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SAM “Four Japanese Americans”

"Street," by Kenji Nomura, 1934. Oil on canvas, from Fourth Avenue and Yesler Way. Photo: Paul Macapia.

By David Yamaguchi, The North American Post

“Northwest Modernism: Four Japanese Americans” is an exhibition that opened at the Seattle Art Museum downtown on March 21, 2021. From its title alone, the non-specialist might guess—correctly—that two of those featured are George Tsutakawa, mainly known for his sculptures, and Paul Horiuchi, known for his great outdoor mural at the Seattle Center. The two others are Kamekichi Tokita and Kenjiro Nomura.

“Monolithic Impasse,” by Paul Horiuchi, 1964. Casein, a type of paint precipitated from milk, on mulberry paper mounted to canvas, about 78 x 78 inches.

Tokita, an Issei sign-painter by day, became a widely recognized Seattle artist by the 1930s. Yet, after World War II, his was one of the impoverished families with nowhere to go, that lived at the Seattle Japanese Language School—“The Hunt Hotel.” (See Shox Tokita, “Living at Tip School,” napost.com, May 2019.)

Nomura was also an Issei sign-painter. In fact, he brought Tokita into his business as a partner. Nomura later painted signs at the Minidoka incarceration camp. Of the four, his life and work are the least documented.

In addition to seeing the art of the four JA artists, a second reason to attend the exhibit is that museums have been severely hurt financially by the pandemic (Seattle Times, Apr. 9). SAM needs local visitors now more than at any other time in recent history, for cruise ships no longer disgorge travelers here by the thousands. Moreover, SeaTac passenger counts, while rising, remain down 40 percent from 2019 levels (for the week starting April 11, portofseattle.org).

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David Yamaguchi is a third-generation Japanese American [Sansei]. He has written for the Post since 2006, at first as a volunteer, later as a paid freelancer. He joined the paper's staff in May 2020, when he began learning how articles flow from Word files through layout to social media.