In a work titled American Guardian, a heavily armed soldier, portrayed in jet-black silhouette , keeps vigilant duty in a guard tower. He watches below—in a space between tarpaper barracks enclosed by high barbed-wire fences is the lone object of his attention: a little boy on a tricycle.
“That could be me,” said roger Shimomura, the creator of this scene. The artist, who lives on Lawrence, Kansas, spent three years as a young child in the Minidoka War Relocation Center, a Japanese internment camp in Idaho.
In four series of painting about internment camps, he has plumbed his grandmother’s diaries and a few of his own recollections. “Probably the first memories I have of life are from my third birthday, and that would have been when we were at the Puyallup [Washington] Assembly Center,” the Seattle native said by telephone. “That was the state-fairgrounds site, where they put thousands of people from Seattle. We were there for about three months living in horse stalls and fair offices and, I understand, under the grandstand, in makeshift shelters. Then we were put on trains and shipped off. Most went to Minidoka.”
The Minidoka facility housed approximately 13,000 Japanese Americans, The majority taken from their homes and Businesses in the Pacific Northwest following the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor.
The subject is explored in Shimomura’s current exhibition, Minidoka on My Mind, at Eight Modern; the artist attends the opening reception on Friday, March 6. American Guardian, a lithograph, is included; the rest of the works in the show are acrylic-on-canvas painting. Shimomura spoke at the Institute of American Indian Arts on March 5. His appearance in Santa Fe is sponsored by the New Mexico Humanities Council, IAIA, Santa Fe JIN (Japanese Intercultural Network), and Eight Modern.
Shimomura earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington and then completed work for his master’s in painting at Syracuse University in New York. In 2004, he retired after teaching art for 35 years at the University of Kansas, Lawrence.
He has had more than 125 solo exhibitions, including An American Diary, a national show of his painting that traveled to a dozen museums and won the College Art Associations’ Artist Award for a Distinguished Body of Work. His work is in the collections of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Shimomura’s paintings typically deal with stereotypes and discrimination surrounding Japanese Americans. He works in a style that refers both to comic-book art and traditional Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. He often combines the two, creating work that draws comparisons to such diverse characters as Minnie Mouse and the woman lavishly rendered by the printmaker Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806).
“There are a lot of comparisons to be made, with the ukiyo-e woodblock prints being treated like we treat comic books,” the artist said. “When the Japanese shipped pottery to Europe in the 19th century, they wrapped it in those prints. The Europeans became intrigued with the wrappings as much as with the object. I think it was a reflection of the prints’ status in the art society, which was toward the bottom. That’s the connection to the way we in the Western world see comic books. Artists in Europe like Van Gogh were among the first to see those prints for what they were rather than for the low stature of the function and admire them so much that they actually became influential on their own imagery.”
Shimomura is represented in New York by Flomenhaft Gallery. A 2006 show of his work there included a Charlie Chan image, a self-portrait as Japanese comic and cartoon hero Astro Boy, several paintings from his Global Mutations series, and a piece titled Yellow Rat Bastard in which Shimomura employed what he called “self-legalized visual larceny.” In that one, the artist placed a picture of himself among dozens of images of Mao Tse-tung, flying fish, and Japanese cartoon characters, among other things.
Lush Life #2 in the Eight Modern show was named after a song popularized in 1963 by singer Johnny Hartman and jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, who Shimomura said was “incredibly influential to me when I was in graduate school.” The image is of a well-dressed Japanese American woman. “There were people who were involved in American mainstream business, of course, dressing and acting the part, when the order to be evacuated came, “he said.
Another is Classmates #3, which depicts two women, one behind barbed wire and one in front of it. “Once I was over on Brainbridge Island and they had an exhibition of high school yearbooks,” the artist recalled. “There were all kinds of Japanese Americans on the island farming in World War II days, and there were lots of the young people in the 1941 yearbook, but then in the 1942 yearbook, they were suddenly all erased. So Classmates brings attention to the fact. What happened to these two classmates is that one ended up behind barbed wire, while the other remained free.”
Shimomura is planning to “put the internment topic to bed” in the near future. “I’m working on a new series of paintings that have to do with many other topics and struggles I personally have dealt with in my life, but with a tongue-in-cheek approach,” he said. “For instance, I went to school with Bruce Lee. I had a lot of issues with that guy, but of course you can’t argue with Bruce Lee. So I’m taking him on now.”
“In the painting I’m working on at this moment, I’m sort of like an American GI Joe taking on all these World War II fighter-pilot stereotypes, and my wife, who has blond hair and blue eyes, is knocking me out in the driveway of our house. She’s dressed up as Wonder Woman and I’m dressed as a samurai. She just hit me, and my glasses are falling off, and scattered around are all these objects that are symbols for a lot of cross-cultural issues we’ve debated over time. So I’m settling the score with all these people.”