Photo Caption: Jimmy Mirikitani in Washington Square, New York. Photo credit: Roger Shimomura.
“The Cats of Mirikitani,” a documentary film on the life of a Japanese-American artist by New York-based producer/director Linda Hattendorf burst onto the scene in 2006 winning the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival. From there, it garnered further praise on the festival circuit and aired on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). It made the then 80-year-old artist a noted figure and illuminated a life torn by the trauma of World War II internment camps, the bombing of Hiroshima and homelessness on the streets of post-9/11 New York. It also brought needed attention to the issue of homelessness (see the Wing’s current exhibit on this theme) and how it affects all Americans and the healing power of friendship and art in a fragmented society. Mirikitani died on October 21, 2012 at the age of 92, but not before his eventful life served as an inspiration to many. Fellow Seattle-raised artist Roger Shimomura and local friend Linda Ando remember the legacy of the man below. — Alan Lau, IE Arts Editor
In 1999, I was cruising eBay under the search words “internment camp,” looking for items that I could add to my collection of incarceration camp memorabilia. Among the various listings, a wonderful drawing of a cat appeared, owned by someone who had purchased it from a homeless Japanese man who hung out on Washington Square, New York City. My interest was piqued and I called the seller asking what his drawing had to do with the search keywords, “internment camp.” He said he purchased the drawing from an older fellow who went by the name “Jimmy,” and who spent most of everyday on Washington Square Park selling his drawings, mostly of cats and the camp in which he was interned during WWII.
Since this location was not too far from my wife’s apartment in Manhattan, I decided to see for myself the next time I visited New York. A few weeks later, I went to Washington Square Park and met Jimmy for the first time. It was the holiday season and Jimmy sat on his designated park bench in Washington Square. Next to him were two shopping carts filled with drawings and art supplies. He was wearing two overcoats and a hat, and was surrounded by his drawings, weighted down on the ground with rocks to keep them from blowing away.
I introduced myself to Jimmy, and we bonded immediately when we discovered that we were both artists of Japanese descent and were both making art about our camp experiences.
The next two times I went to New York, I made it a point to bring some art supplies, or sushi to Jimmy. He always insisted I take a drawing at no charge, though he never resisted when I put money in his overcoat pocket. My command of Japanese was worse than Jimmy’s command of English, but we managed to communicate, mostly talking in halting and abbreviated versions of both languages. We usually discussed politics, and our family history. I was dying to know how he ended up homeless, though that word didn’t seem to be in his vocabulary.
Then, upon one visit to New York, unexpectedly, Jimmy was not there. Every day I was in New York. That week, I went to Washington Square Park and sat on his bench. I began to presume the worst. Months later, I received an email from a video editor named Linda Hattendorf, who said that Jimmy had asked her to send all of his drawings to me for safekeeping. He had kept the business card I had given him when we first met. Jimmy had changed his location from Washington Square Park to Soho, next to a Korean grocery store just around the corner from Linda’s apartment. If you have seen the film “Cats of Mirikitani,” you know the rest of this incredible story.
As a footnote, I would add that when Linda discovered Jimmy’s long, lost sister in Seattle, I discovered that the address given for her was just two blocks from my Seattle condo. When Jimmy and crew came up to Seattle to reunite with his sister after 50 years, we met at my condo, and then walked to her apartment. When we knocked on her door, a man about my age answered; I immediately recognized him. “Ernie?” I asked. “Roger?” he asked.
Simultaneously, we both said, “What are you doing here?” Ernie and I had gone to school together and we hadn’t seen each other in 45 years. It turned out that Jimmy’s sister Kazuko was Ernie’s mother.
Such was the magic of Jimmy’s life, bringing people together for various occasions. This is just one story of the many that developed over the years I knew Jimmy. For all his flaws and shortcomings, he constantly generated memorable connections with those with whom he came into contact. I will miss my visits with Jimmy when I go to New York. Since Jimmy has passed, I have made two trips to Washington Square just to sit on his bench and reminisce. While his physical being may have left this earth, I know that his spirit will remain with me and his stories will never fail to put a smile on my face. R.I.P. Jimmy.