by Akiko Kusunose, the North American Post (This article was originally published in Japanese on March 22)
At Madrona Wine Merchants, a wine shop in Seattle, the works of two local Japanese American artists will be on display until May 5. The images of powerful nude figures by Amy Nikaitani, a second-generation Japanese American, as well as works inspired from the photo portraits taken before WWII in Nihonmachi (or Japantown), created by fourth-generation Michelle Kumata are on display. Though coming from different generations, the two have become close through their love of art and now share a strong bond. Amy and Michelle shared their stories with me.
At the age of 95, Amy is shockingly full of energy. For my interview, she had steadily marched from her senior housing facility in the International district (ID) to the tearoom in the Panama Hotel using two Nordic trekking poles.
Her life has been filled with energy.
She was born in the hotel operated by her parents in Nihonmachi in 1923 and grew up in Kent. “Though I wanted to attend art school, my father protested and I went to school for costume designing.” Even that had to be given up when the war took place. She married, busily raising five children. At the age of 34, she was accepted to the Edison School (currently known as Seattle Central College) and finally began pursuing an art degree. In her mid-40s, she joined Boeing’s art department, rising to the rank of supervisor. In 1986, after 18 years of work, she retired.
She busily continued drawing during retirement. On Sunday mornings, when few cars and people would be passing, she would commute down to the ID so that she could capture the view in her drawings. She told me with a chuckle, “I was able to draw 11 blocks worth of the ID.” Born and still living in the ID, Amy and her works share a special connection with the district. Amy’s piece has been featured at the Hirabayashi Place, which opened in 2017 as an affordable housing option in the ID. Her work can also be observed at Nihonmachi Alley on the side of Jackson Building, illustrating the history of Nihonmachi.
“To me, Michelle feels almost like a daughter,” Amy says. Michelle is a Seattle native too. After studying graphic design at the University of Washington, she completed her degree in illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York. After working for the then newly published Northwest Nikkei (the predecessor to the English pages of the Post), she worked for the Seattle Times, providing the newspaper with warm and colorful illustrations for almost 11 years. She then continued on to work for the Wing Luke Museum, serving as the director for the Asian Pacific Islander Experience Exhibit for 12 years until retiring last fall.
Michelle’s works at the exhibit are based on the portraits of pre-war Japanese Americans from the Wing Luke collection. Beginning her work in illustration, her medium now spans design, soft sculpture, costumes, and more. And now she has another project in mind. “Many of my relatives on my mother’s side now reside in Sao Paulo, I would love to visit them over the summer and document their stories.” Her experience with the Wing Luke has had strong influence on her decision-making.
Amy says, “I’m really enjoying the moment where I can do all the things that I’ve wanted to do. I’m hoping to live to 100 years old.” She has so many interests. This spring, she plans to venture to Alaska on a cruise. “I am inspired by Amy’s passion,” says Michelle. Amy and Michelle attend figure drawing sessions together twice a month. During the interview, I could feel a mother-daughterly warmth between the two. After the interview, when Amy was offered a ride home, she insisted on walking herself home “for health.” Michelle would simply follow Amy and walk with her. Though different in age and background, they truly do care for each other. Their passion for art has brought them together.