Japanese American centenarian donates life work and more to Vermont college


Hideichi Oshiro. Kyodo News photo

NEWBURGH, New York  — In the 1920s, Tokyo high school student Hideichi Oshiro was moved by a haiku poem he never forgot. In it, Edo era poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) described coming across the subtle beauty of a wildflower during a walk in the mountains.

“I wanted to make this kind of haiku in my life,” Oshiro told Kyodo News in a recent interview in his Newburgh, New York home, 100 kilometers (62.13 miles) north of Manhattan on the Hudson River. “Nothing else, just one haiku.”

Known as “Hide” by friends and family, the 100-year-old artist has completed much more than just one haiku. He writes a new one every morning and has done so for decades.

Along with the volumes of poetry Oshiro has produced, he donated his life’s work, totaling about 750 pieces of art, in November to Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. The art includes calligraphy, paintings, stories, handmade books, sketches and scrolls.

The small progressive liberal arts school has received donations before, but Oshiro’s stood out because of what he said when presenting the work at the rural New England campus on Nov. 3. “He said that the product is only important in how it uncovers for the viewer the process,” President Barbara Vacarr told Kyodo News in her office at Goddard. “Most artists who donate their work would be focusing on the framed paintings, the product of their work, and what was so central to what he talked about was the process or development.”

The Brooklyn native was moved by Oshiro’s words and their relevance to the mission of her college, which emphasizes “life-long learning.” She felt it was an honor to “receive not only his gift of his work but also his gift of vocalizing…what is at the heart of the learning process here.”

Oshiro learned of the school from Carol Curri, a 1997 Goddard graduate, who began working with him 10 years ago after the two artists met at a Newburgh gallery opening.

“I had been looking for a place to house his work because that was his wife’s dream and his dream,” Curri told Kyodo News during an interview in Oshiro’s home.

In addition to finding an institution to keep and preserve Oshiro’s physical legacy, Curri has been gathering information on Oshiro’s life story with the hope of writing a book using the thoughts “twisting and turning” in her head.

Born in 1910 in the then territory of Hawai‘i to Japanese parents who had come to work in the pineapple plantations, Oshiro first went to Japan at the age of 3 when he was sent to live with his grandparents to have a Japanese education. Oshiro learned the art of etching, Japanese ukiyoe woodcuts, gold carving, sculpture and brushwork at Aoyama Gakuin Senior High School and Sophia University.

He was introduced to the famous painter Gyokudo Kawai (1873-1957), who taught Oshiro how to use a brush, which motivated the young artist to study hard.
Oshiro returned to his birthplace in the 1930s where he taught Japanese at a local school on O‘ahu Island.

He remembers the Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, when a group of panicked students came running to him saying, “Japan attacked Hawai‘i! They attacked us!”

At first, he did not believe it and told the children, “No, it’s only war games,” but soon realized that the bombs and fires erupting on the school fields were real.

“Japan attacked Hawai‘i and I’m an American citizen…I couldn’t think about anything, only darkness and doom,” he solemnly said while shaking his head, adding that the 2001 film “Pearl Harbor,” with all of its Hollywood “imagination,” did not come close to the horror of the actual event.

After spending three months in an internment camp, Oshiro chose to join the army and was assigned to basic training in Minnesota where he took classes at night at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Oshiro spent six years in the army before leaving to pursue art at the Academie de la Grande Chaumeirie in Paris, eventually settling in New York City, inspired by the vitality of the bustling metropolis.

In New York, Oshiro met his French wife, Catherine Bullier, who would support his artistic journey both monetarily and spiritually after they married in 1969. The couple ultimately settled in Newburgh, which had a vital arts community. With a life full of rich experiences and a diverse art background, Oshiro never formally exhibited his art. His wife, however, collected his work along the way, which Goddard’s staff noticed.

“It really strikes me how much of the process was preserved,” Library Assistant Dustin Byerly told Kyodo News. “I think we owe that to his wife — her handwriting is on everything.”

The 2001 Goddard graduate has been organizing the massive donation and is part of a curatorial committee assigned to determine how to best showcase the many pieces of art.

Along with showing some of Oshiro’s work in the gallery in the school’s library, other ideas presented include a database where students, community members and researchers can have access to the huge variety of his artwork.

On Feb. 8, the college plans to host a public event to exhibit his work during the interdisciplinary arts program and have Oshiro himself speak about his gift to “celebrate” the contribution to the almost 150-year-old school.

Continuing to write a haiku every morning, Oshiro’s work is far from finished even as he approaches his 101st birthday on Dec. 30.

The cheerful artist hopes that the school will continue its mission to encourage students in exploring the totality of life and how to fully express one’s experience through art.

“It’s not art, it’s just an expression of myself,” he said. “Our mind is fantastic, it doesn’t want to be oppressed. Let it be free.”

One response to “Japanese American centenarian donates life work and more to Vermont college”

  1. Lydia Holsten Avatar
    Lydia Holsten

    I saw this article in the ODE magazine online and love this man and his expression of life in his work. Thank you and blessings to Master Oshiro and his wife. Lydia Holsten

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