Close-knit Japantown artists reconnect

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Amid the activity that filled the San Francisco Japantown streets during this year’s Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, a close group of artists reunited to reminisce and showcase the artwork they created as members of the Japantown Art and Media (JAM) Workshop, which closed in 2000.

About 15 people, artists and event attendees, joined the “Days of Fire and Glory” program held at the National Japanese American Historical Society Peace Gallery on April 13 to relive memories that shaped the careers of these artists, and to discuss a possible revival of the organization in the hopes of revitalizing the Asian American art community in Japantown.

“I think JAM had a definite place in the way that the art community exists in the U.S. in that they represented a particular community which had very little political power,” said Bob Hanamura, a JAM curator.

According to Dennis Taniguchi, who worked with JAM as its executive director, the JAM Workshop began as an art project of the Japantown Art Movement Coalition, which was created with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. After cleaning up an “abandoned space” on the second floor of 1852 Sutter St. in Japantown with other JAM members, JAM opened on Oct. 1, 1977.

From 1977 to about 2000, JAM hosted a number of art-related classes for the community, including silkscreen print classes, the JAM Writers Workshop, a portrait drawing workshop led by Mitsu Yashima, life drawing classes, a Nihonmachi Garden Project and others, according to former JAM member Peter Yamamoto. JAM also worked with other community organizations to discuss issues in the Japanese American community and held internship programs for younger Asian American artists.

Yamamoto said JAM had about 10 core members and grew to include about 30 local artists. It also worked closely with other members of other Asian American art organizations, including Kearny Street Workshop, some of which have participated in JAM activities as well.

One of the more distinguishable aspects of JAM’s work was the poster, logo and brochure designs the group created for various community nonprofit organizations.

Former JAM member Sheridan Tatsuno, a writer, said these posters are symbolic to him because of how distinguished the style is to Japanese American history.

“Imagine a culture that didn’t have its own art, really ever,” he said. “I mean we’ve been here for (more than) 80 years and this is the first time you see your own (Japanese American) art after 80 years in America?”

During the event, many former members expressed how important JAM was to their careers as artists. Leland Wong, an artist in residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America, said JAM was the “incubator” for his art career.

“I feel my years at JAM were the more serious years where I think I developed myself and my style and everything,” he said.

Tatsuno said that JAM was also important in cultivating the Asian American storytelling voice, citing the awe-inspiring story of Steven Okazaki’s documentary filmmaking journey from filmmaking graduate student to Academy Award winner.

“Story-telling is really, really important and Steve is a good example — when you tell your own stories, they have resonance, not somebody else’s version,” he said. “That’s why I think JAM was really important because prior to that, I was always with white or black writers — there weren’t any Asian writers.”

Leon Sun, a visual artist who joined JAM because he was looking for a community of Asian American artists, called the group the “art center” for the community.

“It’s very important because you need a focus for people to come around. Especially when you’re an artist, if you’re by yourself, it’s very difficult to survive even as an artist,” he said. “But when you have a place people can gather, and once people come together, then all the chemistry takes place.”

Although JAM influenced the careers of many artists and writers, it eventually had to close its doors to the community primarily because of the lack of funding from private and public groups, Yamamoto said.

“There have always been artists who could do the artwork, but the money to fund projects and positions was hard to get,” Yamamoto said in an e-mail interview. “In the beginning, JAM was made up of very idealistic young people who lived on nothing and who would practically donate their services or live on stipends and grants of very little money. This is untenable for a long-term organization.”

Yamamoto said he and others tried to bring JAM back to the community through an organization called J-town Arts, but it too had to close because of economic problems.

Though many of JAM’s former members are still active in their respective art today, many said that it is now up to the younger generation of Asian Americans to bring back an organization like JAM for the community.

“I’m sorry that most of us have all gone away and (I’m) hoping for some new young blood will come out and continue the presence of a Japanese American art community in San Francisco,” Hanamura said.

Taniguchi said that one of the main reasons JAM was started was to diminish the negative stereotypes of Asian Americans in media at the time. Although most of those stereotypes are gone today, he believes that it is still worth following JAM’s goals in creating a distinguished genre for Asian American art and documenting its history and culture, among other things.

“The need is there, but money will always be the problem,” he wrote in an e-mail message that was read aloud at the event because he could not attend.

Sun said that younger people in today’s society are “fast” and can easily adapt to the different changes happening in society, technology and other things, which will enable them to be able to start up an organization like JAM more than its former members.

Tatsuno agrees that, with the developments of social media, young Asian American artists can now gather more easily than before.

Eugene Wang, who was a high school intern for JAM around 1985, said it would be good for JAM to be started again and social media is a good place to start.

“You can find anything through cyberspace and I think that’s a way of connecting, but JAM is a little more specific that people can plug into,” he said. “With social media, I think it’s easier to connect and organize, but it’d be nice to have a (room), like JAM (had), to gather.”

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