A legendary artist’s lifetime of loneliness

THE EAST-WEST HOUSE: Noguchi’s Childhood in Japan

By Christy Hale (New York: Lee and Low Books, 2009, 32 pp., $17.95, hardcover)

Always having been curious about the life of biracial artist Isamu Noguchi, I was pleased to receive this book to review. Palo Alto, Calif. author and illustrator Christy Hale has created a lovely picture of a friendless child whose art is born of loneliness.

Hale traces Noguchi’s birth in 1904 to Scotch-Irish American editor and teacher Leonie Gilmour, hired by Japanese poet Yonejiro Noguchi to help with translation while he was living in New York. Yone abruptly leaves a pregnant Leonie to return to Japan.

After two years, Leonie moves to Japan with her son Isamu Gilmour to live with the father he has never met. The alliance is short-lived; Leonie discovers that Yone has married a Japanese woman and is living in two households. She ends the relationship, and Isamu has no further contact with his father despite the fact that Leonie and her son continue to live in Japan.

Shunned by the other children, Isamu retreats into nature, finding delight in colors, shapes, flowers, and the movement of water in the stream. Leonie buys a small plot of land and Isamu draws house plans at the age of eight. He incorporates Eastern and Western elements in the home, eventually carving waves into cherry wood panels for the doors.

The final page illustrates the satisfaction Isamu earned upon the completion of his home. “With the world in his hands his imagination soared. And where emptiness once lived, Isamu created home.”

With a picture book format, this book would appear to be written for young children. However, the mature concepts of abandonment, loneliness, and ostracism convince me that this is more appropriate reading for young adults and adults.

In the epilogue we learn that this home is soon left behind when his mother sends him away to boarding school in Indiana in 1918 at age 13. After the school closes, Isamu attends a local high school and later Columbia University in New York. From this point he makes his home in New York and Paris, taking up sculpture, and changing his last name from Gilmour to Noguchi.

The epilogue provides biographical information and traces the artist’s innovative career as a sculptor, set designer for choreographer Martha Graham, and designer of gardens and furniture. Before his death in 1988 at the age of 84, he created two showcases for his work: The Noguchi Museum in New York and a studio complex in Mure on the Japanese island of Shikoku.

The story portion of the book focuses on the 11 childhood years Noguchi spent in Japan, 1907-1918. Hale paints a portrait of Isamu in words and rice paper collage, a solitary child, keenly aware of his biracial heritage.

“Whatever situation I was in, I felt not quite one of them,” Noguchi said of his childhood. He found solace with his mother, exploring Japanese gardens, observing and absorbing Japanese elements he would later fuse with Western influences in his art.

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