Identity & Art San Francisco-Based Artist Finds Direction After Connecting with His Japanese Heritage

Photo by Vivien Kim Throp

Akira Beard, a 34-year-old San Francisco-based artist, is currently showing 18 works in “New Territory,” an exhibit at White Walls gallery in the city’s Tenderloin District. Beard, who lives nearby the gallery, is a painter and instructor whose works aim to spur dialog on social issues. Using portraits of celebrities and historical figures, the paintings tackle apathy, nihilism and the celebrity as object. Somber figures, such as authors or philosophers, are often presented in tacky or trendy fashions, while movie stars, rap stars and other objects of celebrity worship are caricatured with sharp textual commentary alongside.

Beard was born at Tachikawa Airfield, an American military base in western Tokyo. Beard’s father had been stationed there when he met his wife. The family moved to Sacramento, Calif. when he was a toddler, and, until the age of 19, he went by his first name, Steven.

However, a life-changing trip to Japan eventually led him to use his Japanese middle name, Akira, as his moniker. At age 18, Beard said he was aimless — working as a dishwasher with no ambitions and no plans for college. “I was just getting by, partying and drinking,” he said. “I left home but I was irresponsible.” But every once in a while, when Beard would see his mother, she would encourage him to go to Japan. “She wanted me to get in touch with who I am,” Beard said.

So in 1995, Beard left for Tokyo with the intention of teaching English. He stayed with his parents’ best friends, who, like his family, consisted of an American military father and a Japanese mother. Staying with them felt comfortable in a way he’d never experienced before. He was inspired. For the first time he really cared about something and wanted that reflected in his life. He decided to return home, get a degree and then, eventually, return to Japan. “It totally gave me direction,” he said about the trip. “I’ll always be grateful.”

Beard enrolled at Sacramento City College, and, though his high school GPA had been barely passing, he received a two-year degree with honors. Beard was accepted to the University of California, Berkeley, with a scholarship and began coursework in the Japanese Studies program. But early on he realized that he wasn’t interested in an office job. So he transferred to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco to pursue painting.

Being half Japanese, half Caucasian and American, Beard said, also affected his sense of self. Being asked constantly “What are you?” and being perceived as everything from Italian to Japanese, Asian, Native American and French had an effect on him. “By the time I hit college, I was continually asking, ‘Who am I?’ It got me to look inside,” he said.

In 2004, Beard earned a B.A. in fine art painting and drawing. He now works for the Academy as an instructor in fashion illustration and fine art (focusing on painting technique). Beard also teaches painting to seniors as part of Art With Elders, a nonprofit program that brings art classes to seniors residing in Bay Area assisted living facilities. (For more, see “Seniors Connect to Community through Art” in the Jan. 14, 2010 Nichi Bei Weekly.)

Beard’s paintings often seek to tackle the nihilism of youth and identity formation. Ideas come to him walking down the street, hearing and observing the people around him as they interact with the mass media, advertising culture and celebrity worship of modern day America. “For Akira, it’s really political,” said Kirsten Incorzaia, who works at White Walls. “He’s really interested in social justice, politics and pop culture — how it influences society.”

In one painting, Beard shows basketball star (a) LeBron James in a reworked censuring version of his Nike advertisement. In another, scientist Albert Einstein is shown dressed up in ’80s garb, à la pop singer Boy George. “It goes back to identity,” Beard said of the painting, which gives the physicist red lips, Kohl-rimmed eyes and a cross earring dangling from one ear. “Einstein was famous for having one outfit,” he said. “He was the opposite of cool. He wanted to spend all his time on thinking and developing a language for his mathematics. If he would have focused on appearance, would he have come up with the theory of relativity?”

Beard’s smaller paintings are often created using watercolors and paint markers.

He also makes use of commercial house paint in portraits, sometimes dripping down the frames. The paint gives them a gooey, drippy and plastic feeling, he said, that can’t be achieved through other media. Sometimes the eyes and/or mouth of figures in his portraits are blurred or distorted to signify dehumanization. (b) His own self-portrait, in which he paints himself in front of a sea of words, has the eyes and mouth all but gone. So does one of Elvis.

Beard has also tackled money in a series. The paintings range from the startlingly realistic, such as the piece “One Dollar Bill,” which looks as if the real thing were glued to a board, to money depicting the likenesses of John Lennon, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ronald McDonald and Marilyn Manson where the portrait of a U.S. president would normally be.

“Some people spend much of their time thinking about money,” Beard has written about the series. “Others, talking about it. Some even fantasizing about it. I spent a good period of time painting it. Some said I was obsessed with spending so much time on one painting. Still in a strange way, I feel I spend far less time with the paper than most others do.”

Beard’s work will be on display as part of “New Territory” through April 25. The exhibit, which opened April 3, includes works by four other young artists — Henry Gunderson, Cheryl Molnar, Robert Burden and Mark Warren Jacques — all of whom offer “visual interpretations of contemporary West Coast living.”

White Walls, located at 835 Larkin St., is open from noon to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call (415) 931-1500 or visit www.whitewallssf.com. More of Beard’s work can be seen on his Flickr page, www.flickr.com/photos/akiraaa.

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