The GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Prolific Nisei’s work ranged from authoring children’s books to designing stamps

During much of the 20th century, Japanese American artists, like other Asian Americans, had a difficult time pursing a career. They shared the troubles that other artists experienced of publicizing and selling their work in a market-driven economy where art was either treated as a commodity or ignored altogether.

They also experienced additional difficulties as non-whites. With a few notable exceptions, Japanese Americans remained outside social networks where they could meet patrons and secure the kind of commissions, especially for portraits, that aided so many painters and sculptors. Art magazines did not feature their work, and mainstream galleries were out of their reach. They did not even have any source of philanthropic support equivalent to the Harmon Foundation, which subsidized black artists and fostered the growth of African American painting.

The public art programs of the New Deal during the 1930s were of only limited assistance to Nikkei artists. Federal authorities quickly restricted hiring to U.S. citizens, thereby discriminating against the mass of Issei creative artists who were barred from citizenship on racial grounds. West Coast Nisei, likewise, remained largely excluded from federal support by biased administrators, and struggled to promote their work.

Japanese Americans were forced to rely on whatever scarce financial support they could obtain from their own communities. Artists mounted their own shows, or combined their artistic endeavors with related work, if they could. Seattle painters Kamekichi Tokita and Kenjiro Nomura opened a sign painting business to support themselves.

These were quite formidable obstacles to success. Under the circumstances, it was not surprising that many budding artists gave up and entered other careers. Despite facing additional professional barriers as a woman, Gyo Fujikawa, a multi-talented Nisei, managed to achieve renown in a few different areas of visual art.

Fujikawa was born in Berkeley, Calif. on Nov. 4, 1908 to Mr. and Mrs. Hikozo Fujikawa. The family later moved to Southern California. Gyo excelled in art from a young age. She won a drawing contest in high school, and displayed such talent that a teacher recommended her for a scholarship at the prestigious Chouinard Art Institute. Fujikawa enrolled, despite the opposition of her parents, who feared that an artist’s life would be too uncertain and urged her to attend college.

Following her graduation in 1932, she spent a year in Japan studying Japanese brush painting. She later claimed that her studies in Japan helped school her in patience and concentration. Following her return to the United States, she was asked to teach at Chouinard. Meanwhile, she took up work at Walt Disney Studios, which maintained a whole stable of Asian American animators (the most notable being the famed painter Tyrus Wong). Fujikawa prepared various brochures and advertisements, promoting the movie “Fantasia” for Disney.

After several years at Disney, Fujikawa was lured away to New York as art director for William Douglas McAdams, a pharmaceutical company. Because she was living in New York by the time World War II started, Fujikawa was able to continue her commercial work during the war, and was not confined in the government concentration camps, though her family was imprisoned in Rohwer, Ark.

After the war, Fujikawa began work as a freelancer, doing commercial drawings and designing Christmas cards. One notable campaign she designed was for Beech-Nut baby food. Fujikawa put together drawings of Mother Goose characters that could be strung together to make a mini book.

Meanwhile, she became active in book design. In 1952, she produced a set of drawings of Disney characters for McCall’s Magazine. The set attracted the attention of the children’s publishers Grosset & Dunlap, who hired her to do illustrations for a new edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses,” published in 1953. Its success led the publisher to commission further book illustrations. Her edition of Clement Clarke Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” (1961) and her edition of “Mother Goose” (1968) became particular favorites. Not content with providing pictures for other authors’s work, in 1963 Fujikawa persuaded the publisher to put out two original children’s books she had written and illustrated, “Babies” and “Baby Animals.” The two books quickly became children’s best-sellers. Absorbed by the process of creation, Fujikawa gradually withdrew from commercial art and concentrated on writing and illustrating children’s books.

In the two decades that followed, she produced some 40 different works, of which the best known was “Gyo Fujikawa’s A to Z Picture Book” (1974). Other well-regarded titles included “Gyo Fujikawa’s Oh, What a Busy Day!” (1976) Gyo Fujikawa’s “Come Follow Me…to the Secret World of Elves and Fairies and Gnomes and Trolls” (1979); “Welcome is a Wonderful Word” (1980); “Jenny Learns a Lesson” (1980); “That’s Not Fair!” (1983); “Shags Finds a Kitten” (1983); and “Are You My Friend Today?” (1988).

Fujikawa attracted a large audience, and her books were translated into French, Spanish and Dutch. She became one of the first children’s authors to command author’s royalties instead of a flat fee for her books. Her books were notable as some of the first to include children of various racial groups. She later noted that she preferred seeing things from a child’s view, and almost never put adults in her works: “Although I have never had children of my own, and cannot say I had a particularly marvelous childhood, perhaps I can say I am still like a child myself. Part of me, I guess, never grew up,” Fujikawa said, The New York Times reported in her obituary.

STAMP OF APPROVAL ­— Gyo Fujikawa designed this stamp in 1960 to commemorate U.S.-Japan trade.

Another notable aspect of Fujikawa’s œuvre was her work designing U.S. postage stamps. In 1960, she designed a four-cent stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan trade agreement. The image, colored in pink and blue, featured a view of Washington, D.C., with the Washington Monument seen through the cherry blossom trees. The stamp design gained extra publicity when it was featured at an official welcome ceremony for Crown Prince Akihito, the future emperor of Japan, who praised its “felicitous” design. Shortly after, Fujikawa was commissioned to design a cover for the Saturday Evening Post. Her design, a picture of a parakeet in a cage pressed up against a window to see the snow outside, received widespread publicity when her original painting was stolen from a car in Washington, D.C. after the reproduction for the cover had been completed.

In 1964, she was commissioned to produce a second stamp, in support of First Lady Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign to beautify the country (a campaign that included removal of road signs and opening gardens). Fujikawa’s stamp, inaugurated in 1966, resembled the first. It also included cherry blossom trees and a Washington, D.C. landmark — this time, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

In 1982, Fujikawa produced her third stamp, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the International Peace Garden that spans the border of Manitoba and North Dakota. The stamp featured a Canadian Maple leaf (a rare rendering on U.S. official art of the symbols of other nations) plus a red rose.

Three more stamps with designs by Fujikawa would see the light in the 1990s. In 1993, she produced the design for a 29-cent postage stamp, with the image of a red rose. She followed it with a 32-cent pink rose two years later. In 1997, at the age of 89, she designed her last stamp, a 32-cent yellow rose.

On November 26 1998, three weeks past her 90th birthday, Gyo Fujikawa died in New York.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is an associate professor of history at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

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