In 1920’s Seattle, two young sign painters shared a passion for art. As Japanese immigrants, they were denied U.S. citizenship and segregated from white society, but overcame those barriers to become respected members of Seattle’s fledgling arts community and achieve national recognition as artists. “Painting Seattle: Kamekichi Tokita and Kenjiro Nomura” on view through February 19 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum is the first retrospective of their work. Barbara Johns, the exhibition’s curator and author of the book, “Signs of Home: the Paintings and Wartime Diary of Kamekichi Tokita,” offers fresh insight into Tokita’s life and the world in which both artists worked.

Nomura and Tokita were sons of the Meiji Era, a time of radical social change in Japan. They were innovators who broke cultural boundaries and participated in the cutting-edge art movements of their time. The rebellious second son of a middle-class family, Tokita was sent to China to learn the tea business, but instead studied painting and calligraphy. Banished to America, he settled in Seattle’s Nihonmachi (Japantown) and made friends with photographers and painters, including Kenjiro Nomura. Nomura immigrated at the age of ten; when his family returned to Japan, 16-year-old Kenjiro stayed behind. Also an aspiring artist, he apprenticed with a sign-painter while studying western-style painting and drawing with Fokko Tadama, a Dutch artist. In 1928, Nomura and Tokita became partners in the Noto Sign Company. Besides signs, they made backdrops and scenery for the Kabuki theater and pursued their own painting. Nomura taught Tokita oil painting; Tokita shared painting and calligraphy techniques acquired in China. Through the Depression, World War II and the Internment, they painted together for a quarter century.

American artists of the 1920’s and 30’s were creating an art that was distinctly American. Growing cities and the Depression gave a compelling sense of place to urban landscapes rendered with gritty realism. Tokita and Nomura, with fellow Northwest artists Morris Graves and Mark Tobey were proponents of this genre know as the Ashcan School. They emerged as artists around the same time as many of Seattle’s arts institutions. Their paintings were regularly chosen for the prestigious Northwest Annual exhibitions mounted by the Seattle Art Institute, later the Seattle Art Museum. The Annuals’ award-winners received solo exhibitions; Tokita won this honor in 1930 and 1935, Nomura in 1933. The Museum’s founding director Richard Fuller and the painter and art critic Kenneth Callahan endorsed their work. They were among a handful of Asian artists to receive national attention, exhibiting paintings in museums in California, Washington D.C., and New York. In the mid-1930’s they were members of the Group of Twelve, Pacific Northwest Japanese and Caucasian artists credited with originating the Northwest Style.

The layout of the SAAM exhibition evokes the artists’ relationship with Nomura’s paintings on the left wall of the gallery and Tokita’s on the right. Their depictions of Nihonmachi, Seattle’s waterfront and the nearby countryside are bold compositions of line and plane, outlined and textured by the strokes of the paintbrush. Although they share artistic influences and subject matter, each has his own distinct style. Tokita was a photographer; his paintings “Billboard” and “Drugstore” are tightly cropped like photographs, creating dynamic compositions of flat rectangles. He uses line to create texture and detail. In “Yesler Market,” the sky is criss-crossed with utility poles and wires. Tokita presents not a pretty view but a very personal recollection of his neighborhood. Nomura’s landscapes “Puget Sound” and “Red Barns” are more spacious, with greater emphasis on volume and modeling and a brighter range of earth tones, greens, and blues. At the far end of the gallery, side by side, are two paintings of the Yesler overpass at Fourth Avenue, one by each artist, that perfectly illustrate their similarities and differences.

“Signs of Home: the Paintings and Wartime Diary of Kamekichi Tokita” is a biography, a survey of his paintings, and the diary that he kept from the bombing of Pearl Harbor through the Internment. Most exhibition catalogs include essays on the artist’s life and work by two or three different authors; this book benefits from having a single author. Barbara Johns examines Tokita’s art in the context his life and the historic events that he lived through, integrating it all into a deeply moving human story. Tokita’s diary is a rare Issei (first generation) account of the period between Pearl Harbor and his arrival at the Minidoka internment camp. The book is beautifully designed including color reproductions of all of Tokita’s paintings in the exhibition.

“Painting Seattle: Kamekichi Tokita and Kenjiro Nomura” on view through Feb. 19 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Capitol Hill. Signs of Home: the Paintings and Wartime Diary of Kamekichi Tokita, by Barbara Johns, published by the University of Washington Press.

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