so vibrant and rich in color they almost seem to jump up off the pavement.
“I’m a full-time designer, I do art freelance on the side,” Cha said.
Cha’s ancestors lived in the Akita and Yamagata Prefectures, rugged areas north of Tokyo known for their temples, mountains and hot springs. Her mother’s ancestors lived in Tokyo and her mother’s grandfather ran an electronics store in the capital city before serving in the Japanese Army during World War II.
“My paternal grandfather was a laborer during the war working on railroads in Japan,” Cha said. “My paternal grandmother’s family managed a Shinto shrine and most family members worked in administration or as teachers at local schools.”
Her grandfather had lived in Gyeongiu, South Korea.
Cha’s mother Richi from Tokyo and her father Minoru from Yokohama immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980’s to San Rafael where Cha grew up.
“My parents were young adults at the time and they were interested in American culture,” Cha said. “Life in Japan was very strict back them. Both of them entered the country on a student visa.”
Her father became a sushi chef at San Francisco’s An Restaurant and her mother worked as a waitress.
Cha said her love of art started early.
“I was in middle school and I was drawing a lot,” she said. “People noticed that I was pretty good. At San Rafael High School I had a teacher Tia Warner, who inspired me to grow as an artist, to go beyond my comfort zone and try new things and subjects.”
Cha went on to attend San Jose State University where she achieved a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Graphic Design and also a B.A. in the Japanese language.
Cha had created a variety of artworks including ink drawings and oil water color paintings. In 2003 she decided to try her hand at street chalk art and participated in the annual Italian Street Painting Marin Festival (San Rafael).
“I usually do some aspect of Japanese culture,” Cha said of her chalk art drawings, “for example fashion, food, events.”
Cha also created chalk artworks at festivals including the Palo Alto Festival of the Arts, San Francisco North Beach Festival, Luna Park Chalk Art Festival and the Redwood City Chalk Full of Fun event.
Reverend Etsuko Mikame at the Buddhist Church in San Jose offered Cha the chance to adorn a sidewalk at the Church in Japantown—but before permission was given Cha had to exhibit her skills first.
“We talked about borrowing street space at the Church and I showed them a portfolio of my work,” Cha said. “They were impressed. They were also amazed. People sometimes don’t understand the scale of the work. This is an eight-foot-by-eight-foot drawing, a huge mural.”
In June of 2020 Cha did a portrait of a coy fish pond and the colorful fish renowned in traditional Japanese culture. The chalk mural appeared on the San Jose Temple Garden sidewalk on 5th Street.
“It was by pure coincidence that I chose a coy pond because after I started drawing, I learned the Buddhist Church used to have a coy pond in the garden, right next to where I was drawing,” Cha recalled. “The church used to have a coy pond 30 years ago. It developed a crack and was never repaired. People who came and saw the drawing remembered the pond and reminisced about it.”
It took Cha two-and-a-half days to complete the artwork.
She said she can use up to 30 different colors to do one of her chalk renderings and has 48 different colors of chalk from which to choose.
“In July of 2020 I was asked to do a chalk art piece for the Buddhist Church for the Obon at Home virtual event in San Jose (virtual because of the COVID pandemic),” Cha said. “I did it on the street and the progress of the drawing was streamed live on the internet.”
Cha collaborated with two other artists, Yurika Chiba and Addi McClure, producing different subjects, a taiko drums performance and Japanese traditional dance.
The Church for its 2021 Obon at Home virtual celebration asked Cha to do another sidewalk work in chalk. This one depicted celebrants at the festival and food stalls. As before, the drawling of the chalk art was streamed live over the internet.
“For that one I portrayed a little boy with a fox festival mask enjoying some Japanese shaved ice, with the Church in the background,” Cha said.
After a sidewalk drawing is done a finish coat is placed over it to protect it and insure that it will last for up to a year.
Cha, 33, is a Senior UX Designer for a corporate technology software company in Palo Alto, SAP, and designs android (mobile system) apps for Google Phones and I-Phones.
She recently opened her own art business displaying solo artworks, paintings, prints and a variety of decorated products including enamel pins with Cha’s original designs, handmade clay pins, tee shirts and stickers.
“I’m in the middle of setting up my own on-line store,” she said.
In addition she serves as a volunteer at the Japanese American Museum of San Jose (535 N. 5th St.) as a web administrator and designer. The Museum recently sold one of her artworks.
Cha said before creating a chalk drawing she comes up with a concept of what she wants to portray, makes written notes and does some sketches on paper. These will be used in the creation of a template, a scaled-down version of what the final artwork will look like.
Cha refers to the sketches when she creates the big sidewalk artwork.
“The final mural always turns out a little different than the small drawings,” she said.
Recently a company asked Cha if she would decorate shipping containers that contain emergency medical supplies as part of an emergency preparedness program in areas of San Jose including its Japantown.
She said one of her favorite moments is when residents see one of her sidewalk chalk art renderings reproduced on a small card or print, and immediately recognize it because they saw the big original chalk art on the sidewalk at the Buddhist Church.
“They didn’t know me but they saw my mural on the sidewalk,” Cha said. “They ask, ‘You’re the artist who did that?’ It creates a real impression.”
A website on Cha and her artwork is under construction at www.momo-cha.com.