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Seattle Art Museum Opens Painting Seattle. Kamekichi Tokita & Kenjiro Nomura

Kamekichi Tokita and Kenjiro Nomura, first-generation Japanese Americans, were well known in 1930s Seattle for their American realist style of landscape painting. Painting Seattle: Kamekichi Tokita & Kenjiro Nomura, opening October 22, 2011, highlights the landscapes they knew well—neighborhoods in and around Japantown or Nihonmachi (today part of the International District), the working waterfront, and the farmlands cultivated by Japanese American families. Along with such artists as Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves, and Ambrose and Viola Patterson, Tokita and Nomura were part of the Seattle modernist collective Group of Twelve. The intimate exhibition of approximately twenty works will feature eight paintings from SAM’s collection.

Kenjiro Nomura, Street, ca. 1932. Oil on canvas, 23 3/4 x 28 3/4 in. Gift of West Seattle Art Club, Katherine B. Baker Memorial Purchase Award, Seattle Art Museum. Photo: Paul Macapia.

Tokita and Nomura were the most prominent of a group of first-generation Japanese-American painters in the 1920s and 30s in Seattle, and their paintings portray everyday people and places. The two were friends, painting colleagues, and partners in a sign-painting business, whose shop served as studio and gathering place. Their work was highly regarded by Seattle’s progressive artists, praised for its modernist use of strong line, simplified geometric form, and inventive composition. Unlike artists seeking picturesque Northwest vistas, their work reveals details derived from daily familiarity. The majority of the paintings depict street scenes in the Northwest in and around what was then called Japantown—Prefontaine Street, 4th and Yesler, and the view of Puget Sound over the tops of Seattle buildings. In their choice of subject, the particularities of place and time, and their artistic melding of Western modernism and Japanese tradition, they describe an Issei, or first generation Japanese American perspective.

“This exhibition represents a long overdue reclamation,” says Barbara Johns, guest curator. “The artists were well recognized in their time but written out of history during World War II. I hope the Seattle Art Museum exhibition together with the Tokita book will restore their place within a broadened understanding of American art.”

Both exhibited regularly in regional annuals and were selected to represent the Northwest in national exhibitions. They were named two of the three Artist Life Members of the new Seattle Art Museum at its opening and honored with solo exhibitions. Dr. Richard Fuller, SAM’s founding director, featured the pair in an exhibition jointly organized by SAM and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1934. World War II abruptly halted their careers, and only Nomura lived long enough afterward to re-establish himself as an artist. This is the first exhibition since 1934 to present Tokita’s and Nomura’s work together in depth.

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