ASIA WEEK NY PICK — CAPTIVE ARTIST: WATERCOLORS BY KAKUNEN TSURUOKA

State of the Arts NYC spent two days previewing exhibitions for Asia Week NY. One of our favorites was Captive Artist: Watercolors by Kakunen Tsuruoka (1892–1977), an exhibition featuring landscape paintings produced while the artist was confined to Poston Camp III, part of the Colorado River Relocation Center in Arizona and one of the ten camps to which Japanese-Americans were forcibly relocated during the Second World War. While the focus of the installation will be on a group of 25 poignant paintings by Kakunen of the bleak and barren landscape surrounding the camp, the gallery will also offer a selection Kakunen’s original paintings and four shin hanga-style limited-edition prints depicting subjects unrelated to his time at Poston. The story behind the works is both sad and beautiful. It needs to be told and we hope you will read this post in its entirety. We edited it a bit.

The entire collection of works by Kakunen are from the Estate of Haruno Tsuruoka (1924–2017), the artist’s daughter-in-law who recently passed away, and is being offered by members of her family.

Tokutaro Tsuruoka was born to tobacconists in Tokyo in 1892 and orphaned at the age of four amidst a typhoid epidemic. Details regarding his childhood are scant, but he was barely a teenager in 1905 when he boarded a steamer to San Francisco on his own, with, according to family lore, merely $10 in his pocket. Upon his arrival, Tokutaro began to work for the antique dealer Takezo “T. Z.” Shiota (1875–1944) in exchange for room and board. One wonders if the young Tokutaro parlayed a nascent affinity with art for a job at Shiota’s gallery, or perhaps working at the gallery inspired his artistic endeavors. While learning the art and antiques trade, Tokutaro produced paintings, some of which are known to have been sold through T. Z. Shiota, bearing the somewhat unusual art name Kakunen. While Kakunen is described as a “self-taught artist” in the brief biographies of his life provided by his family, his ability to paint on silk and his frequent use of the tarashikomi, a pooled ink technique associated with the Rinpa style of painting, suggest at least some instruction or guidance with traditional Japanese painting methods. The kaku portion of his art name is an alternate reading of the character for tsuru (crane) in his family name. His choice of incorporating the character nenas the second half Kakunen may have been a deliberate reference to the I’nen seal employed by artist of the Rinpa School that specialized in kacho-e (bird and flower paintings), a favorite subject of Kakunen. Indeed, the artist’s circular seal that he used primarily on his early kacho-e, reads Bokutei(‘on the banks of the Sumida River’) and resembles typical Rinpa artists’ seals. He also excelled at painting nostalgic landscapes of Japan, no doubt influenced by the flow of popular woodblock prints and paintings offered at the gallery.

Kakunen made good use of his opportunities while working at Shiota’s Gallery. Although the exact origin of his connection to Shiota is unclear—Kakunen (and his descendants) alternatively referred to Shiota as his cousin or uncle (perhaps denoting respect rather than lineage), while the 1920 census identified the pair as brothers-in-law, hinting that Kakunen’s wife, Dai Aoki, could have been related to Shiota. Whether Kakunen and Shiota were bonded by blood, marriage, or convenience, the terms of employment were problematic. In 1918, Kakunen met the famous attorney and civil liberties advocate, C. E. S. Wood (1852–1944), who upon learning that Kakunen earned no wages and had been working solely for ‘room & board,’ advised him to sue on the basis of indentured servitude and release himself from Shiota’s employ. The suit was successful, and the twenty-six-year old Kakunen used the winnings to launch his own career as an art dealer. Wood would be one of his first customers and remain a lifelong friend. It was likely through Wood, a landscape painter himself, that Kakunen met some of his other notable clients including the playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), a practicing Buddhist who Kakunen would visit on his deathbed, the philosopher and psychologist John Dewey (1859–1952), and the heiress Juliet Ector Orr Munsell (1865–1948), with whom he grew quite close. As Kakunen established himself as an independent dealer and consultant, he travelled to Asia frequently seeking works for his clients. On one trip to China and Mongolia he apparently accompanied Langdon Warner (1881–1955) of Yale University, the legendary academic-adventurer and an inspiration for the fictional hero Indiana Jones.

A turn of events impacted Tsuruoka and over 122,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry who were compelled by the US government to abandon their lives and homes on the West Coast and ‘voluntarily’ submit to incarceration due to the outbreak of war with Japan. The evacuation of the West Coast by the US Army began in March of 1942 when General John L. DeWitt, the head of the Western Defense Command, issued the first of what would be 108 Civilian Exclusion Orders organizing the removal of “all persons of Japanese ancestry, including aliens and non-aliens” from designated military areas.

Shiota shut down his gallery (storing the art with multiple friends) shortly after DeWitt’s first directive. In a farewell letter posted in the window of his gallery dated March 26, 1942, Shiota thanked his loyal customers and friends and writes: “At this hour of evacuation when the innocents suffer with the bad, we bid you, dear friends of ours, with the words of beloved Shakespeare ‘PARTING IS SUCH SWEET SORROW”…Till We Meet Again, T. Z. Shiota.”

The very next day DeWitt issued a new proclamation ending the period of voluntary evacuation, forbidding further departures to freedom and initiating systematic forced expulsions into incarceration.

Most evacuees were initially held in 15 temporary chaotic detention camps called ‘Assembly Centers,’ located on requisitioned fair grounds and horse racing tracks where the overcrowded living quarters were often unsanitary and odorous converted stables. The populations were then moved on to ten hastily-constructed permanent camps in remote locations called ‘Relocation Centers,’ administered by the civilian War Relocation Authority (WRA) but completed and expanded by the internees themselves. Although the term ‘relocation center’ would become a gross understatement of the reality of mass incarceration, WRA administrators under the leadership of Dillon Myer initially held a genuine expectation that they would be to facilitating resettlement to communities further away from the paranoia of the West Coast. Prevailing anti-Japanese sentiment, however, became so strong that their efforts were thwarted by the War Department and many of the detainees were held for most of the duration of the war. Unrest within the camps, mostly led by young men who were born in America and thus felt betrayed by their own country, resulted in an effort to separate the ‘disloyal’ population into a more tightly guarded ‘segregation center’ at the Tule Lake Relocation Center in California. Early in the process the term ‘concentration camp’ was sometimes used, and a few smaller locations under the control of the Justice Department and in Hawaii were called ‘internment camps.’ Although the term concentration camp is accurate, in a post-Holocaust world the meaning has evolved to evoke a horrific connotation of mass murder which is not applicable to this episode of American history. The definition of internment in international law is the detention of individuals considered dangerous during a time of war, usually, but not always, enemy nationals. The problem with this term is that nearly two thirds of the evacuees in the camps were American citizens. However, ‘internment camp’ was used to apply to all of the camps eventually, and remains the most familiar description today, although many Japanese-Americans simply refer to the experience as life in ‘the camps.’

Some evacuees never passed through an Assembly Center and went straight to a Relocation Center. This may have been the case with Kakunen and his family, who were sent to the Colorado River Relocation Center in Poston, Arizona. Commonly called the Poston Internment Camp, it was located on the Colorado River Indian Reservation and therefore was the only camp in the system which fell under the administration of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, whose Director John Collier was well-known for his ‘Indian New Deal’ of self-governance and respect for native cultures. Poston had three separate camps (called Units) approximately three miles from each other, which the internees aptly renamed Roasten, Toastin, and Dustin. A single fence enclosed the entire complex, but the location was so remote it was deemed unnecessary to build the ubiquitous guard towers that loomed over the other camps. Shiota and his family entered on August 8, 1942 and were assigned to block 326 in Unit III (a.k.a Dustin), and the Tsuruoka family were nearby on block 308.

During his time at Poston III, Kakunen’s artistic production differed dramatically from the decorative bird and flower paintings and Japanesque landscapes that he produced for sale at Shiota’s gallery. The camp watercolors capture the raw solitude and otherworldly vistas of his desert surroundings.

In March of 1943, the camp daily Poston Chronicle reported on the opening of the Mohave Room in Poston III, an installation which featured 16 paintings lining the room depicting “Rows of lighted barracks in the twilight, Roku Two as seen in the mist of an early morning, and striking mesquite trees.” Kakunen was referred to as the designer of the ‘famous Mohave Room’ and painter of its principal murals in the bookBeauty Behind Barbed Wire (1952), the first comprehensive study on camp art, written by the folk-art historian Allen H. Eaton which also illustrates an inlaid wood tray designed by Kakunen which was recently acquired by the Japanese American National Museum as part of the Eaton Collection. It is unknown whether any photographs of the Mohave room are extant.

Kakunen made few images of the buildings in the camp itself, preferring to go out into the foothills to paint what natural beauty he could find in the barren landscape. The vistas are almost unchanging but for the ever-changing light and darkness of the sky. Nearly all feature at least one gnarled mesquite tree (one wonders if he literally painted the same specimen, over and over again). Viewed together, the twisting mesquite, struggling in the unforgiving elements, suggests a profound loneliness and despair.

Five of Kakunen’s watercolors were presented as gifts to the camp administrator Wade Head and are currently in the collection of the Arizona Historical Society in Tempe. In May of 1943, one of those five,Poston after Sundown, received a special prize for “Best Scene at Relocation or Assembly Centers” at an art exhibition sponsored by the Friends Meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, the paintings Kakunen chose to keep do not represent the camp at all and instead depict the desolate surroundings in which Poston was located. In fact, save for one image of a horse miniaturized amidst a canyon, Kakunen does not represent a single living thing.

The Tsuruoka family were released early in 1944. Like many Japanese-Americans, they chose not to return to the West Coast but moved east to New York City where Kakunen established a firm manufacturing artificial flowers (a skill well-honed at Poston where his wife Dai taught a class on the art form) while continuing his work as a private dealer and consultant. Kakunen did not publish any more of his own woodblock prints with Watanabe, and the small pile of prints and paintings still held by the family suggests he had lost interest in promoting his own work. Sadly, the four beautiful prints that he produced suggest that he could have been, should have been, the American shin hanga artist of his time. It is unknown if the other extant watercolors in the family’s collection were painted before or after the war as he usually did not date his work with the exception of some of the paintings from his time at Poston.

Scholten Japanese Art is located at 145 West 58th Street, Suite 6D, between 6th and 7th Avenues. For the duration of the exhibition, March 13 – 23, the gallery will have general open hours (no appointments needed), 11 – 5 pm.

ABOUT SCHOLTEN GALLERY

Scholten Japanese Art opened its doors September 2000 in a renovated townhouse on New York’s Upper East Side. In May of 2003, Scholten moved to a private suite in the old Meurice Hotel located on 58th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. We initially planned to stay in midtown temporarily, however, we were pleasantly surprised to find the central location in the heart of Manhattan offers advantages in accessibility for both local collectors (who frequently have business in the area) and proximity to numerous hotels for out-of-town visitors. In 2009 we decided to expand to a larger space in the same building which was renovated to provide more exhibition space as well as a separate ‘Print Room’ devoted to our library and large inventory of woodblock prints. We organize at least two public exhibitions every year during Asia Week (both March and September), but we always have a selection of prints and paintings on view throughout the year.

René Scholten is the President of Scholten Japanese Art which opened in New York in September 2000. Mr. Scholten, like many art dealers, began as an avid collector of Japanese art, with a particular passion for woodblock prints. He first encountered Japanese culture in the 1970s and 80s when his work as a software consultant brought him in contact with Japanese clients and Japan itself. He began collecting Japanese prints in the early 1980s- his first major purchase was a 1929 woodblock print by Torii Kotondo (1900-1976), “Make-Up.” From there, his collection quickly grew, as did his involvement in the Japanese art community of Holland, and beyond.

Katherine Martin has been the Managing Director of Scholten Japanese Art in New York since 1999. Prior to consulting privately, Ms. Martin was a specialist in the Japanese Department at Sotheby’s New York (1993-1999). While at Sotheby’s, Ms. Martin was the primary contact for the sale of the Donna and the Late Arthur Levis Collection of Yoshitoshi Woodblock Prints(Sept. 1997, Mar. 1998), and the New York representative for the London auction of Highly Important Japanese Prints from the Henri Vever Collection in October 1997. Ms. Martin was also the specialist in charge during the series of auctions of inro, netsuke, and works of art from theCollection of the Late Charles A. Greenfield (Sept. 1997, March 1998, Sept. 1998).

Ms. Martin has lectured for the School of African and Oceanic Studies (Oct. 1997); the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables (Feb. 1998); the Morikami Museum in Del Ray (Feb. 1998); the International Netsuke Society Convention in Chicago (July 1999); the Ukiyo-e Society of America (September 1999); The New York Graphic Arts Society (Dec. 2000); Lafayette College in Easton Pennsylvania (April 2001); for New York University’s Certificate in Arts Administration, Certificate in Appraisal Studies, and their Institute for Fine Arts programs (multiple occasions starting in 2002); The University of Michigan Museum of Art (March 2006), the Netsuke Symposium in London (Nov. 2010), the Print Club of New York (Oct. 2011), the Appraisers Association of America (Oct. 2012), the Indianapolis Museum of Art Japanese Print Collection Group (Feb. 2011, July 2013, June 2016).

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