Looking At Nikkei Art

March 12, 2014 at 10:34 pm

by David Fujino
March 2014

Gallery hopping — going to art galleries to see art — used to be an almost routine part of my life several years ago, but as I steadily mature, I now go out to art shows on a more irregular basis. The same could be said about my spotty attendance at jazz, improvised, and classical and New Music concerts, as well as going out less often to theatre, dance, and book readings. Maybe I’ve become more selective, or so I like to think.

My acting life and my writing life concern and involve me, as do the goals and recently assumed duties of being a member and President of the Greater Toronto Chapter of the NAJC. All of this keeps me working as part of a culturally-minded and active, wired community.

But recently the Nikkei in me abruptly arose, and I wanted to share with readers the pleasures and new experiences I’ve gained from going out and looking at the work of Nikkei artists in three very different art shows.

Linda Ohama`s inspired social art project, We Love Japan, The Canadian Cloth Letter Tour, arrived in Toronto with over 55 showings in Japan and was on view at the *JCCC art gallery from December 12, 2013, to January 26, 2014.

The 12 multi-coloured cloth letters grew out of Ohama’s initial fundraising for the victims of the 2011 tsunami and earthquake — ‘3/11’ — in the Tohoku region of Japan, which was quickly followed by Linda’s idea to collect cloth squares from school kids across Canada that had messages of support for the victims on them, sew them together, and send them to Japan.

The care and love expressed in the cloth letters surely moved the Japanese students with its directness. In turn, they could paint and design their own cloth letters and sew them into their evolving quilt and send it on to the next town in the project. Everyone can reach out and join hands. The Japanese coordinators must have worked hard.

Obu Cloth LetterOhama clearly has a heart and a talent for bringing people together in what I like to call participational art projects. Her granddaughter in Vancouver made the first cloth letter on March 12, 2011, and from there it spread across Canada to Halifax, Toronto, Mississauga, Montreal, Winnipeg, and even further points, such as Whitehorse, Peace River, Nanaimo, Steveston, and Bowen Island.

Detail – Obu Cloth Letter

And now, almost 2 years later, I’m looking at 12 samples of Ohama’s participational show of quilt-like cloth letters just back from Japan — a Canada-Japan effort, a visible banner of tangible support in hard times — We Love Japan, The Canadian Cloth Letter Tour.

What a great idea. Quilted cloth letters. In each cloth letter, a person can write and draw a message of support; they can express themselves, they can offer something and ‘be there’ for another human being.

Meanwhile, on a terribly cold day, I travelled to see a piece of Akira Yoshikawa’s that’s on view at the **Harbourfront Gallery from January 25 to April 6, 2014. He’s in a group show of modern mainstream art called Continuum. This show presents eight separate works of art as innovative within an established tradition of modern art making.

Upon entering ** Harbourfront, the show title, Continuum,  loomed large on a white wall above my left shoulder. As I peered into the first white box on the wall, I admired Elizabeth Forrest’s blue-tinted landscape print inside, and it dawned upon me that this was the show — eight white boxes in a row, each suspended from the wall, each containing an artist’s work. Fine. Different from a typical gallery show. I moved on. Who was next?

EllsworthI knew I was looking at Yoshikawa’s piece before I read the description on the wall. Yoshikawa loves the work of artists like the American, Ellsworth Kelly (as do I), and during his studies at OCA he was introduced to the influences of Minimalism and Concept Art. From these diverse influences, Yoshikawa has fashioned compositions that often arise out of a chance coming together of physical materials.


The piece in the box, Ellsworth, is a dedication to the American colourist painter, Ellsworth Kelly. Composed of an orange shape (acrylic) on the white wall, and flanked by a small bronzed tree branch (a symbol of tribute), it occupies a white area that measures approximately 5 x 5-1/2 inches wide. Ellsworth presents itself with all the understated elegance we’ve come to associate with Ellsworth Kelly, and Henri Matisse, whom Kelly admired. I’d like to add that the orange shape is also a ‘Robert Motherwell shape’, according to my eyes.

And I especially enjoyed David Pellettier’s Picasso, Dog & Speedo, an irreverent tribute sculpture in bronze, of a man in Speedo swimming trunks (Picasso), arms raised as if blessing the heavens, with a dog perched incongruously on his right shoulder; and then Henry Ho’s well-crafted painting and construction — The Circle Within — depicted human consciousness as it exists in a Taoist world of constant energy flows. The four other artists in the Continuum show are Robert Archambeau (ceramic pot), Ethan Eisenberg (street photography), Mitchell Fenton (painting), and Laine Groenewerg (printmaker).

I got a real kick out of the third show I saw, partly because I took part in the Ochawan Transformation show, coordinated by Akira Yoshikawa and Bryce Kanabara and on view from February 2 to March 31, 2014, at the * JCCC art gallery.

It’s the second time that Yoshikawa has brought his ochawan participational idea into the community. Ochawan first started at the Toronto NAJC’s Friendship House at 382 Harbord St. People were invited to pick up a simple white rice bowl from the organizers, transform it at home (paint on it, draw on it, even break it and reassemble it), then return it for exhibit and a silent auction. At that time, it was around 1993, I think, when Kazuo Nakamura contributed a ‘Nakamura’ to the Ochawan show. It was a lot of fun, and the work and the show concept was a real draw, especially for Nikkei. The funder for this 2014 show is, appropriately, the *** Toronto NAJC.

The Ochawan Transformation — like the cloth letters project — is largely defined by, and depends upon, the participation of the artists. The clear concept drew people in like a magnet. In one case, a whole family, mom, dad, and daughter, each exhibited an ochawan. People who are not full-time artists were given an ochawan so they could express another side of themselves and really use their imagination. About 70 people returned their ochawan, transformed. It was a delight to see.

John Ota’s hilarious piece was an abstracted, extreme version of a Japanese plastic food model. Like a gigantic ‘slurp’ — held up high by black ohashi — a length of soba apparently made of worm-shaped orange and yellow jujubes rose up horrifically out of an overspilling ochawan. You couldn’t miss it.

Fill this bowlFill This Bowl with Rice and This Bowl is Empty

And there’s Ken Fukushima’s 2-bowl piece, Fill This Bowl with Rice and This Bowl is Empty, a set of black & red hand-lettered words about world hunger. Other ochawan dealt with our parents instructing us to “eat every grain of rice” when we were kids.

It was instructive to get out there, and look at, and participate in, Nikkei art — frigid temperatures be damned.

* JCCC Art Gallery, 6 Garamond Court, Toronto, ON, M3C 1Z5, Phone: 416-441-2345

** Harbourfront Gallery, 235 Queen’s Quay West, Toronto, ON, Phone: 416-973-4000

*** The Greater Toronto Chapter of the NAJC, 6 Garamond Court, Suite 240, Toronto, ON, M3C 1Z5, Phone: 416-919-2396; Website: www.torontonajc.ca

– Akira Yoshikawa’s website: akirayoshikawa.com    – Henry Ho’s website: taichicalligraphy.com