Misrepresentation: or The Bittersweet Cartoon of Life

The Art of Roger Shimomura

Alan C. Lau and Kazuko Nakane

It’s past midnight and the boy holds a flashlight steady in one hand while the other moves carefully on paper as he sits engrossed by the images laid out in the center of the book. He’s trying to get the curve of the tongue down just so before the tip of his pencil wears out to a blunt gray wash. When he’s got the tongue down, he faces a network of laces and eyeholes that suddenly appear to be too much a thicket of detail for his now quickly dropping lids. Upon closer inspection, one notices that this is no book but a page of the Sears Roebuck catalog with pictures of various work boots. We are witnessing the birth of a man’s art. Or so I like to think as the artist shares with me his earliest recollection of drawing.

We have always marveled at the way Roger Shimomura skillfully maneuvers his way through life like a tightrope walker above the fray. He balances it all well, turning the anger and even darker messages into pleasant color montages of contained excitement. He contrasts two incomparable extremes such as spoofing the Japanese woodblock print tradition with popular icons from American comic books. Underneath this layer of visual razzle-dazzle he contests racism and the injustice of American history. Many years after his recognition as a Pop artist in the 1970s, he continues to tell stories about his experience in a personal voice as a Japanese American.

American vs. Japs, 54" x 54", acrylic, 2009
American vs. Japs #3, 54" x 54", acrylic, 2011
American Infamy #5, 84" x 108", acrylic, 2011

The last time we had an extended conversation with Roger in Seattle was in 1989 at the 300 Café not far from the Chinatown–International District neighborhood, and he was in a frazzle. He was juggling supervision of his performance piece titled California Sushi at the Center for Contemporary Art downtown while he fine-tuned the particulars of a mural that now pops out at commuters at the Westlake Station bus tunnel. He came in breathless, saying, “Everything’s happening at once and nobody seems to remember their appointments.” This time we meet in a coffee shop in Tangletown, and he is not only early but seems more relaxed. With a bearded tanned face now framed with black hair going silver, Roger situates himself and orders an iced tea.

We go over his beginnings as an artist and get into details about his origins. He was born June 26, 1939, and grew up on Twenty-Fourth Avenue South just five blocks off South Jackson Street in Seattle. “My grandma was a midwife who delivered a lot of babies in the neighborhood, including me.” His family was very lucky to live in the same house, even after the war, until 1957 thanks to their neighbor who took care of the house while they were gone during World War II.

His grandfather Toshitomi Shimomura came from Shiga Prefecture and graduated from business school in Japan. He came to the United States in 1906 with a dream of becoming a dentist in San Francisco, but just as it was with other Issei (first-generation Japanese Americans), the dream remained unfulfilled. The earthquake that demolished that city in 1906 forced him to change his plans. He moved to Seattle to start a new life, and Toku Machida came to Seattle from Japan to marry him in 1912.

Roger’s father, Kazuo “Eddie” Shimomura, was born in Seattle. He worked as a pharmacist at Hart Joseph Inc. Pharmacy downtown before the war and as head pharmacist at Pay ’n Save on Rainier Avenue South after the war. His mother, Aya, was also a Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) from Sugar City, Idaho. Growing up in Seattle with American-born parents who were Christians, Roger was far removed from Japanese culture and never learned to speak Japanese. This fact later threw irony after irony into the artwork he would someday create.

Interestingly enough, his first forays into art came about as a way to visualize things he couldn’t have. “I’d look at the shoes in the Sears, Roebuck catalog and every year they’d come out with new models of work boots, cowboy boots, and engineering boots. I just fell in love with boots, boots, and more boots. Trouble was, every time I’d ask my parents to buy me a pair, they’d put me off by saying, ‘No, Roger, they will disfigure your feet.’ ” So whatever Roger couldn’t have, he’d draw, whether it was shoes or a deluxe model Schwinn bike. He soon realized that not only was drawing a substitute for the real object, it also took him into “a magical state of mind.”

Besides drawing, collecting things became another obsession he’s had since he was small, and these earlier inspirations opened his eyes to see himself in the light society would see him. The mail-order catalogs, his American comic books, and other things he compulsively collected have been his references to art. When he became the first Asian American to be a keynote speaker at the College Art Association Annual Conference in New York in 2003, he explained that “when my grandmother was still alive, she presented me one day with a box she had saved that contained all the drawings

I had done from the first through sixth grades . . . . I was shocked to discover that every time I drew my mother, I drew her with blue eyes and blonde hair. I assume that because I loved my mother dearly, I wanted her to have all the attributes of a perfect mother.”

His collection began with common commodities, starting with his boyhood memories of caps from pop bottles, bubble gum cards, baseball memorabilia, stamps, James Dean items, and car magazines through high school; rock-and-roll records and fishing lures in college; post-bop jazz albums in the 1960s; children’s toys, penny arcade machines, and advertising signs under the influence of California Funk ceramics. His collection became so large that he promised to donate his collection of memorabilia of the Japanese American experience in the concentration camp to the Smithsonian Institution, and his doll collection to the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, where he taught from 1969 until his retirement in 2004 as a University Distinguished Professor. He retains the title of University Distinguished Professor Emeritus to the present. He donated his collection of stereotypical images, ephemera, masks, and salt and pepper shakers to the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle in 2008.

When World War II broke out, most of the Japanese Americans in the Seattle area, regardless of their rights as US citizens (Nisei and their children who were born here were citizens), were incarcerated in an internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho, and treated as enemy aliens. They were forcibly removed from the communities in which they had lived, and their presence disappeared from the West Coast following the issuing by President Franklin D. Roosevelt of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. Some voluntarily left for the East Coast, but some of the Issei whom authorities considered community leaders were taken by the FBI to special camps away from their families.

Roger was just a toddler when his family left for camp. His memories of internment life consist of Christmas, summer Bon Odori (dancing), and the extremes of weather. “I also remember when Billy Ishida and I got into my mother’s makeup kit and made a big mess. And when I turned three, I still remember how excited I was about my birthday so I walked in and out of the barracks telling everybody that I saw, ‘I’m three, I’m three.’ ” But it was a different story for his parents. Many years after the war, when he asked his parents about their camp experience, they simply refused to talk about it because it was unbearable and they were so ashamed that they treated it as if it had never happened. Eventually his father was allowed to leave the camp to relocate to Chicago and practice his profession as a pharmacist, but it would be another year before his family could join him. Roger would mark his fifth year attending kindergarten in the Windy City.

As he grew older, he was aware of the Tanagi brothers, three maternal uncles who were all successful commercial artists in the community. His neighbors were the Horiuchis; Roger had seen the father, Paul’s, collage on a large canvas leaning against the sofa in the living room where he played with Paul’s sons. But he didn’t get serious about artmaking till later, having taken only one art class at Garfield High School. The lure of commercial art eventually lost its appeal. After he got a BA in commercial design at the University of Washington in 1961, he worked as a freelance commercial designer and designed images for the Polynesian Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. He recalls, “I designed everything from the signs to the menus and I remember this very clearly. By the time I got through with it all, I was really sick of commercial art.”

After serving in the US Army in Korea during 1962 and 1963, Roger began to paint. In 1965 he married Bea Kiyohara and went back to the University of Washington for the graduate program. Perhaps the most influential person for him there was Alden Mason, who inspired many students and really made him love the act of creating art. As early as the mid-1960s, Roger already noticed the silkscreen prints by Pop artist Andy Warhol, but there was a graduate-level lithography class only for a short time. There were no silkscreen, photography, or etching classes. Even back then he was thinking about multiple media rather than just painting.

Another important experience for Roger around that time was to encounter many young artists who were acutely aware that the 1960s was a transitional time in American art. He met a ceramic artist Patti Warashina, who was familiar with the California Bay Area Funk ceramic movement and had been influenced by Chicago Pop and the imagists of “The Hairy Who.” A mixed-media, three-dimensional artist, Ron Gasowski, who also was exposed to Chicago Pop, trained his aesthetics through the outsider art of the car culture in Los Angeles where he had grown up. Their enthusiasm rubbed off, enabling Roger to take an approach that permitted him to do anything, to be “a kind of anarchist” and break open the frame of what was considered art in the Pacific Northwest. He began to experiment by painting everyday objects like TV dinners. Gasowski’s studio mate, Joseph Aiken, remembers the intense green color of peas against a silver tray in one of Roger’s TV dinner paintings series. In the 1960s, Aiken was painting on minimal sculptures with primal colors of blue, yellow, and red.

During this time Roger faced a crisis regarding the direction of his art. He drew in a broad abstract expressionistic style while his paintings were more in a Pop Art vein. The graduate students around him were familiar with the rich textural elements as seen on found objects in the work of Robert Rauschenberg. In the Pacific Northwest, abstract painting was still dominant in the 1960s. The Northwest school was represented by Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, and others, but Tobey was particularly influential for Japanese American artists like Paul Horiuchi, George Tsutakawa, and only initially for Frank Okada. “Then at that time,” Roger says, “I started winning a lot of prizes in local art competitions for my abstract drawings, so it kind of messed me up. I took over my friend Frank Okada’s studio when he went to Europe on a Guggenheim and tried to paint for a year through my difficulties, but I never quite resolved them until I went to Stanford.”

It was Roger’s first time outside Seattle to study art in a totally different cultural arena. At Stanford in the summer of 1967, he was given a large studio in which to paint and he finally solved his dilemma by concentrating on his work on canvas. “I just quit the abstract drawing altogether.” He was also exposed to influential Bay Area artists of the 1960s, like William Wiley, Robert Arneson, and Wayne Thiebaud, figurative painters and Funk ceramicists. It was reassuring for him that he could paint anything from popular culture. Although he was still experimenting with collage by adding images from magazines and painting over them in a painterly fashion, only when he was under the influence of Pop Art later in New York did the movement of gesture disappear totally.

While at Syracuse University in New York earning an MFA, images of Andy Warhol and the Pop Art movement in general began to insinuate their way into Roger’s work. He took film courses and learned silkscreen printing. He did his thesis on Andy Warhol. He considers Warhol the most important artist of the twentieth century, more so than even Marcel Duchamp. “For example, Warhol had totally changed filmmaking, and even used a Polaroid camera. Duchamp made art out of a ready-made urinal, but Warhol made the Electric Chair series with candy colors, and even made a T-shirt of that image for children. He made the Death and Disaster series so colorful and beautiful.” This ironic approach has parallels to Roger’s own work that borrows beautiful images from Ukiyo-e to depict the experience of Japanese Americans during the war.

But it didn’t stop there for him as one who studied and explored everything about Warhol. “I remember one night I got drunk with friends and called Warhol long distance in New York. His mother answered and told me her son wasn’t home but she would give me his number in L.A. where he was staying.” Undaunted, Roger got the artist on the line only to go momentarily speechless. “I was so drunk that I didn’t know what to say to him, so I asked him for a letter of recommendation.” Warhol casually responded by saying, “Sure, but I must tell you that the last two people I’ve written letters for didn’t get anything.”

After he graduated in 1969, teaching jobs were abundant, unlike in today’s job market, and Roger received many offers from across the country. He decided to go to the University of Kansas because they had a large art department with over fourteen full-time professors. Living in Middle America was a bit of a shock for the young family. While being Asian American was taken for granted on the West Coast, in Lawrence he found himself a rarity, stared at by locals who would casually ask, “Where are you from?” This went on for years until it culminated in an incident that became a tipping point for his first steps toward an original style.

At a local auction, a farmer asked him where he came from. When Roger responded, “Seattle, Washington,” the farmer countered with another question. “No, I mean what country did your parents come from?” When it finally got around to his grandparents, he knew where the farmer was going with his interrogation. When Roger finally had to say, “Japan,” the farmer was delighted and said, “The little lady and I collect pictures of geishas in kimonos.” It was in the heartland of America that Shimomura the artist and Shimomura the person really had to confront his own identity. On that day, on the way back home, he visited a bookstore and found a children’s coloring book on Japan, with simplified woodblock print images. Those borrowed images occupied his Oriental Masterpiece series. This work drew attention and he continued to paint those images until 1978.

But it was the Minidoka series, based upon his grandmother’s diary, that established his reputation. “I first brought my grandmother’s diaries from Seattle to Kansas in 1976.” After his grandmother passed away in 1968, he said, “My dad urged me to take things since they were cleaning out the house. It took a couple of years for me to find a translator and turn that material into the first series. I purposely did the original series in eighteenth-century Japanese woodblock print style, except for all the wrong reasons. I thought it would sneak up on collectors in their living rooms when they found out that the painting they bought was not an homage to the Japanese tradition but instead a depiction of Japanese Americans living in American concentration camps. I thought it would be subversive, like a stink bomb detonating in their homes.”

Roger developed many series that not only deal with the internment but also expand to the much broader issues of identity. “Later I caught flak from my ex-wife, who said it would reinforce stereotypes that Japanese Americans were more foreign than American.” Some gallery owners did not appreciate the irony either. One dealer in Denver wrote him a letter, saying, “Paint what you must but think about what it’s doing to your career.” Rather than being narrative with borrowed images from Japan, he began to collage the images of Ukiyo-e juxtaposed with American icons on the same large canvases. It was his discovery that the two media, common art from Japan and images from American pop icons, are similar in many ways; flat, linear, and approachable aesthetics. His acrylic colors jump out and the images collide with each other, forging his visual images as a Japanese American identity.

Eventually the Minidoka series forced the artist to consider other devices and media for his artistic output. “The material my grandmother left was so rich and lent itself to theatrical devices. It could no longer be limited to the medium of painting alone.” Roger found himself teaching performance art from 1984 on, and he bought a video camera at the same time. He found more freedom to mix his personal and social images into the performance. When he taught performance to his graduate students, he told them what he believed in as an artist. He said that if making art is important in their lives and that if they are willing to commit themselves to hard work and maintaining an engaged mind, they would eventually be able to free themselves of everything they had learned about art. He would add film and performance art to his own artistic expression, performing pieces all over the country with his exhibitions.

Although he is now retired, Roger reflects on his many years of teaching with mixed feelings. “It’s a cynical thing to say, but I believe that art may be something you study but ultimately you have to get beyond that. Too much knowledge can get in the way. Ultimately, you have to get outside the box.” He tells us that he used to have long conversations with his colleagues in the art department about why they had so many good students but no true innovators. “Maybe we did such a good job teaching and took away the craziness. Art itself is very elusive.” He also feels that art is demanding. “You have to have this drive and be totally involved. It is a difficult balancing act having a family and being an artist. After my wife and I separated, I was the only one among the other art professors at the University of Kansas who could totally put myself into art and make a career of it.”

With an extensive exhibition record of images from his unique perspective, Roger is only too aware of reality in this country. In response to those who maintain that we live in more enlightened times, the artist strenuously objects. “When I lecture around the country about the internment of Japanese Americans, I still come across people who don’t believe that it even happened.” He feels it will be another couple of generations before minority artists break through, and he cites the example of the feminist art movement in the 1970s as a vanguard movement. “Every time I go on the road to speak or show my art, I feel like I’m stamping out fires of ignorance and racism all over the country.” He cites recent examples to show that racism is alive and well in the United States. When Japan experienced its recent tsunami tragedy, some Americans wrote messages online rejoicing that it was payback for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And when the Japanese women’s soccer team recently defeated the US team, opinions of younger Americans collected from Twitter and Facebook were vehemently racist. “These comments came from young Americans in their twenties with no memory of World War II. When I see things like that I can’t stop doing what I’m doing.”

Roger believes there is plenty of work left to do when even the textbooks in Texas fail to mention the internment of Japanese Americans. He even found ignorance among students in Asian American studies on campuses. “Many of them are foreign born and know little about American history and the internment. Some students from Hong Kong come from affluent families and had it relatively easy coming here. How different is that from when my grandparents came to a country where they were not welcome?”

In 2003 the artist received a Joan Mitchell Foundation Painting Award, which provided him time to continue pursuing the issue of racial stereotyping as exemplified by his personal experiences combined with incidents from history. From our conversation, one feels that the artist has no intention of slowing down.

Evening in Minidoka and it’s quiet. Only a lone figure of a boy pedaling his tricycle along a dusty path between barracks. Each window, a frame for a different story. And above it all, the glow of the moon rising above barbed wire.