Taos filmmaker helps bring Mirikitani’s art to light

Artist Jimmy Mirikitani was born in California in 1920 and spent much of his youth in Hiroshima, Japan. He returned to America in 1937 to avoid fighting in Japan’s war against China, and to study art, saying of his thoughts at the time, “I’m not soldier boy. I’m an artist.”

Filmmaker Linda Hattendorf, who lives in Taos and New York, began by recording a few interactions with Mirikitani on the street in Soho, N.Y., in January 2001, and as Hattendorf and Mirikitani become friends, a film on his work organically evolved into “a chronicle of the deep wounds of war and Mirikitani’s abiding desire for peace against the unexpected backdrop of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks,” according to a press release.

Hattendorf’s award-winning documentary, “The Cats of Mirikitani,” will be screened at 8 p.m. July 12 at The Center for Contemporary Arts Cinematheque, 1050 Old Pecos Trail. Tickets are $10. Mirikitani, Hattendorf and co-producer Masa Yoshikawa will be present at the screening.

The opening reception for the exhibition, “Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani: Drawings,” is July 13 from 5-7 p.m. at Eight Modern, 231 Delgado Street in Santa Fe.

At the start of World War II, Mirikitani was living in Seattle with his sister, the release continues. He was fishing at a pier when news of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor reached the mainland. “An American kid said, ‘Japan and America, war start. What you gonna do?’” Mirikitani said. “I told him, ‘I not start war. I’m born Sacramento.’ ”

Like other Japanese Americans, Mirikitani’s citizenship and allegiance didn’t keep him from being sent to an internment camp, the release states. “Mirikitani spent three and a half years in captivity at the Tule Lake camp in California. He lost contact with all other members of his family. His sister was sent to a different internment camp in Idaho, while relatives in Japan perished when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.”

By the advent of the 21st century, the release states, Mirikitani was living homeless in New York, surviving by selling his fine, colorful drawings in pen, pencil and pastels. “Blessed with sublime talent and a wry sense of humor, he was also haunted by memories and anger at his wartime experience and the cumulative effect it had on his life and his aspirations as a fine artist,” the release continues.

Hattendorf adds in the release that Mirikitani “had a lot of important stories to tell, and the more I learned about his past, the more I became aware of the historical significance of the things that he was drawing. Making art is what helped him survive so many traumas in his own life.”

Artist Roger Shimomura, whose solo exhibition “An American Knockoff” will follow Mirikitani’s at Eight Modern, is a Japanese American internment camp survivor and professor emeritus at the University of Kansas. Shimomura befriended Mirikitani in 1999 after discovering one of his drawings on eBay.

“As a person who was in the camps myself, I empathize with him very much, not just because of his vocal outrage, but because we are both artists who express this outrage in our art, it made me feel all the closer to him,” Shimomura said in the release.

Mirikitani’s work over the years “has become more emotional and more powerful, and when you consider the bulk of that work being done on the streets of New York under very adverse conditions, it’s really a miracle.”

Even as Mirikitani’s life has changed since his international recognition as a fine artist, his work continues to inspire. “His art, unrelenting, serves as a faithful watch for rare hope,” wrote the Seattle Times after Mirikitani’s first solo exhibition in 2006.

Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art is having an exhibition of internment camp art this summer, which includes an early work of Mirikitani’s. “The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps” runs from July through October.

Eight Modern is open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m and Sunday from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. For more contact Jaquelin Loyd at (505) 995-0231 or info@eightmodern.net.