An artst’s life — interrupted

SIGNS OF HOME: The Paintings and Wartime Diary of Kamekichi Tokita

SIGNS OF HOME: The Paintings and Wartime Diary of Kamekichi Tokita
By Barbara Johns (Seattle: University of Washington Press,
2011, 272 pp., $50, hardcover)

The new book “Signs of Home,” edited by Barbara Johns, brings the life and art work of Issei painter Kamekichi Tokita (1897-1948) back into public view. In a sense, it is two different books. The first half deals with Tokita’s life in prewar Seattle and provides an extended discussion of his painting style and themes. The second half is composed of Tokita’s wartime diary, plus a few poems, translated from Japanese. Since Tokita produced hardly any art during the wartime or postwar periods, it is rather through his pen than by his brush that we are invited to share his vision.

Tokita came to the United States as a young man in 1919 and settled in Seattle. While he found work as a sign painter and later owner of a small hotel to support his growing family (he and his Issei wife utimately produced six children), his great love was painting. Despite the ambient Anti-Asian racism that plagued the region in the prewar years, Tokita’s work achieved a level of public attention unusual for Japanese Americans. Furthermore, unlike Chiura Obata, the most renowned of West Coast Issei painters (whom the editor curiously fails to mention), Tokita did not specialize in nature painting, but in urban landscapes. His canvases of Seattle’s warfront, houses, bridges and built environment were featured in solo exhibitions at the Seattle Art Museum in 1930 and 1935, and influential local artist and critic Kenneth Callahan championed his work. Along with painter Kenjiro Nomura, his friend and partner in the sign business, Tokita was invited in 1935 to join the Group of Twelve, a circle of Pacific Northwest artists who exhibited together.

Johns, who previously produced studies of the art of Paul Horiuchi and on Northwest art of the 1950s, capably integrates contemporary exhibition reviews and materials from the collections in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. She also includes a generous catalogue of Tokita’s painting, and sensitively discusses his artistic influences, both Western and Japanese. I must wonder, however, whether her analysis would have been strengthened by more attention to the yo-ga painters (Nikkei artists working in Western style) also active during the period.

After absorbing Tokichi’s art, it is with a certain sadness that the reader turns to the book’s latter half, which consists of the artist’s record of his wartime experience, including his incarceration at the Minidoka, Idaho camp. The first two-thirds of the diary’s text, which cover the period leading from Pearl Harbor through Executive Order 9066 and the mass incarceration of Nikkei that followed Dec. 7, 1941, is especially poignant. Tokita offers a vivid portrait of the hardships and psychological stress Issei suffered in these weeks of incertainty. In the process, the diary offers a rare — especially for non-Japanese speakers — window into Issei attitudes toward Japan, the war, and the young Nisei generation, among others. I was particularly interested to see Tokita’s discussion of the treatment of Japanese Canadians and his comparison between the condition of Nikkei on both sides of the border.

Sadly, there is almost no historical analysis to guide the reader through the diary and the rich historical material it provides. Still, the diary is worth reading, and in any case highlights the powerful presence of the artist that we have already discovered in the discussion of his artwork.

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