George Tsutakawa is a towering figure among Pacific Northwest artists, known for his
monumental bronze fountains in prominent locations here and abroad. But Tsutakawa was well- established as a painter a decade before receiving his first major sculpture commission. George Tsutakawa: Early Works on Paper, currently on view at the Cascadia Art Museum, focuses on this first phase of his career and traces his development as an artist. Curator David Martin caught a glimpse into the Tsutakawa family’s private collection while researching a book. He was struck by the continuity of Tsutakawa’s vision and aesthetic.
“Many of the designs for his fountains and sculptures were the culmination of ideas germinated from his earlier works on paper that grew and evolved over his long and illustrious career,” Martin observes.
Tsutakawa was born in Seattle, but at the age of seven, went to Japan to be educated in
traditional Japanese culture, a common custom in immigrant communities. In 1927, the 18-year old returned to Seattle and entered Broadway High School where his natural talent for drawing attracted the attention and encouragement of art teachers. His drawings and prints won awards in student and professional competitions. In addition to contemporaries like Fay Chong and Shiro Miyazaki, Tsutakawa became friends with Kenjiro Nomura and Kamekichi Tokita. Then in their 30’s, Nomura and Tokita were established artists, award-winning painters whose work was shown at the Seattle Art Museum and nationally. They owned a sign-painting business in Seattle’s Japantown where other artists were welcome to drop in. Their achievements inspired their younger colleagues.
“As a young student… just starting to study art at the Broadway High School, this is a very
fascinating and wonderful experience,” Tsutakawa recalled years later. “To go to the Northwest Annual [at the Seattle Art Museum], see Nomura and Tokita’s paintings as well as getting to know these artists in their own shop.”
Tsutakawa spent the summer of 1932 in Alaska, working in a fish cannery at Union Bay. He
entered the University of Washington that fall where, over the next five years, he studied under a number of prominent Northwest artists: painters Walter Isaacs and Ray Hill, printmakers Ambrose Patterson and Virna Haffer, designers Edna Benson and Ruth Penington. Under their guidance, he explored Modernist art movements such as Cubism and Surrealism, as well as traditional painting and sculpture techniques.
The exhibition occupies three galleries. In the first are works Tsutakawa created while a student. Presented in chronological order, they provide a map of his development as an artist and a revealing look at his influences. Watercolors depict places that he knew: rural landscapes around Puget Sound and waterfront scenes in Alaska. Academic exercises immediately infiltrated his independent work. The fractured planes of a Cubist still life are applied to a drawing of people on a streetcar. A quick watercolor sketch of workers on a fishing boat evolves into a second drawing that reinterprets the image in flat geometric shapes and a monochromatic palette drawn from a graphic design assignment.
In the summer of 1936, Ukranian American sculptor Alexander Archipenko came to Seattle for a solo exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum and taught a class at the University. Internationally renowned for work that applied the principles of Cubism to the human form, Archipenko’s class was a formative experience for Tsutakawa. The portfolio of drawings he created for the class became a resource that he returned to throughout his career. A charcoal drawing from that portfolio is on display; the shapes he sketched predict the fountains he designed decades later. Tsutakawa graduated with a BFA in sculpture in 1937.
Even as he identified as a sculptor, Tsutakawa continued to work and grow as a painter. The
second gallery includes over two dozen large-format watercolors, some combined with drawing media such as graphite or ink. These are the work of a mature artist, his aesthetic, cultural and personal influences fully integrated. Tsutakawa continued to draw his subjects from the events and places that he experienced. While consistently Modernist, individual compositions range from stylized representation to pure abstraction.
Tsutakawa was inducted into the U.S. Army soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in
December 1941. Stationed at bases in the U.S. from Texas to Minnesota, he painted portraits and murals and later taught Japanese for the Military Intelligence Service. His wartime experience seems to have heightened his sense of Surrealism as expressed in landscapes of Camp Fannin, Texas and Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Another image of Fort Snelling, a dynamic composition of planes shows more Cubist influence. A watercolor of an oil field in Gladewater, Texas is deconstructed into a second composition of colorful dancing oil derricks.
In 1946, Tsutakawa finished his military service and returned to the University of Washington for graduate study. The following year, he married Ayame Iwasa, accepted a teaching position at the UW, and had his first solo show in Seattle. He reconnected with Nomura and other Asian American artists. Paintings from this decade document Tsutakawa’s return to the Northwest in mountain and shoreline landscapes, some including figures of friends and family. The Northwest light suffuses his colors with a gorgeous, subtle complexity.
The exhibition’s third gallery is devoted to small black and white works, most done while
Tsutakawa was a student. His early prints are presented alongside those of his teachers and contemporaries, illustrating their influence.
In 1960, Tsutakawa’s first public sculpture, the Fountain of Wisdom was unveiled at the Seattle Public Library. Over the next three decades, he completed over sixty fountains plus other sculptures, in locations all over the world. But the formal and cultural influences in his sculpture are present in the two-dimensional works created earlier in his career. Most of the works in this exhibition are from the Tsutakawa family collection, on public display for the first time. They offer a rare depth of insight into Tsutakawa’s development as an artist.
George Tsutakawa: Early Works on Paper is on view at the Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds, WA through March 26 and is accompanied by an exhibition catalog. On Saturday, February 4 th at 10 a.m., author Mayumi Tsutakawa will give a talk at the museum about her father’s life and inspirations. Information at CascadiaArtMuseum.org.