Generations Of Talent -- Two Exhibits Document, Celebrate And Place In Context The Contributions Of Asian Immigrants To Our Cultural Treasure Chest

Art review

"They Painted From Their Hearts: Pioneer Asian American Artists," through Jan. 15 at the Wing Luke Asian Museum, 407 Seventh Ave. S., 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (623-5124); and "Strength & Diversity: Japanese American Women 1885-1990," through Dec. 4 at The Burke Museum, University of Washington campus. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (543-5590). -----------------------------------------------------------------

Two new museum shows speak to the strength and the talents of Asian immigrants to this country. Long denied citizenship, confronted by prejudice and discrimination in employment and housing, they developed their own ethnic communities for survival. Pressed by economic hardship, they still made time for art.

But while Seattleites doted on carved jades and painted scrolls at the Seattle Art Museum, and artists such as Mark Tobey and Morris Graves learned Zen and brush calligraphy from Asian friends, Asian artists themselves got short shrift. Using the muted colors and intimate scale of Asian art, along with the expressive brushwork of Asian calligraphy, Tobey and Graves sprang into national prominence, while Japanese artists got shipped off to World War II detention camps.

A handful of Northwest Asian artists have since become well recognized, their work collected nationally and even internationally. Others ceased to paint, or died with their work unknown.

Not until now, with a new show at the Wing Luke Museum, has the first generation of Asian-American artists been documented, celebrated and placed in context. The show, curated by Mayumi Tsutakawa, is expressively titled, "They Painted From Their Hearts: Pioneer Asian American Artists."

It features paintings and photographs by 18 gifted Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Filipino artists, from 1900 to 1960. Some of them, like George Tsutakawa (father of Mayumi), Paul Horiuchi, Johsel Namkung and Val Laigo, are well known for their exhibitions and public commissions.

Others, like Kamekichi Tokita and Takuichi Fujii, are unfamiliar. Yet both were part of the Group of Twelve, an early artistic salon which counted Morris Graves, Ambrose Patterson and Kenneth Callahan among its number. The latter artists are collected by museums. Fujii's paintings, done in the 1930s, were discovered in the 1980s as a bundle of canvases sold at a Capitol Hill flea market.

Few now know the work of Kenjiro Nomura, whose paintings were once included in a traveling show organized by New York's Museum of Modern Art, and were featured at a Sao Paulo Bienale. Check them out at the Wing Luke.

John Matsudaira, for many years an illustrator with the Boeing Co., exhibited his abstract paintings along with those of Nomura, at the Zoe Dusanne Gallery in the early 1950s.

Some artists in the show gave up art. Sumio Arima studied at the New York Art Institute, and with noted painter John Sloane, but gave up painting when he took over publication of the North American Times, the Seattle Japanese and English language newspaper begun by his father. Shiro Miyazaki, who studied at the California School of Fine Arts, became a labor organizer in California.

Six photographers are featured, including Namkung, a superb nature photographer, and Chao-Chen Yang, who studied film and color photography at RKO Studio in Hollywood before opening the Northwest Institute of Photography, and later the Yang Color Lab. Other photographers are Frank Kunishige, winner of numerous national and international prizes for his work, Henry Takayoshi, Dr. Kyo Koike and Frank Matsura, who recorded frontier life in Okanogan County.

Three Chinese painters, Fay Chong, Andrew Chinn and Lawrence Chinn, painted Northwest scenes in styles that combined traditional Chinese brushwork with contemporary Western techniques, finishing off scenes with titles and explanations written in Chinese characters.

Individually and collectively, these artists and their work made an indelible stamp on the Northwest aesthetic. A catalog to accompany the exhibit is due in early December. It will include a directory of Asian-American artists in Washington and Oregon.

Japanese-American women

Another Seattle exhibition is no less significant.

Japanese-American women have come a long way - from the conservative, kimono-clad Japanese "picture brides" who arrived at the turn of the century, to the sparkling pizazz of Kristi Yamaguchi skating her way to a world championship.

Pioneer Japanese women in America faced tremendous hardships. Now, many of their grandchildren are accomplished and celebrated beyond the wildest dreams of the modest picture brides.

It did not come about without pain. One infamous moment is bannered across the front of the Burke Museum: a giant black and white image taken from a photograph of Fumiko Hayashida, holding her baby. It was snapped in 1942, as she stood at the pier on Bainbridge Island, waiting to be among the first Japanese Americans forcibly removed to an internment camp for the duration of World War II.

The picture tops a poster announcing a new exhibition, "Strength and Diversity: Japanese American Women 1885-1990." Inside, the women's faces gaze out from enlarged photos, with text blocks that tell their stories. Mementos of times past - a dark kimono, a rusted flatiron - show in adjacent cases. A three-panel "Threads of Memory" quilt was cooperatively designed and hand-stitched by more than 700 Japanese-American women especially for this exhibition.

The show began in the hearts and minds of members of the National Japanese American Historical Society, who gathered stories, photographs and artifacts from four generations of Japanese-American women.

The resulting exhibition, first mounted at the Oakland Museum, was so evocative and meaningful that the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) picked it up to tour museums around the nation.

At the Burke, the show is enriched even further. At the entrance, photographs of 11 Northwest women of Japanese ancestry, taken by Seattle Times photographer Teresa Tamura, a Sansei or third-generation Japanese American, speak to the distinctively Northwest experience of Japanese-American women.

Chosen by a committee of their peers, the Northwest women honored are: Sadako Kodama, 94, and Theresa Matsudaira, 92, both first generation (Issei); Ruby Inouye, M.D., Seattle physician still practicing at 73, Yuki Miyake, active in community volunteer work, and Ryo Tsai, librarian and archivist, are second generation (Nisei); Sadako Moriguchi, 86, was born in Seattle and educated in Japan from age 5. The Moriguchi family own and operate the Uwajimaya stores.

Sansei women featured are Melanie Sako, artisan and commercial electrician; Bea Kiyohara, educator and former artistic director of the Northwest Asian American Theatre; and Sue Taoka, a community activist. Joby Shimomura, 22, a political activist, and Mira Chieko Shimabukuro, 22, poet and actress, are fourth generation (Yonsei).

Their lives have enriched not only the Asian community, but the Northwest at large. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Related programs

Four programs accompany the Burke Museum's exhibition "Strength and Diversity: Japanese American Women, 1885-1990," For details, call 543-5590. The schedule: Oct. 9 - 2 p.m. - Four generations of women from Seattle's Japanese-American community will talk about their experiences and answer questions. The Burke Room. Oct. 23 - 2 p.m. - "Hidden History: Japanese American Women's Perspectives on World War II Internment and the Redress Movement." The Burke Room.

Nov. 4 - 8 p.m. - An evening with Japanese-American women writers and poets. Writers will read their work and answer questions. Burke Museum Cafe. Nov. 13 - Noon to 4 p.m. - Local Japanese-American artisans will demonstrate quilting, Japanese paper cutting, making propeller toys and many more crafts. Hands-on activities for all ages. Burke Museum galleries.