Examiner Contributor
In the late 1990s, while searching the Internet for art depicting life in the U.S. internment camps that held Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II, artist and University of Kansas Professor Roger Shimomura came upon such a drawing for sale on eBay. He learned that the artist was a homeless Japanese American named Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani, and that he sold his work in Washington Square Park in New York City.

Shimomura made it a point to find him on his next trip. When he did, they connected immediately, and Shimomura would visit Mirikitani with art supplies in hand on yearly trips.

At around the same time, videographer Linda Hattendorf, for whom Mirikitani had become a familiar sight on a street corner near her apartment building, started up a gradually-developing relationship with him after she bought one of his cat paintings. When the Sept. 11 attack and destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City set off an atmosphere of revenge and distrust, she decided to reach out. She helped Mirikitani apply for Social Security and housing benefits. In 2002 he moved into an assisted-living retirement center.

From that experience she made the documentary “The Cats of Mirikitani” about his life. In turn, she learned about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. “The Cats of Mirikitani” received two awards at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It will be broadcast on PBS’s “Independent Lens” in May 2007.

The artwork of Mirikitani is on display at the Wing Luke Asian Museum through Sept. 17. Shimomura, guest curator for the show, had a difficult time choosing what to display because Mirikitani never stops drawing.

For Mirikitani, art has been the mainstay of his atypical life. Born in the United States in 1920 and educated in Japan, he returned to the states when he was 18 to pursue his studies in art. He was living with his sister and her family in Seattle when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

After President Roosevelt issued the executive order to incarcerate people of Japanese descent, they were sent to separate internment camps. Internees were forced to prove their loyalty so he had renounced his U.S. citizenship in protest. He was sent to Tule Lake, Calif., where those internees deemed disloyal were placed. When the U.S. military dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, he lost most of his family.

In 1950 he went to New York City to resume his art career. He learned how to cook at a Buddhist church, and took seasonal jobs up and down the East Coast to support his art. He was working as a live-in cook in the late 1980s when his employer suddenly died, rendering him unemployed and homeless at the same time.

Through the tragedies that imprinted his life, Mirikitani drew and painted. He sold his work to survive. The works on display at the Wing Luke are dated 1999-2006, when he met Roger Shimomura and Linda Hattendorf. Along one wall are his paintings of cats. They resonate with the bright Japanese palette of reds, blues, yellows and greens.

One is struck immediately by the media he used to draw them with — ballpoint pen, colored pencils and crayons which he used because they resist rain. Cats peer playfully from behind blankets looking at fish and still life from Mirikitani’s past.

On the opposite wall are vivid portrayals of the major historic events in his life — Tule Lake Internment Camp, the Hiroshima Memorial engulfed in flames, the defeat of Admiral Yamamoto, the burning buildings of the World Trade Center. The addition of old magazine and newspaper photographs to some of the works serves to date them as well as lead one to reflect on Mirikitani’s perspective on those events.

An interesting part of the show is the Resource Room, a small enclosure meant to simulate Mirikitani’s living space. Three walls are covered with works and collages of photos that comprise a journal from Mirikitani’s life. There are photographs taken of him when he was young and also recent photos with friends. Old magazine photographs of crosses (with dripping blood painted on them), famous political faces, and buildings are drawn on and juxtaposed together as parodies of government actions and unabashed consumerism.

As spectators, we benefit from the art of Mirikitani. It lays before us the truth about the lasting effects of edicts arising from greed and distrust, as well as the cathartic effects of artistic expression.

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