BY ALAN LAU
Examiner Arts Editor
It’s 1:30 in the morning, and I’m staring at a framed photo of four Japanese Americans in suits with an elegant, elderly woman with a quizzical look on her face, holding a cat in her lap. Behind them on the wall are abstract paintings of shapes and forms, each framed with sturdy heavy wood that denote an earlier time.
What amuses me is that not all of the people in the composition are looking at the camera. Paul Horiuchi, the tallest of them, appears to the left staring off into space, his hands bunched up into soft fists, looking nervously pensive. The shorter George Tsutakawa sits on the couch in a double-breasted suit, a cigarette neatly tucked between his fingers. Zoe Dusanne, the owner of Seattle’s first modern art gallery, looks elegant yet eccentric with jewelry from hand to ear, her throat wrapped in a flowing scarf.
At the end of the couch, the youngest painter by the name of John Matsudaira sits almost crushed next to Ms. Dusanne with his right hand on his lap and left hand resting on the end table. A toussled head of hair and functional glasses frame a thin, intelligent face. Across from him, seated, is Kenjiro Nomura, with both hands resting on the arms of a comfortable chair, his feet clad in sturdy black shoes crossed over on a soft carpet.
The year is 1954, and this may be the first show for these artists. Nonetheless, not a single painting by any of these painters sells. This photo by Elmer Ogawa hangs in my hallway by the door. It’s the last thing I see going out the door and the first thing I see coming back. With sadness, I realize that with the death of John Matsudaira, everyone in this photo is now history.
John Matsudaira was born in Seattle in 1922, but was sent back to the castle town of Kanazawa, Japan at the age of six to go to school. He always proudly mentioned to me that, as a child, he had won a prize for best drawing in the city of Kanazawa. He would not return to the Northwest till 1935, at which time he entered Maryknoll School and O’Dea High School until his entire family was interned at the Minidoka camp in southern Idaho.
John remembers artists like Frank Fujii and Val Laigo as classmates at Maryknoll. While in camp, he volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and was wounded in Italy. He almost died and spent months in the military hospital trying to recover. Of his wartime experience, he uttered only a single sentence to me. “It’s hard to explain to anyone who wasn’t there.”
After the war, he returned to Seattle and attended Burnley, a commercial art school where he studied with Jacob Elshin and Nick Damascus and learned the fundamentals. But it was sketching with friends like Paul Horiuchi and Kenjiro Nomura and showing together in various competitions and galleries that he really blossomed. Shows would follow at Zoe Dusanne’s, Seattle Art Museum, the International Art Exhibition in Chinatown and the 1962 World’s Fair.
He enjoyed being part of the so-called “Northwest School,” and one of his most cherished memories was hanging out with Horiuchi, Tsutakawa and others at parties where Mark Tobey would attend. When we interviewed him for the Northwest Asian American Artist’s Project for the Archives of American Art/Smithsonian Institute, his eyes shone with joy as he showed us pictures from these parties, or sketches Tobey had done of him quickly drawn on a napkin.
He retired after working over 30 years at Boeing. Even retired, he remained devoted to his good friend and mentor, Paul Horiuchi. In his last years, John would pick up Paul at his house and drive him around to art galleries so he could continue to see art. Bringing up a family and working never left him with enough time to pursue his painting as a full-time career, yet the few pieces that remain show him to be a strong abstractionist. Perhaps someday, a small retrospective show can be arranged so his work can come in for a closer reevaluation and renewed appreciation.
The last time I saw John, I was helping a photographer throw blankets over the skylight on his roof so he could take a clearer photo of his world’s fair painting without the distraction of indirect sunlight. His painting was to be reproduced in a forthcoming book on early Asian American artists for a university press. Recently, when I mentioned this to a family friend who had attended his memorial service, she expressed surprise. “Oh, so he is going to be in a book!” Evidently, when her mother visited him during his last stay in the hospital, he had mentioned to her that his art was finally going to be in a book. Since he was on medication, she wasn’t sure if he was just hallucinating, or what he was actually telling her was real.
Once when his friend Paul Horiuchi had a small retrospective at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Connor, John invited us along. He thought one of Paul’s rare screen paintings was to be shown. Unfortunately, there were no screen paintings in the show and we almost got lost along the way. But, to this day, my wife and I cherish the memory of this winter trip. As we headed home and the sunset smeared the sky over the fields with red and orange, John entertained us with stories of Northwest artists hanging out together and sketching.
Across from the wall where the photo of the artists at their gallery opening hangs are two small paintings no larger than picture postcards. One, dated 1961, is a busy, rhythmic architectural composition of lines that seem to resonate with the energy and lights of the city. Behind chiseled lines, a frieze of soft colors fill the space with muted reds, blues and browns.
The other painting, dated 1975, has a delicate fluidity that suggests the leaf pattern and stamen/blossom patterns of nature glowing in dark blues, greens, yellows and reds. In the middle of the surging flow bobs a yellow bird tilting in harmony to its natural surroundings. Both these paintings were brought to me as a gift in a grocery bag with brown string handles by the artist. John Matsudaira died on Jan. 30 and with him, a piece of Northwest art history.
For those of you interested in finding out more about John Matsudaira, he was interviewed by Densho’s oral history project. Log on to www.densho.org.