Artist (Painting, Print, Performance)
Roger Shimomura is a sansei (third generation) Japanese American artist. He is best known for his Pop-style paintings and prints that question and provoke thoughts about racial stereotypes in the United States. Born in Seattle in 1939, he spent a couple of years as a child in the Minidoka incarceration camp in Idaho during the World War II. In this Oral History Interview, he talked about how he decided to become an artist after working as a graphic designer and how he started using ukiyo-e motifs in his work, which developed into the acclaimed Minidoka (1978–79) and Diary (1980–83) series that portrayed Japanese American experiences during the war years. During the second interview, he discussed his performance pieces inspired by his grandmother Toku’s diary, as well as about his collection of items related to his family members and incarceration camp.
Hiroko Ikegami (HI): Thank you so much for having us to interview you today. Since this is an oral history interview, we normally start with your birth date and then ask you about your background. Let me start with your birth in Seattle, Washington in 1939. Could I ask you about your first memory as a child? Do you remember anything specific?
Roger Shimomura (RS): My first memory as a child was actually in (internment) camp and it was my third birthday. I have a memory of walking in and outside of the barrack, telling people, every time someone walks by and walks out, saying, “It’s my birthday today.” Somehow my mother got hold of a cake. Because you couldn’t cook in your room, you could only eat in mess halls. So, I don’t know where she got the cake, but obviously she purchased it from someplace. There were three candles on it and I remember going back and counting them… That’s all I remember about my third birthday. There are some other aspects to it that I think I kind of added. They are not really a part of what actually happened. That’s true for most memories, I think, so I’m very leery of personal history and I tend to say less about what I remember so as not to embellish it by adding more that really didn’t happen. But my third birthday, I could say, sort of officially is…
HI: Your first memory.
HI: That’s nice that your mother somehow managed to get you a cake.
Maki Kaneko (MK): That was amazing thinking about the environment of that time.
RS: I think all the other memories that I have are close behind and actually I’m not sure whether that was the first event in camp, but there were other things that happened in the process of that first year such as getting measles and being quarantined. My grandmother and grandfather were visiting me every day to see how I was, because my mother and I were put in a separate room in a separate building. And three times a day they put food in a slot in a door so that we can eat, but I think we’re quarantined for maybe two weeks or three weeks…
HI: I see. You were quarantined because you got chicken pox.
RS: Measles. I think that was measles. So, that’s another event that I have a very clear recollection of. Memories of Childhood (1999) has both of those events that I just described, my third birthday and the measles.
HI: You remember being quarantined, because you were not happy being there.
RS: Right. I remember the only pastime was the mouse. There was a mouse in that room that drove my mother crazy. She spent half the day with the broom trying to kill it and I’m trying to protect it, because that’s the only pleasure I had. It was like having a pet. And then one day it was no longer there and I saw the garbage can, you know … I was heartbroken.
HI: It was there in the garbage can, killed by your mother?
RS: Yes, with the broom.
HI: That’s a sad story. Are there anything else that you remember very well from the camp life?
RS: Just in general? Being in camp?
RS: Um… again, I think I’d like to just refer you to Memories of Childhood. To be frank with you, I could only remember nine things when we were asked to remember ten to do the series. It was part of a big project that Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in New York did. She asked all of us, every artist in her gallery—there were about twenty of us—to remember our first ten memories of life, because she knew that there would be very unconventional events based upon the type of people that she had in her gallery. (Note: Bernice Steinbaum Gallery represented minority artists.) So, of course, the first set of memories I had were all in camp. I had only nine and I couldn’t think about the tenth one. So I kind of cheated a little bit. I think the tenth one was the odori that they would have inside the barbed wire fence. I used to read about that so much and hear about it that I feel like I actually saw it. So I was able to make a lithograph of it. But I don’t think I actually saw it. Other things were like my uncle going into the military and saying goodbye to him. I think I saw that. I remember when that happened. But I didn’t remember exactly the composition that’s in the print. That’s true with most of the other events that are in Memories of Childhood.
HI: Could you tell us a little bit of your background as a third-generation Japanese American, Sansei? What was your father’s occupation? What was your mother like?
RS: I don’t know if we were a typical sort of Nisei-Sansei family. I mean we were generally older than most people that were Issei, Nisei, and Sansei. That’s because my grandfather came over in 1906, I think, and my grandmother came in 1912. So they were among the earlier ones. Because of that, my dad was older. He graduated from college and worked as a pharmacist in Seattle for seven years when the war broke out. But most Nisei were in college or high school at that time, when they were taken out and put into camp. So, again, that made our family look a little different. And then of course myself as a Sansei was older than most of other Sansei, although there were still quite a few people of my age that were having the same kind of experience I was having. But my father, as I said, was a pharmacist and graduated from the University of Washington and the stories that I’ve heard was that my mother was living on farm that was really close to the University of Washington campus. It was interesting, when I worked for the University of Washington’s architecture office for one year and I was in charge of all the original drawings and photographs of the campus. I wanted to see if their farm was photographed and sure as heck I found this photograph! Now it’s a shopping center, but back then there were just a farm and houses. So I made a copy of it and brought it home to show it to my mom. She couldn’t believe it. She said, “That’s the house right there. That’s where we lived and that’s where your uncle Rick lived, and that’s where…” and so on so forth. She knew everybody that lived and every building that was on this map. That’s now a well-known shopping center.
So my mother, when she was dating him, the joke was that she made such a good catch, because he had a college degree already. At that time, he was going to become a doctor, but because of the Depression, he had to get out of school as quickly as he could and pharmacy meant that he only had to spend another year in college. But my grandma and grandpa opened up the grocery store in order to keep the income coming in so that they could pay his tuition and he can graduate, because they knew that how important it was for a Nisei to get a college education, especially him, because he was one of the first. My mother was pretty much a farm girl. She never attended a college or graduated from high school. So she pretty much supported the family and was the typical sort of housewife. She had me and then we went into camp and then she had my sister named Carolyn. Carolyn passed away when we got out of a camp and moved to Chicago, the third year. See, we were away from Seattle for three years. Two of those years, we were in Minidoka and the third year we were in Chicago and I went to a kindergarten in Chicago. So my mom was pretty much a housewife raising the kids. But that year we got to Chicago when we got out of a camp, my sister Carolyn—I’ve done a couple of paintings of her—contracted influenza meningitis, and passed away. So when we went back to Seattle, I was the only child. And then after we got back to Seattle, my mom became pregnant with my sister Karen. Karen was born and Karen’s still alive. She lives outside San Francisco. So that’s something that gives you a kind of an idea of my family make-up at the time.
HI: This goes back to your life in camp, but I’ve read that three of your maternal uncles were commercial artists. You also mentioned that one of your uncles went to the war. Was he one of the three uncles who were graphic designers?
RS: My mother came from a family of nine kids. Of the nine, three of them were commercial artists, Rick, Roy, George. My father’s side was my dad, his brother Mitch and my aunt Fumi. Fumi, Mitch and (another uncle) Eddie. Of course, they all passed away now. The three uncles, Rick, Roy, George that were commercial artists were not just commercial artists. They were exceptional. They were really well-known in Seattle. So I grew up with that, but they were never … you know, when I started showing interest in doing that myself and I always said that I wanna grow up to be just like Rick, Roy and George, they were never outwardly supportive of that. They never discouraged me, but they never took me under their wings or anything like that.
HI: Why was that, do you think?
RS: I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I really don’t know. But from the relationship I had with them, it was enough for me to be inspired by them, seeing their work in all the newspapers and on billboards … and one of them, my uncle George, designed “The Smiling Face.” And their kids, all the kids that were born from all of those uncles and aunts, there were a bunch of artists that came out of them too. So there was some kind of a DNA thing going on. What was interesting about that side of the family was that, out of the nine, four of them were born in Japan and five were born in the U.S. The four were born in Japan first and their mother, my grandmother, left them in Japan to be raised by a good friend. She came to America and had five more kids. 50 years later, they finally met each other. I remember when that happened. But of the four, there was only one. Three had passed away and there was only one left. She came back with her daughter and met all of her brothers and sisters that she had never met before. That was really interesting. She came to see her mother that she hadn’t seen in 50 years.
HI: So she stayed in Japan during the war years.
RS: Yeah. I understand that she passed away now. She has a daughter who is very independent, she flies all around. She was never really popular among all the uncles and aunts, but I always liked her because of that.
HI: These three uncles, who were graphic designers, stayed in the same camp as you were?
RS: Yeah. They were all in Minidoka and they all went to war.
HI: All of them?
RS: Three of them were in 442. (Note: The 442nd Regiment. It composed of almost entirely of Nisei Japanese Americans who fought in the World War II.) One was wounded, but they all survived. My other uncle, Mitch, was in military intelligence. They call it MI. Because he was bilingual and they wanted him to be an interpreter. So he got sent to Japan right after the bomb fell. I always remember he took all these incredible photographs of the victims. I mean it was just a few days after the bomb. He put them in a photo album, a big fat photo album. Every time I went to his house, I’d look for that album, pull it out, and look at the pictures, because they were just so, so unbelievable. I didn’t know what I was looking at.
HI: You must have been quite small yourself. If it was right after the war, you were like four or five years old? Your uncle allowed you to see these gruesome pictures?
RS: I didn’t see them until afterwards. I was probably a teenager.
HI/MK: Still young!
RS: Yeah, yeah. But anyway, every time I went over to his house, I would sit there and look at that photo album. Later on, as years went by, his three children—Kenny, Denny and Patty—sort of took over the album. Danny had it at his house. He was the youngest son. He would like to loan the album to people to look at, because it was so remarkable. I was here at the University of Kansas in 1969 and it was during the second year, maybe 1970 or so, I was talking to the curator-photographer Jim Enyeart at Spencer Museum. I was telling Jim this story and he said, “You know, we ought to do a show.” I said that the pictures are really small and then he said, “We will blow them up and we will do a whole show.” So I said, “That’s a great idea.” So I called up Denny, my cousin, who was in charge of that photo album and said, “Send it to me.” And he said, “It got lost.”
HI/MK: Oh, no!
RS: He said, “I borrowed it from my mom. I had it and got through with it, and I sent it back to her and it never got to her.” So that whole album was lost. What a tragedy.
HI: That was a huge loss.
RS: Yeah. I could still remember some of those pictures.
MK: Were they pictures of Hiroshima, Tokyo or Nagasaki? Do you remember which?
RS: I’m not sure. I think it was Hiroshima. I’m not positive, though. But I always assumed that’s what it was.
HI: Did any of your uncles tell you about stories from their war experience?
RS: No… I wasn’t really close to my mother’s side, because it was sort of typical of Japanese families to side with their husband’s side of the family. So it was only certain occasions that I would ever see that Tanagi side.
HI: Tanagi. That’s your mother’s name before the marriage?
RS: Yeah, yeah.
HI: Where and how did your family resume your life after being released from the camp? You’ve already talked a little bit about it. You went to Chicago and then went back to Seattle.
RS: Yeah. My dad was in camp for the least amount of time, because he was a professional pharmacist. They allowed him to leave camp as long as he could find a job some place. But he couldn’t go home. He couldn’t go to Washington, Oregon, California, the security zone. So he had to go to Minneapolis, because he went to the Mayo Clinic first and went to several other places and found a place in Chicago. That’s of pharmacy called Sergeant Drugs. It’s been there forever and apparently well-known. It was a German American family that took my dad in and let him stay at a room they had at the drugstore, until he could find a place to get the rest of us out of camp. But prejudice was running so high and it was really difficult to find a place. Plus one big enough for a family of four. So he was fortunate that he still had a place to stay with this German family. And eventually he found a place in a high-rise in South Chicago and we lived there. Things get a little sketchy there, but that’s where we were and my sister died. Because I remember the night she died. I remember the walks. We were close to the lake and we would walk over to the lake on weekends. And it was pretty close. But you know, it was South Chicago’s poor side of town. And I remember there was a window in the kitchen. You look at the window and it went like this, it was like a tube. Everyone’s kitchen windows were looking down. I don’t know what floor we were on, but it was way down. There was a game that we used to play with all the kids. Somebody had something like a tin bomb. We would go up to the window like this and all the other kids would be down the bottom and then you’d scream “Kill the Japs!” and throw a bomb from the window. All the kid at the bottom would run away to avoid from getting hit. It was pretty dangerous. But we didn’t think of all the implications of what we were doing and all that.
HI: So you were part of that play too?
RS: Yeah. It was pretty rough when I start thinking about the kids that I was playing with and things we would do. And I remember one time, we were playing or something and I came up into the kitchen and my mom said something to me. She scolded me for something. And I gave her the figure and said, “Fuck you!” No idea what that meant [laugh] except everybody was doing that to each other. So I said to my mom. She whacked me over the head and I said, “God, what was that for?” [laugh] But that’s what life was in Chicago at that time.
HI: So even small kids were using four-letter words.
RS: Yeah, yeah. I also remember the night my sister died. They said, “We’re gonna take her to the hospital” and the babysitter, who lived across the hallway, came over and sat with me. And then, the next day, mom or dad, I cannot remember which one, told me that Carolyn passed away. And they asked me if I wanted to see her for one last time. And I said, “Yes.” I mean, what do you say? So we went to the funeral home. I always remember we walked into this room which seemed as big as a studio. Of course, there was nothing in there except a bassinette and the baby, Carolyn, lying in. You know, she was only a year and a half, I think. I remember walking over there and my dad lifting me up and I looked at her and said, “Who is that?” I mean she didn’t look like her, at least from what I could remember. I don’t know if it had to do with make-up, powder or whatever it was. That was my first encounter with death. So that is another clear memory. Then we got grandma and grandpa out of camp. We got my auntie Hideko that was married to Mitch, my uncle. We got a train and went back to Seattle to resume our lives there. One thing I remember about that train ride was I got sick. I was sitting just like this in the train except closer. And I threw up right on my aunt’s lap. She said she would remember that [laugh].
HI: She cannot forget that [laugh]. So your father resumed his work as a pharmacist in Seattle.
RS: Yeah. He went back to Seattle. He was lucky, because he got his old job back.
HI: In the same store?
RS: Yes. It was called Joseph Hart Pharmacy. It was in downtown Seattle. It was the biggest and oldest pharmacy in Seattle. Another story I should tell is that I once asked my dad, “When the war broke out, did things change?” and my dad said, “Yes, things changed.” He said, when the war broke out, Joe Hart, who owned the pharmacy, said that from now on he would draw a line on the floor right at the counter in the open where you go to the back or go to the front. He said, “From now on, you’re not to be seen in front of this line.” So, in other words, he worked in the back. My dad thought it was really unfair, but what could he do? He said he remembered all of a sudden, they started asking him to wash the windows, sweep the floor out, dust, all these other kinds of things. But he did it, you know. Again, this is one of those things: What you’re gonna do, quit your job, you know? When a whole family depends on it? So anyway, he remembered that. That was one of the direct hardships he had regarding his job.
HI: But then the same person hired him back after the war.
RS: Yeah. When we got out of camp, they hired him back and he went on to work there for a long time until, I think, the place changed ownership. The pharmacy became a different name, but the same location. So he had a long history with them. And then when we got out of camp and went back to Seattle, my mom immediately became pregnant with my sister Karen. So Karen was born and um… she got married … that’s a long story and I don’t think I wanna go into that. But she got married to hakujin [Caucasian] and that really upset my father. I think that part is interesting. Because when I was growing up, my dad was concerned that I wasn’t dating more. You know, he said, “Can’t you find a real nice Japanese girl?” and all this stuff. It wasn’t just my dad. I think most Nisei were telling their kids the same thing. I remember one time, I must have been in college … or somewhere between high school and college, I got a date with this young lady who was Hawaiian and her uncle was a governor, Governor Burns. She was mixed like most Hawaiian people are. I think she was half Asian and half maybe Hawaiian and French, something like that. But I didn’t tell them that, because she could pass for Asian. My dad and mom said, “Let’s have her over for dinner” and I said, “Fine.” So I picked her up and brought her home. And they looked at her and knew immediately she wasn’t Nihonjin. Instead of eating at the dining table in the living room, my mom brought a TV tray downstairs in basement for her—her name is Haunani—and Haunani and I had to eat downstairs away from my mom and dad. As far as they were concerned, she wasn’t good enough to eat with us.
HI: That’s quite extreme.
RS: Yes, it is extreme, but it wasn’t that unusual. My friends were going through similar things. Then the next girl I dated … my dad didn’t like her, because even though she was Sansei like me, she was a singer. She sang in bars with a trio. There were three of them, Filipino, African American, and Amy, who was Japanese American. They were pretty well-known in the Seattle area. When she was doing this, she was in her early twenties and of course, you know, there was Japanese stuff. “That’s kind of young to be doing that and in those kinds of venues, people smoking and drinking…”
HI: They thought it was not a decent job.
RS: Yeah. All that bad influence and all that. So we started dating. We dated for three years. I think freshman, sophomore and junior. Actually, four years, because senior too. And then we broke up, because I was going to Korea in the army, military. And then she started dating Bruce Lee.
HI/MK: Bruce Lee!?
RS: Yeah [laugh]. I started getting a letter from friends saying, “Hey, Amy seeing Bruce.” And I said, “I don’t care! We’re through! And besides, what am I gonna do!” [laugh] It’s funny, if you go on the Internet and you read stories about the two of them that I swear she wrote. Because she talks about dating Bruce from 1960-something. And that’s when we were dating. There is two-year overlap when she would have had to be dating him behind my back.
HI: Do you think that was possible?
RS: Absolutely impossible. Cause I practically lived at her house or her mother’s house [laugh]… Oh, I did a performance on that.
RS: In Seattle. It was part of a whole series of pieces I did. And when people were coming in, she comes in with another friend of mine. I kind of went “Ah…,” you know. I’m thinking about the piece that I’m doing. They go in there and sit down right in the front seat. So I ran through the whole performance, came to that piece and did it and all that. And when it was over, they just got up and left. They didn’t say anything. To this day, I have no idea how…
HI: What she thought of it.
RS: Yeah, yeah. But it was all truthful and she knew it. So regardless of the kinds of things that she did, like rumors that she might have been spreading, she had to know deep down inside that what I did was truthful.
HI: Wow, that’s a very interesting story.
RS: So when we got back to Seattle, what I actually started to say was, my sister Karen was born. Like I said I won’t go into it, but she had a real sort of tumultuous time in her early twenties and dating this hakujin kid was what my dad was really upset about. I spent my time defending my sister and then I found out that they were secretly married!
RS: Yeah. She was sneaking out in the middle of the night to go see him. I never quite forgave her for that, because she never, to this day, admitted that to me. I found out through other people. Funny.
HI: After your family got out of camp, I read that many Japanese American families didn’t really talk about the experience they had in camp. That was also the case with your family?
RS: Yeah … My dad said to me … there was a time I think I was a freshman in college and I was taking an English class, which had to do with writing. We were supposed to write about some experience that we had that was unique. I asked my dad, “I want to interview you about camp, because I want to write a paper about camp.” Because I didn’t know what camp was either. It was kind of a mystery, even though I’ve experienced it. What I remembered was when I was three, four, five years old, and that was not a kind of thing that would help make any sense out of it. So I asked my dad, “Would you share with me your memories?” and all that. He got really mad and said, “We don’t talk about camp in this house.” Little did I know that was typical of most Nisei. What most Nisei were telling their kids, you know, was “you don’t talk about it.” They didn’t say it, but it was so shameful that they figured if they didn’t talk about it, that was the closest thing to make it go away. So … that was kind of a typical response that really show how the J community was dealing or not dealing with it. That still goes on today. There are vestiges of that, even though reparations changed all that. I remember being so deathly afraid that if Nisei don’t get up off of their chairs and talk about what happened and how horrible it was, there’ll be no reparations. The government can say, “See, it wasn’t so bad.” But fortunately, it was like an opening of the floodgates and all the Nisei came out.
HI: By that time, your father was also talking about it?
RS: Yeah, he was talking about it … but the interesting story about that was… Do you know Frank Chin? (Note: Frank Chin is a Chinese American author and playwright.) I’ve known Frank for a long time. We have kind of a history together. I think I am one of the few people he likes. So we’ll talk and we will tolerate. Frank moved to Seattle in the 1970s, because he wanted to take over the Seattle Asian Theater. But the coincidence was that my wife—Bea Kiyohara was her name—and I were getting a divorce and she was moving to Seattle. She applied for that job as director of the Asian American Theater. So it was her or Frank and she got it. She got it, primarily because she was such a popular person. I think Frank had the intellectual edge, but Frank had enemies. He made so many enemies everywhere he went. Bea, my ex-wife, everybody loved her. So she got the job. Frank was in Seattle for several years and he just couldn’t make a living up there without that kind of a job. So he ended up going back to California.
Was there something else about Frank that I was going to talk about? … Oh yes, I remember. Frank said to me one day, because he had a part time job writing for The Weekly, which was a weekly newspaper at Seattle. Frank wanted to write an article about my grandma, and my dad and me, you know, Issei, Nisei, Sansei. He said, “Do you think your dad would let me interview him? Is he over it? Will he talk about it now?” I said, “I’ll ask him” and so I asked my dad. And he said, “Sure, I’ll talk to Frank.” Well, he didn’t know Frank. So Frank came over and three of us were in the living room. My dad started telling all these stories about camp, the stories I’ve never heard. Because my last recollection about it was that he didn’t talk about these things. So Frank opened up the door to it. I was hearing all these stories. Then, every time my dad would tell a really good story, Frank was sitting there and writing like crazy, because my dad wouldn’t let Frank to use a tape recorder. He put on a recorder and my dad said, “No, no recording.” So Frank said, “Can I take notes?” and my dad said, “Yes.” So he’s writing and my dad would tell a story, and then Frank would write it down and my dad said, “No, no, I don’t want you to write that one.” You know? So (Frank was) kind of defeated. It really took a lot out of that article what was actually written. But eventually the article was published. There was a big feature thing in the Seattle Weekly … I don’t think I ever kept a copy of it or lost it or something, but…
HI: Are there any episodes from that article or interview that you remember? Your father’s stories about camp life?
RS: I remember one story he told. This is when we first got to camp. We were registering and we had to get shots. My dad said that he was carrying me and the solider came up and took me out of his hands like that. My dad didn’t like the way he took me. So he pulled me back like this and then the solider pulled me back again. My dad let go and the solider said, “Drop your pants.” There were people all around. So my dad sort of half dropped his pants like that and they took me away to go get a shot and brought me back and said, “Ok, you can pull your pants up.” My dad said that was the most humiliating moment of his life obviously. That’s the one story I remember from that and then he told Frank, “Don’t write that.”
HI: Because it’s too shameful for him to make it public.
MK: But he spoke about it. It must be in the 1980s, the time when The Redress Movement was gaining the momentum. (Note: The Redress Movement refers to the series of efforts and political campaigns to obtain the restitution of civil rights, an apology, and/or monetary compensation from the U.S. government for the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. The movement intensified in the 1960s and 70s and culminated in the enactment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.)
RS: Yeah, yeah.
HI: I wonder if we can ask you a little about your school days. How do you describe yourself as a child? What kind of child were you?
RS: I was a kind of singular, I wasn’t very social. I had a couple of really good friends in the neighborhood. That was pretty much my life. The neighborhood I grew up in Seattle was predominantly Italians, Jews, and Asians, although I think there were more Italians. My best friend about four houses up was the Masumoto family. There were one, two, three, four, five, six, I think. The two youngest were boys and one of them was my age. So I hung out with them a lot. And then further up was a Chinese family, guy name Melvin Hing. Melvin was a little crazy. We had all sorts of experiences that were really dangerous. That involved guns. Melvin was a really smart kid. Real smart. Brilliant. I guess a word for that is that he was almost an “idiot savant.” He once found a cap gun and said he could make it fire like a conventional gun. He converted it and got bullets. And he got the whole thing all set up and I remember I was at his house and he said, “I wanna shoot that bird up there.” Took the gun, aimed at, “Boom!” It blew up in his hand. And barrel went back like this and burnt his hand. Of course, he couldn’t tell anybody. He’s gonna get in trouble. Another time I remember going to his house and nobody was home. We were shooting a rifle. I don’t know whose rifle that was. But we were shooting and we had a target at a sofa in his basement. Across the room we would shoot, it was a 22 into the sofa. He was shooting it and he heard something move. He turned around and just “Boom!” like this. Heard this thud. He shot his sister’s cat.
HI/MK: Oh no…
RS: He killed it. “Oh my god,” you know. We’re in trouble now. He says we got to bury the cat. Of course, all of sudden I’m involved now. So we go next-door to his uncle’s house, Abram. Abram just planted these tomato plants, as I remember him doing that day. So we dug up that tomato plant, [started laughing] dug out a big hole, and threw his sister’s cat into the hole and put that tomato plant in there—which grew fast! [laugh].
HI: So nobody found out?
RS: No one found out. When I got back from Korea, I was in the military for two years, I went right down to Chinatown where I used to hang out. At that time, they used to have what was called “key clubs.” They were after-hour illegal clubs, but if you’re Asian, you could go in there and Seattle police were there. Seattle police were paid off so that they could keep these clubs open till 4:00 in the morning. So you go in and you can also gamble. I was in the place called the Legion, I think it was called. Melvin was there. I had all these experiences in high school, college … Actually I didn’t see Melvin through college, even though we live less than a block from each other. So we met each other by chance at this bar, at this key club. We sat down and had a drink. I said, “What have you been doing all these years?” He had a briefcase and said, “I was just honored by 40 businessmen from Harvard.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yes, see my case.” He had a case and he had a strap on it. It was locked onto his arm. He had it on his lap and he said there is million dollars in there. He said, “It was a thank-you gift from all these people that I helped.” I thought, “What the hell he is talking about?” And then through the course of the conversation over the next twenty minutes, it was clear that while I was gone, he somehow developed—what do they call it—Delusions of Grandeur. I think that’s what they call it from people that live this fantasy life. And so I must have spent a couple of hours with him and then he called me up and he said let’s get together and we got together. Actually, I went up to his house, where his mother’s house was at that point. And he started talking about how he was making stereo speakers. And I said, “What have you been doing for all these years?” and he said, “I was playing a lead guitar for the Grateful Dead.” And I thought, “Wow, here we go again,” you know. And then he started talking about making world’s best stereo speakers. You know, it just sounded so … I knew something wasn’t right.
So we had sort of a falling out. I didn’t see him any longer and neither one of us made any attempt at reconnecting through all these years. 50 years, you know. And I get a phone call here. And he said, “This is Melvin.” I said, “Oh my god.” First thing I said was “Where are you?” I thought he might be outside [laugh]. And he says “I’m in Hawaii. North Shore.” I said, “What are you doing?” And he says, “You know, I’ve always been interested in making stereo speakers and I’ve been doing all that for my life.” And he said, “I only do them for a few clients now.” But he said, “I made enough money that I bought this big farm in North Shore in Hawaii. Come on out. I want you to come and visit me and stay as long as you want” and all that. I mean, it sounded legitimate all of a sudden. And I said, “See, I remember you’re talking about speakers and the Grateful Dead.” And he said, “Oh yeah, we ran through everything” and he said again about the Grateful Dead. I’m kind of looking at the computer, looking up the Grateful Dead and who played the guitars and all this stuff [laugh]. Of course, no evidence of him. Anyway, he was sort of my best friend growing up, shooting his sister’s cat.
HI: During your school days, you were also interested in graphic design and becoming a designer. That was always your intention?
RS: I don’t think my life was organized, I have to say. But I knew that (I was interested in graphic design) and I sort of planned on it. You know, I love to collect comic books and look at them, but I didn’t see myself as being a comic collector. I used to get them and take care of them. Obviously, I was a collector, but I didn’t see myself that way. And the comics that I collected were all ones that look like my work. They’re the Walt Disney comics and Little Lulu. Ones that were more simplified, you know, the drawings, Superman ones of that sort. There were certain comics that I was not interested in, like the Classic Comics and all of those I had no interest in. So I think, aesthetically there was something that interested me and a certain group of comics …
HI: What was your favorite character?
RS: Maybe Little Lulu or Donald Duck. When I got to Kansas, this is probably ten years after I got to Kansas. My mom was still alive then and sent me a box. And she said, “Grandma wanted me to send this to you someday,” because grandma had been dead for many years. I opened it up and it was all my drawings from first to sixth grade. All the drawings I did in school that I would bring home and my mom and grandma would look. Grandma would save it, put it in a box and told my mom, “Someday you’ll send these to him.” So I have drawings of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck that I drew. But there is this one interesting story. Whenever I would draw at school, you draw your family. You know, mom, dad and my sister Karen and me, and this is Scooter, our dog, and all this kind of stuff. Every time I drew my mom, she had blonde hair. I thought, “Boy, what a lesson that is.” And then after about a year of that, I started drawing myself with blonde hair. I actually turned it into a piece that I have framed and put away. I think I’ve shown maybe once or something. I use to show it during my lecture all the time, because I thought it was just so poignant, you know …So that’s one story.
MK: So, as a child, you liked drawing and loved painting, to kill your spare time?
RS: Well, I used to draw everything I couldn’t have. I remember lying in bed at night with a flashlight drawing, because I was up later than I was supposed to be. And I would draw two things, cowboy boots and bicycles.
RS: Yeah, because they had the real pointed toes and my mom said they’re bad for your feet, which is not true. We couldn’t afford the shoes and so she said they’re bad for your feet. I used to draw them. Drawing for me was the way of possessing something. It was like a magic. And the other thing I drew was Schwinn bikes. Schwinn was a brand name and there was a particular kind that I wanted. Now, I won one in a fishing derby. But the problem was that the bars on the frame were shaped different than the kind I wanted. What I wanted the bottom bar curve like this and the one that I had went straight across. And when you’re 12 or 13 years old, that makes a big difference, you know. I remember asking my dad, “Can we trade this for the other kind?” The other one was more expensive. Besides it’s not any better, which is true, but try telling the kid that, you know… And so that’s when art became sort of magical for me. I started drawing what I couldn’t have as a way of possessing something.
HI: So as you grew older, you sort of naturally came to think that you’ll do a major in graphic design in college? Your father didn’t like it, though, I guess.
RS: Yeah, he really expected me to become that doctor he never was. The night before enrolling at the University of Washington, he came into my room and said, “Are you going to go into a premed?” and I said, “As much as we talked about this. No.” I said, “I’m going to go into commercial art.” And he said, “That’s what your uncles Rick, Roy and George did. And they didn’t go to college. They just went to art school,” which is true and art school is only two years. But he says, “I want you to become a doctor because I could never do that myself.” And I said, “Well, you know, I’m not good at science. I don’t want to do that.” And he said, “Well, can we compromise?” And I thought, “How in the heck can you compromise between being a commercial artist and a doctor?” So I’m thinking something professional, like maybe architecture. And so I said, “Architecture?” He looked at me and he kind of shook his head and said, “What about dentistry?” Some compromise!
RS: At the University of Washington, one of the unusual things about going there, if you are a male, was that you had to do two things. They said every male graduate at the University of Washington had to, number one, take Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, ROTC, and, number two, they had to be able to swim. To prove that you could swim, you had to go to this big swimming pool, this big university pool, and strip, take all your clothes off and jump in. And they gave you eight minutes. You had to not touch anything and so you had to tread water. You couldn’t swim, because if you started doing this, they stopped you. They had these big poles and they would poke you like that. And so you had to literally tread water, because if you knew how to tread water, you could do that forever. And so I passed that test and then I had to take ROTC for two years. (Note: ROTC are a group of college and university-based officer training programs for training commissioned officers of the United States Armed Forces.)
ROTC meant not just going to class three times a week, but it meant once a week you had to do what was called “drill” and that you had to put on a military uniform and go down to the athletic field house with five hundred other freshmen males, and go through all these different drills with a rifle and all this kind of stuff. That was real mendokusai [pain in the ass], you know, because you had to carry this uniform with you on Fridays but it was something we all had to do. So anyway, after two years, you have to decide whether you’re going to continue or quit. And if you quit, the draft was still on. That meant that after you graduated, you had to go into the military for two years at the rank of a private, which is nothing. However, if you decide to finish your ROTC for your junior or senior year, then you become a lieutenant, Second Lieutenant, which is an officer. So I knew that there was no way that I was gonna do the third or fourth year ROTC because I hated it so much. I told my dad, but the thing is that they paid your tuition. So they made it as attractive as possible. I said, “I’m not going to do it. I’ll go as a private. But I’m not going to go. I don’t care officer or whatever.”
But the night before I had to sign the papers that I was no longer going to take ROTC, my dad called a close family friend named Shiro Kashino and asked Shiro to come over and talk to me, talk me into continuing with ROTC. And I said, “He’s not going to talk me into this. You know, there’s no way. I’ve already made up my mind.” Shiro came over. Shiro at the time was the most decorated war veteran in the 442nd. He was an old family friend. I mean we all grew up with Shiro and the family and all that. Shiro, I have a lot of respect for, took up over three hours to convince me. He says, when the 442nd was fighting in Europe, there were no Japanese officers. They were all hakujin, because they didn’t trust the Japanese Americans. So he says, “This is your opportunity to show that we could lead as well as follow.” It was more than that, but I mean obviously he took up three and a half hours to convince me to change my mind. I mean he shamed me into it. And so the next day I went back and signed the papers and went to summer camp that summer. There was something else that happened after that summer camp between my sophomore and junior year, it required to go to Fort Lewis for two weeks. I think it was …no, it was longer than that. It was six weeks for a very intensive mental and physical training.
When I came back, one of the awards that they have is called distinguished military student and it comes after summer camp. They look at all your grades in your summer camp performance when you’re tested every day for your physical fitness as well as mental fitness and everything else. And that was after the first week of coming back, I saw a list that I was selected as a distinguished military student. And I went to ask our commanding officer and he says, “Well, we’ve known that for two weeks. How come you didn’t know about it?” And then I found out that these other hakujin guys, they’re all hakuijn, knew about it for two weeks and they already had a party, but I was never invited. It was because they were all in fraternities. The University of Washington at that time had white only fraternity. It was in the bylaws. I feel I have to bring this up, because I just completely got blown away to be treated in that way at that stage in life, after receiving an honor. But nonetheless I had a feeling that had I not been on top of it, they would have just ignored me completely.
Then later on in my senior year, I was approached by some fraternity that said, “We’d like you to pledge for our fraternity.” And I said, “Well, it’s kind of late, isn’t it?” And they said, “We’re doing a special kind of thing where you could come in for six months before graduation. And we want to invite you to our house we’re having a reception.” So I went over that night just to see what it was about, because I found that a lot of my other Sansei friends were invited to join fraternities. We all found out something really weird here. We found out that they had to break the color barrier. They were being forced to. So they wanted to get some color in there right away. And so they said, “We want to tell you though that you could never advance in our fraternity. You can’t become an officer or anything like that. You could just be this sort of member at large. You could come to the parties, but you can’t be an officer.” All of us, every Sansei I knew turned it down. You know, we’re not having any part of that.
HI: So they received this sort of order from the higher ranks of the University?
RS: Yeah. So I continued my studies in graphic design or commercial design as it was known at that time. I graduated and then I went to the military, sent to Korea for two years. And then I came back and when I got out, I worked at an architect’s office for one year and then I set up my own business. I started doing menu covers which was not very interesting. And then I got a big job doing the Polynesian Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair and all of the graphics and illustrations that were generated from a world’s fair project that kept me busy full time. But I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the idea of busting your butt off doing something and then getting paid for it and just disappear. And there was never any time for reflection or questioning what you did or to make it better or anything else. I knew that I was in the wrong field. And that’s when I started painting for the first time on my own. And I found myself painting more and more and liking it more. I took all the minimum painting courses when I was in school, but I really didn’t understand what it was about. To me, they were like making pictures out of oil paint. But all of a sudden, I had a deeper meaning of it and started spending all my time painting. I get up in the morning and paint. And I decided, “Well, maybe I’ll just take a break from this commercial world and go back to the University of Washington for one semester.” So I did that and everything started falling into place. I ended up deciding to get my MFA, Master of Fine Arts. That’s a whole story in itself. But I ended up transferring and going back East, to Syracuse, New York.
HI: At that point, your father didn’t object to your decision anymore? Painting sounds worse than commercial design [laugh].
RS: I don’t think that happened, because I got married. My wife had a degree in education, so she could always get a job. I think the fact that between the two of us they knew that one was employable immediately, and that gave me the luxury of saying, “I am going to change majors.” But I mean, if commercial art is hard for you to understand, (what about) “I want to be a painter.” “A painter? You mean like paint houses?” [laugh] But somehow, we managed through all that and I knew that I had enough ability in painting that if I wanted to go to graduate school, I could probably get in. But one thing that happened during that time was my wife and I got into a bad car accident and we’re both almost killed and we ended up in the hospital. I got up first and she was in the hospital for weeks. She had the plastic surgery and everything and I broke a bunch of ribs and my ankle, stuff like that.
HI: Which year was it?
RS: Umm… 1965, think around there.
HI: When did you get married? In the same year?
RS: Yeah, 1965… Anyway, that’s it. I change majors and went into painting. It’s funny because I don’t remember too much conflict over that decision. I have to think it’s because of my wife. We knew she could always get a teaching job. And I decided to go back East, because I’d never been back East. I applied to three schools. I applied to NYU, Syracuse and Yale. And I was the first alternate at Yale, but I knew that that person that was going to accept. If she decided not to, I was going to. And then I found out NYU was art education, not studio. I was not interested in education. So Syracuse seemed to offer the best possibility because I’d never been back East and it was located about equal distance to everything; Montreal, Detroit, Chicago, Philly, and Boston. It was right in the middle of all that. So I thought we’d have a good opportunity to visit wider horizons by seeing more. So I went and then it worked out great, especially because I got a full ride.
HI: Can we go back a little bit and ask you about your service in the military? You went to Korea for two years. What was that experience like for you?
RS: It was actually thirteen months.
HI: OK, not that long. I mean, shorter than two years.
RS: Yeah. It was a really strange time period for me, because it was my first encounter with total independence away from family, friends, everything, going to a foreign country where I knew nobody. Plus I was an officer, being in a situation where I had to command people. At the time the military was very, very prejudicial towards minorities, and shamelessly so. And the unit that I was in charge of had about 60 or 80 people and the average grade level was fourth grade. And I would say 70 percent African-American and the rest Hispanic. But because the grade level was so low, it really created all sorts of problems in commanding. And I learned really quickly that the only way to command was using physical force. I had a sergeant that worked for me and every time I had a discipline problem, I told the sergeant to take this guy back to the woodshed and he just hit them a couple of times, we come back with them, you know. That’s the way, that’s the way everything ran over there. People don’t believe me except ones that were actually there and said, “Oh yeah, that was the old army.” That’s why I learned to drink. I drank excessively, but yet maintained some control just on the side of being totally crazy. It was like a competition who could be crazier than the other. And there were so many things that I did for which I should’ve been court-martialed. I mean pretty serious kind of things.
But aside from all that, what was interesting was being Japanese American in Korea, because we would spend a lot of time driving out to the field. I was in an artillery unit, you know, big cannons. We would drive through villages real slow and I would be in the front and all these Korean people would come running out to me and talk to me in Japanese, because of the occupation. And then they looked at my name tag, you know… So that was really interesting. I mean it was such a culture shock. Everything, every minute was a culture shock. And then being in a position of an officer, which was somewhat a privileged position to be in. You know, certain things happen, certain things you get away with. I mean it was like the movies, you know, sort of the old value system as well. There was nothing politically correct about, it was just the opposite, whatever that might be. And then I’m getting letters from friends saying Amy, my girlfriend that I broke up with, was seeing Bruce Lee. “I don’t care! We were through!” [laugh] So … Anyway, that’s Korea.
HI: I read you also stayed in Japan just for a few days?
RS: Yeah. We stayed in Yokohama. I made friendship with this guy on the airplane flying over there. So the first thing he did was go to the bars and it was crazy. I mean I’d never been exposed to anything like that. It was right out of the movies, right out of the B-movie or maybe even a porn movie, you know. These hostesses will be all over you. You go into a booth and they pull the curtain. So it was like a week of that. We were just barhopping going to all these … You know, I mean it was just sort of finding out what this life is about. I’ve always liked the extremes. This was certainly an extreme. And the guy that I was with was a Mormon.
HI: He didn’t drink?
RS: He didn’t drink, which was really tough. But he had to buy her a drink continuously. It’s funny what you remember about those things. But anyway, it was one week of just absolute decadence. And then when I got to Korea, it was 13 months of decadence. Then when I came back, I felt like I had just blown all of that out of my system and that I just didn’t need that anymore…. So the last eight months I spent at Fort Lewis, Washington, which was right outside of Seattle and I worked on the commanding generals staff. I imagined they thought that was a reward for being in Korea and actually doing so well. But what was interesting about being on the general staff was that the entire room was filled with all these clerk typists and we all worked for the commanding general of Fort Lewis. They all had Ph.Ds. Every single one had a Ph.D. in there. I’m thinking about my unit in Korea, fourth grade education. So that didn’t sit well with me at all. So anyway, that was that, and then Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas when I was at Fort Lewis. They had a ticker tape machine and the news was constantly being printed out “tick-tick-tick-tick” like this. We just read it and I was looking at it and then it said President Kennedy assassinated. Everybody came running over. You know we were reading this thing as it happened. What I remember about that was as an officer I had a lot of additional duties and one of my additional duties was to be a lawyer under military law. I had to defend something like 30 prisoners that went away without leave. They could get sentenced up to six months jail for doing that. My additional duty was to defend them in courtrooms like a lawyer. So after I read the ticker tape in the office, I got my car and drove over to the stockade where all these 30 soldiers were waiting to be interviewed by me one by one. And I walked inside there and I’m thinking about Kennedy and all that. And all these prisoners were standing there and they were all crying.
HI: They knew the news too?
RS: Yeah. They had a radio playing loud. I remember that was such a dramatic moment for me when everything became just sort of equal level, you know. All the prisoners were feeling as badly as I was. And then my additional duty as an assistant post-training officer was to be in charge of all the parades and events that went on to honor the fallen president. And so I had to go to the library and get all these books. And what does a place like Fort Lewis, which was a city, do in honor of president that died while in office? Oh god! For the next two weeks, I’m drawing charts and all, “You go here and they go there and they salute.” You know? The first thing that happened was a cannon, which had to go off every hour for 24 hours. Boboom! One every hour. So every size unit had their own thing that they had to do to honor the President. These went on for weeks. So I had to be on top of all that. And I realized years later that that probably had a big influence on my performances. That’s one thing I’ve always enjoyed doing was to sort of map out who went where and what they did and what they wore and all of this kind of stuff. I know it brought me right back to Fort Lewis.
MK: Can you tell us more about your college days, especially before you joined the MFA program at Syracuse? You studied illustration at the Cornish school.
RS: Yes. That was just a course I took. It was just to, sort of get into the classroom and work with this illustrator. That was the only reason. It was really a minor kind of thing.
MK: How about Stanford University? In summer 1967, you studied painting at Stanford.
RS: Yeah, okay. This is kind of a running event. I said that I went back to graduate school at UW. And I took all these painting courses. That’s why I decided that I wanted to get my Master’s in Fine Arts. And they accepted me without any question at UW, without going through the procedure of having to apply. And so I became a student majoring in painting, trying to get my MFA. That was my first encounter with the art world and to be around all these other people that wanted to be artists. There’s something different about an art community than medical community or sociologist or education all that. Art, you kind of live by your own rules. Anyway, the kind of work that I was doing at the time were abstractions, because that’s what the University of Washington was about. Most of the faculty painted abstract expressionism. All the teachers I had were promoting that.
But what was undercurrent to that school was what was going on in the ceramics program, which was clay, which they called funk art, which was happening in California. And there were a couple of teachers at UW, Howard Kottler, being one of them, who were real proponents of funk art. That really interested me. It was a very irreverent attitude. That just sort of threw their middle finger at everything in society. I thought, “Well, I wanna read up as much about funk art as I could.” But I found there wasn’t much written about it, because writing about it would be antithetical to what’s it was really about. That was anything goes. I liked that kind of work that ceramics department was doing and I said, “God, I really would like to do that in my paintings somehow.” But my paintings were, you know, as I said earlier, abstraction. All my teachers painted like that too. So I decided, “Well, I want to take the big step” and I started painting TV dinners. Paintings about 4 by 5 feet and painting a big TV dinner that was uncovered except in various compartments I would put different kinds of things in there. Like in the main dish, I put a reproduction of De Kooning painting and things like that. Of course, my painting faculty thought I’d lost my mind. I wasn’t sure except that losing your mind was kind of a compliment. That was sort of what was going on in my head at that time. And I was entering drawing shows in the summer and winning prizes with very abstract expressionist drawings. And I would put paintings of TV dinners and winning prizes.
So I was confused, because I was being reinforced for two different philosophies. I knew that I couldn’t continue doing that, because that would just make me schizophrenic. And it got so bad that I decided to quit school until I can get it straightened out. A good friend of mine named Frank Okada—he was actually a Nisei painter in Seattle, very well-known—had what was known as the best studio in Seattle. It was 2,500 square feet, which is bigger than this office and all that. That was twenty dollars a month. Frank got a Guggenheim scholarship and so he said, “You could have a studio and take it over for me while I’m gone for a year.” You know, 20 bucks a month and he said that he rents this one room, small room to photographer for five bucks a month. So it’s only 15 dollars a month. I said, “Great.” Frank left and I had now had the greatest studio. I wasn’t in school anymore. My wife was working and making money. So I spent a year drawing in that studio. Not painting, because I was trying to get rid of one or the other. And I had a drawing show in Seattle which was my first one-man show. A place called Earl Ballard Gallery. So I had a drawing show there and then that’s when we got into the car accident.
MK: Oh, that was the year.
RS: Yeah. And then that’s when I applied for graduate school, because that was sort of a summary of quitting school and getting into the studio and having the show. And all that was clearing my head of a lot of things and deciding this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. So I applied to graduate school. Before I went to Syracuse, I decided that for that summer I wanted to go to Stanford, because Stanford had a style of painting that sort of connected those two things that I was having difficulties with, you know, sort of attitude versus paint. And the Bay Area figurative school was going on down there and I wanted to see what that was like. So I wrote a letter to the Graduate Director and he said, “Sure, come on down. We have a special painting course” and he said, “I’ll put you into the graduate studio so you could be among them.” I said, “Great.” So I went down there for three months I think we lived in Mountain View. I say “we” because my wife was there too and it was great. I got so many things straightened out of my head about painting. By the time we went back to Seattle and then drove to Syracuse, my head was in a pretty good place. And then when I got to Syracuse, it was clear, at least from my perspective, that it was all about Pop Art. I felt that whenever I went to New York City and all the seminars we would have, visiting artists, you know, I just became totally absorbed by Andy Warhol and did all the way through my graduation. And I suppose to this day.
HI: When did you first become aware of Pop Art? Was it when you were painting TV Dinner series?
RS: Well, it was when I was in Seattle, when I first started graduate study. That’s where I became aware of everything. It was like being reborn. Because it was like being a neophyte in the art world to all of sudden going into it with much intensity, because that was what I was studying, my degree would be in it, my future would be in it, and all my friends were in it.
HI: When you first became aware of Pop Art, was it through magazines you saw or some shows you saw?
RS: Art books mostly. Probably. Art News and Art in America.
HI: I see. That makes sense. But your teachers in Seattle didn’t encourage you in that direction, because they were abstract painters?
RS: Yeah, yeah.
MK: So, am I correct to understand that there were two currents in the West Coast at that time? One was Abstract Expressionism and the other was Funk Art?
RS: At least from my perspective. Yeah.
MK: And you were in-between for a while.
RS: I wasn’t in-between, I was doing both. There were similarities between what Funk looks like and what Pop looks like. But there was more of an intellectual structure to Pop than there was to Funk. Funk was anti-intellectual. Anytime we tried to say something about it, artists would say no and run away from it. Whereas Pop, when Pop came out, there was a lot of response to Roy Lichtenstein in particular with his comic books, you know, a lot of derision. But when Warhol came on the scene, all of a sudden there was an intellectual layer that came in. I think with Warhol that was undeniable. And then color field painting happened in Washington D.C. about the same time so that absorbed a lot of intellectualism that Pop couldn’t gain.
MK: Did you find a similar kind of dilemma between urban intellectual Pop and sort of more avant-garde funk at that time?
RS: Um… by the time I got to Syracuse… I think the things that I was just talking about to you, actually happened while I was at Syracuse. It sounded like it happened before I got there, but this is something that happened during the two years that I was there. And that’s one for me, I found that sort of anti-intellectualism that Pop Art preached was actually intellectualism. I think the big thing for me was MFA’s thesis lecture that I gave. That was a requirement, we had to do a presentation. And so I did what was called Pop Culture and Andy Warhol, and it was actually a performance. I got every piece of audio visual equipment that I could get, and I talked at a microphone that made me sound like an alien. I did all kinds of things that were real anti-establishment, that were a real nod to Andy Warhol and some of the things that he was doing in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which was his performance in Los Angeles with the Velvet Underground. So that was a real break. That probably was my first performance.
But it was filled with lies. I said whatever I wanted to say to support me, including the film that I said that I found in the New York Public Library. It’s called Back and it was a film of the back of one of my students. I had him stand in front of a window with all the lights out. You could just see his reflection and cameras running for five and a half minutes. He doesn’t even move. You could see him breathing. That’s all. And I had the flash flames running by five, four, three, two, one, you know, all that kind of stuff. Then at the end, I told everyone that I found this film, uncatalogued in the archives in the New York Public Library and that it turned out to be done by Andy Warhol. Everybody believed me. And then I had the finish with the interview with Andy Warhol and it was me talking to a graduate sculpture student. And in the background, I had a 45 record of Andy Warhol’s party. And all of the stars, Viva and Ultraviolet, they were all in it and the glasses tinkling and people stoned and you could tell they’re stoned, and music playing in the background and all that. On top of that, I taped myself interviewing this graduate sculpture student that I said was Andy Warhol.
HI: That’s really cool. Everybody believed it.
RS: Everybody believed everything. The teacher of the class was so impressed [laugh]. I mean he couldn’t say enough about all the good things I represented. And then the TV stations came and said, “We want to televise this.” And I had to say, you know, “Well, I can’t get you in trouble.” I said, “That wasn’t Andy Warhol and that wasn’t a party and the movie …” and all this stuff. So they stripped all that out and to turn it into just a lecture. And they still showed it on Central New York TV.
HI: Was it a performance, or did you actually write a thesis as well?
RS: Yeah. With a text and pictures, it was about 60 pages, but it was really light-weight. I mean, you know, I don’t even like showing it to people. In fact, I don’t know where it is and that’s the truth. I haven’t tried very hard to find it. So cross that out! [laugh]
HI: You also studied film-making in Syracuse.
RS: Yeah. We had to take one major course and they had a filmmaking class and I’d always been interested in moving imagery. So I signed up for it and you had to do it in teams. And my best friend Joe Pacheco and I decided to make this murder movie. Actually he wasn’t too excited by the idea and I did that whole course myself and just put his name on everything, which is fine because then he wouldn’t bother me. It was this kind of murder mystery that you’re not sure whether the murder took place or had taken place. I don’t know it’s hard to describe. It was essentially stupid. But we got rave reviews. I don’t know why.
HI: I guess it was good!
RS: Sometimes when you make things that are so vague, you get credit for that, you know.
MK: It sounds very 60s, 70s.
HI: Yes. Being hard to read.
MK: You have already touched upon this, but can you tell us more about your first solo show in 1969?
RS: Yeah, that was right before I left Seattle to go to graduate school. I’d been working on in Okada studio that year and I decided to stop painting. This was one way I might be able to solve this problem I had with painting and drawing, to quit one and do nothing but the other. So all I did was draw and I had this show at Earl Ballard gallery. Quite a few drawings sold. They were abstract expressionist drawings. They were kind of erotic, you know.
MK: Were they all drawings, no acrylic paintings?
RS: There were drawings with compressed charcoal. So it made very black marks. And they were kind of figurative … kind of de Kooning-esque.
HI: One more question about your graduate school. In Washington, many students were painting abstraction, because that’s what their teachers did, right? But in Syracuse, were there many graduating students doing Pop other than you?
RS: No, there weren’t very many. The most ironic thing about Syracuse is that I went back there and ended up working with Larry Bakke. Larry Bakke had just started teaching there from the University of Washington where I came from. I think he was in his second year or maybe third year in Syracuse. But his work was clearly connected to mine. You know, I had serious reservations about working with him, just because he was from Seattle. But when I got over that, it worked out fine. Turns out he was full of B.S. I mean one of the things he was saying in an aesthetics class he taught… He claimed that women could never be Abstract Expressionists. As proof he offered X-rays of shoulder joints of a man and a woman and compared them and showed how a man’s ball joint up here works completely different than a woman’s. And that it’s impossible for a woman to make the same kind of gesture that de Kooning popularized [laugh]. I mean such B.S. What was sad was that how many people believed it. Unfortunately, I think more women believed that than men.
HI: They did? They didn’t get angry?
RS: Well, when you take a group of people that, you know, that’s sort of beat down from the very beginning. Tell them this is why you can’t do it, because you’re not built right up here. A lot of them got to believe it. So we sort of parted ways and then I think two years after he died. He was a young guy.
MK: Ok. We want to ask you about Kansas. As we all know very well, you taught at KU for a long time from the 1969 to 2004 and you are still here in Kansas. Can you tell us how you found Kansas, its academic environment or life in general?
RS: First of all, the interesting story was that at Syracuse, we had our sign in front of the art building advertising our thesis show, which was a group show of receiving our MFAs. We built a graveyard in front of the art building and we had a big stone slab and all of our names on it, “Roger Shimomura painting, so and so ceramics,” you know, all that. And then we had something like a grave, synthetic glass where what looked like the body was buried. And the art building wasn’t too far from the cemetery where everyone used plastic flowers. So we had a group of people—every day we go, get plastic flowers and put them next to the grave (at the art building) and then try to go all the way around the block. Joe Pacheco, my friend and I, it was our turn to go get flowers and we were out there, talking about our plan. “Have you heard about any job possibilities yet?” “No. Have you heard?” that kind of talk. And he said, “I’m looking for a sign and I’ll see where I might go.” And then it could have been a minute after that, he said, “Oh my god.” I said, “What?” He’s picking up all these plastic flowers, and he pulled up a license plate. And it’s Kansas. And I laughed and I said, “I don’t think I even applied there.” Then, he said, “Well, I did.” And I said, “You did?” He said, “I applied to a place called K-State.” And I said, “I didn’t apply there.” And I said, “I don’t think I applied any places in Kansas, because I’m not sure where it is.” And so what happens was that he got the job at K-Sate (Kansas State University) and I got the job at KU. I did apply [laugh]. So when we graduated, the two of us and my wife ended up going on a camping trip starting from Rhode Island all the way down the Atlantic Coast to the Everglades and across Texas to San Diego and then up to Seattle and then Kansas. It took three months camping all the way. And then I ended up driving them over to Manhattan, Kansas. He only lasted there for two years. Then he got a job at Mount Holyoke.
MK: What was your first reaction like when you arrived here?
RS: It’s like a movie. I mean Massachusetts Street (Note: main street in Lawrence, Kansas) wasn’t anything like it is now. You know, there were no trees, not that kind of parking, you know, half as many stores. It looked like a different city than the one that I interviewed in. When I was at Syracuse, I got a call from Peter Thompson who was the chair of the department. And Peter said, “Do you want to come for an interview?” And I said I wasn’t interested. I said, “How did you get my name?” because I don’t think I applied there. And he said, “Well, I’m looking at your letter and I understand you sent out 300 letters?” And I said, “Yeah, I did.” Just sort of blanked out, you know. So I must have included Kansas. But I said I wasn’t interested in going to Kansas, because I had other options. And so he said, “OK, if you change your mind, let me know.” So two months later, I got a call from Peter again and he said, “We brought a candidate in, but we didn’t like him. So we want to know if you wanted to come, if you haven’t taken another job.” And I said, “OK,” as long as you know that I’m just going for a visit, you know, because I’ve never been to Kansas. And so he said, “OK.” So I flew down and he picked me up. And I swear he took me through a route in Kansas there were nothing but hills. And we came into Lawrence and I said, “There are a lot of hills around here” [laugh]. He told me later on that it was a special way he planned so that he would hit every hill. So anyway, we went right to the reception, which was Dwight Burnham’s house. Dwight Burnham had this really cool house not too far from here. And we drove up to the house and there were 12 motorcycles lined up. Everybody on the faculty rode motorcycles. I thought, “This is pretty cool,” you know. And I go inside and they’re all sitting in a big circle waiting for me. And the first guy I met was this Greek guy Basilios Poulos. Recently I knew him because my best friend at Syracuse said, “Check out Bas. He teaches there. He’s a really straight guy and he’ll be able to tell you a lot about the place.” So I talked to Bas. I said that I understand you’re the person to talk to and he gave me the lowdown on KU and he says, “Great place. I love it. You’ll love it.” So after this whole process is over and I get offered the job and I decided to take it. My wife and I drive over to Peter Thompson’s house to say we’ve arrived. And we get up to his house and go in. And I said, “Where does Bas live?” and he said, “He quit.” I said, “What do you mean by he quit? He’s the reason I came here.” He said, “He quit, because we had to pay you more than we paid to him. Five hundred dollars a year more.” But then, I mean, my salary was seven thousand a year. So anyway, there was no Bas. He ended up taking a job at Rice University. By the way, he’s still there. I’ve seen him several times.
MK: How did you find the department, Visual Art, without him? Because you told me yesterday that there were many new faculty members at that time. Like nine new members?
RS: Well, what was the first part of your question?
MK: How did you find the Visual Art Department?
RS: Do you mean from back then or now?
MK: Well, we want to hear about now too, but first from back then.
RS: When I got here, there was no Visual Art Department. It was called Department of Drawing and Painting. Peter Thompson was the acting chair and sculpture was in the Design Department. And design had its own department with its own chair. But when I got here, there were 6 of us hired that year and there were 3 that were hired the previous year. So there were 9 people and I think out of 17 faculty, more than half were new. So we were able to do a lot of things. We just outvoted everybody. We were not very popular among senior faculty, because everyone thought, “Well, you guys are coming and going to be leaving in a year.” But as it turns out, only one person left in all these years. There’s a guy named Mike Bravo. He left after one year, went to the University of Oklahoma and taught there and then got a job at Cal State Humboldt. From what I hear he retired, living in Humboldt. He was the only one to leave. Otherwise, eight of us stayed.
MK: I think it was amazing. So it was sort of active atmosphere there?
RS: Yeah, yeah. And a wide variety of people too. I mean we didn’t necessarily all get along. You know. Cause as long as you work looks one way, you can be pretty sure your philosophy looks that way as well. But for the most part (we got along okay) …
MK: What was your teaching load? What were you supposed to teach?
RS: I was hired to teach figure drawing to freshman. And I didn’t draw and they didn’t know that. They thought my photo-silkscreens were drawings.
RS: Yeah. But that didn’t make any difference. I’m thinking about all of those changes that I made along the way. Oh, I think the third year I was here, I took another job that spanned both departments. There was the painting department and the design department. And I became a freshman coordinator, because the freshman program was in neither department. It was a separate entity. So someone had to run that program and all the TAs. So I took that job because it was a little bit more money and I was barely making it. In fact, I had applied for a job in the shipping department at Kroger’s (Note: A warehouse in Lawrence). You know, because I just wasn’t making it on the salary that they were paying me. We were all struggling. All of us were struggling to the point where we were looking for jobs, just because we need to make more money. I mean it was pretty serious and all the studies that they had showed that we were at the very bottom at KU next to the English department that were still above us.
HI: On the other hand, they hired nine people in such a short period of time.
RS: It took a lot of people to quit to hire nine and they did. Plus I think there were some restructuring in the plans.
HI: Let’s move onto the Oriental Masterpieces series. We talked about it a little bit yesterday, when we saw your work together at the Spencer Museum. But let me ask about your earliest works such as silkscreen. Was it at Syracuse you started doing silkscreen, because they had the equipment?
RS: I think it had more to do with what the Pop artists were doing. Well, Warhol primarily. In fact, there were a lot of films that were made of Warhol’s silk screening in his factory. And I think there was a romance about that. And plus working in a medium that wasn’t completely accepted by the art world, because this was a purely commercial medium that was being used towards fine arts end.
HI: Even in the late 60s, there was still some resistance to the idea of using it in the art world?
RS: Yeah, silk-screening couldn’t get a position in academy. After Mike Ott and I did the show together, that Artyfact Show, we were finally able to convince the department that we should offer silk screening course, because the students saw what we were doing at the museum said, “We want to do that too.” Whenever students say they wanna do something, you know, you listen to them. So we offered it and the response was so good that it became a regularly offered course and to this day it is offered.
HI: I see. That wasn’t the case in Syracuse?
RS: At Syracuse, it just simply wasn’t offered or accepted. It was only Intaglio. I think this was the only form of printmaking. They must have offered lithography, but no, there definitely wasn’t any silkscreen.
HI: They didn’t have any official silkscreen equipment at Syracuse?
HI: You know, there were some silkscreen works by you from the late 1960s. I’m just wondering how you made it, or how you found the equipment.
RS: Oh, because there’s a traditional type of silk screening and then there’s what we were trying to do. The traditional methods were pretty well-known, because people have been making birthday cards and lots of things as hobby, it was simple to do that kind of things. That’s the basic silkscreen technique, you didn’t have to take a class to be able to do that. But what we were interested in is new innovative photographic techniques. That’s what we wanted, but was not being offered.
HI: I see. How did you manage to make it?
RS: Well, we just looked at the trade magazines and we started ordering things from New York City, from these silkscreen houses that would reveal where they got their products. We made a lot of phone calls and then we found it and got all excited, because we were getting the whole kit. And then we’d spend nighttime in our bathtubs, washing screens and going through all this. I mean there was a certain romance about it, knowing that they were doing this in New York too.
HI: I see. So you kind of self-taught the process.
RS: Yeah, yeah. And then by the time I got here, things had changed. You know, pretty much accepted. Universities were given channels by which they could obtain a lot of these materials so that they could do it. Then it was not as fun [laugh].
HI: Let me ask you about how you started using woodblock prints in your work.
RS: Um… I think how I started had to do with that conversation with the farmer. He asked me how I came to speaking the language so well, where you are from, you know that whole business. And then I went out and bought what was called A Coloring Book of Japan that was filled with drawings of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Because I needed something that looked like Japanese art, and the woodblock prints sort of lent themselves to that. And so I got that book that was filled with all these simple line drawings. I mean I didn’t go to the original source. I had to get something that was processed already because in the end I wanted something that would look like Japanese art, because I didn’t know what it’d look like. I mean I knew what it’d look like, but I didn’t know all that subtleties so I wanted a popular version of it. And so that Coloring Book of Japan gave that to me. So I was painting the same kind of Japanese art that hakujin thought were Japanese art, you know. That’s a good question, because I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that before.
HI: So, you didn’t have a particularly strong background in Japanese art history or anything like that.
RS: I never took any Japanese, much less Far Eastern art history course.
HI: You were not particularly interested until then?
RS: No. I was a poor art history student. I took a lot of art history, but I didn’t care about it until it came time to violate it or to make something else out of it.
HI: I was wondering how it was done technically, because it’s done so well. Did you use something like a projector or masking tape?
RS: I’ve never use masking tape. It’s all free-hand. And people are impressed by that. But that’s the least thing to be impressed by, because I was teaching students. They could do better than me by the time they practice.
HI: So, about this Oriental Masterpiece, if I remember correctly, the first piece was… it wasn’t just ukiyo-e, you included an image of Tawaraya Sōtatsu.
RS: Oh, Sōtatsu. Yeah. Demon?
HI: Yes. Wind God and Thunder God Screens (Edo period, 17th century).
RS: That’s probably something I associated with being Japanese. So I included that. The only Western reference I’d made in there was brick wall. And it’s because at that time I was doing a lot of prints with brick walls.
HI: It first started as a painting series. Correct?
RS: Um … Yeah, the paintings came first.
HI: And then you moved on to…
RS: To prints.
HI: Oriental Masterprints, which started in 1973. And then, from what I read, you made more than 100 paintings of Oriental Masterpiece series, which seems a lot.
RS: 50 of them were 5 x 5 feet. And then the other 50 were smaller of different sizes.
HI: Even so, it seems like a lot of works to be done in a relatively short period of time. What drove you to paint so many works?
HI: I think there was something satisfying or fulfilling about doing those paintings that I hadn’t experienced before with other paintings. The way people responding to them. It just felt like I had a grip on something that was bigger than I anticipated. As it turns out that was true. I had no idea that it was going to last for a lifetime, and that I would end up focusing upon myself and my experiences and all that.
HI: What was the audience reception to this type of work? How was it different from the earlier works you did?
RS: Well, the first time I showed Oriental Masterpieces, people came up and congratulated me, saying, “Oh, it’s good to see you’re painting something that you look like.” For me, it was just a flipside. It was the opposite. I knew so little about what I painted. It was almost like someone else painted that and now I was taking responsibility for it. So the response that people had put me in a very strange relationship to my own work. And that’s when I decided that I was going to do a series of paintings of the Oriental Masterpieces, not having any idea that it would go on for as long as it did. But even through those 100 paintings that I was talking about, there were things that happened in those paintings that I never would have anticipated or connected with. You know, almost every time I looked at paintings, there was something new for me to connect—from maybe a sociological standpoint, not necessarily an artistic one. Gradually I started getting drawn into it. And grandmas’ diaries, you know.
HI: When and where did you show your Oriental Masterpiece series for the first time?
RS: For the first time?
HI: Yes. In a gallery here in Kansas?
RS: No, the first time was in Seattle. That was Oriental Masterpiece #1. And that was with seven other paintings and the other seven paintings were of things completely unrelated. Buck Rogers, a lot of nostalgic comic books stuff. Cause at the time I was collecting toys, antique toys and so that was influencing the paintings. I was painting Buck Rogers’ Spaceship in one of the paintings and it was a toy that I’ve been looking for years and trying to buy. And I finally found one. So I did painting of it and that was in the show.
HI: Then the print series came along, two years later. I wonder why you also wanted to make a print series.
RS: I don’t know… other than the fact that maybe I wasn’t fully aware or cognizant as to why I did things or made changes or whatever. I mean there could’ve been a spot that time that I was getting a divorce. I was sleeping in my studio and just that would cause changes, you know. Or I might have been delusionary from the fumes that I was inhaling. Because I was sleeping in my studio and it’s very small and filled with toxic chemicals. And in the mornings, the floor would be filled with ants that came out from the walls and died. And I would have to sweep them up and get a bag filled with ants every day, while I was sleeping in there too. So I was breathing those lacquer fumes. So what I’m saying is that might have caused a lot of the changes [laugh]. I don’t know if it was because of the divorce or what, but I was like a workaholic. And I just decided that one semester I was going to do that Oriental Masterprint series as many as I could. I’d just go and then just print. Every moment I was awake and not teaching, I was printing.
HI: I see. It almost became like an obsession during that period.
RS: Yeah. Then the next semester I did the same thing, ended up with all these prints. But they weren’t big editions. I mean some of them. Only five in the edition or whatever. Because I got tired of an image, you know. I don’t think I could do 20 of those. Or else I’d be experimenting and I had to destroy a bunch of prints because it didn’t work out.
HI: I was curious about that the smiley face you used in these prints. The first work you used that is this Kabuki actor’s image …
RS: And the second time I put slanted eyes?
HI: Exactly. I wonder how you got that idea of putting this smiley face in these actors.
RS: I think it had something to do with some conversation I had at Bush Garden in Seattle. I hung out there and Chinatown. You know, my uncle George was invented the smiley face. Besides the fact, the primary reason I put the smiling face was because it was just the opposite of how I saw all the rich tradition of Japanese imagery. What’s the most frivolous thing you could think of that’s in direct opposition to that tradition. A smiley face. How trite can you be. So I wanted to put that triteness on top of all that tradition.
HI: Then, in this work with another kabuki actor, you made it with slanted eyes.
RS: Yeah. It’s sort of like… a little kid like playing an instrument and trying to get people’s attention and no one pays attention and so he starts hitting it like this. I kind of feel the same way about that. Because, you know, the slanted eyes, I’ve always hated, hated what that stands for and everything else. And so that was just another way of taking that image a step further.
MK: Was Oriental Masterpiece the first one you addressed the issue of racial stereotype or racism?
RS: Oriental Masterpiece? Like painting?
MK: Well, either paintings or prints. Prior to this series, have you ever made works that addressed the issue of racism or racial stereotyping?
RS: Well, the first, the Oriental Masterpiece #1 was born out of a racist incident.
MK: In Kansas?
RS: Yeah. That was the conversation with the farmer.
HI: Could you tell us a bit more about the conversation?
RS: Well, it was at an auction. It was the first year that I’d been in Kansas and I would experience that time and time again. You know, “What are you? Where you from?” all this kind of stuff. Usually being mistaken for being Native American. But I was at an auction with Mike Ott, my colleague. During a break, there was this farmer standing next to me and he kept pushing me like this, like you want to talk or say something. Finally, during a break in the auction, he said, “Excuse me, Sir. I was overhearing you speak the language and I was wondering how you came to speaking so well.” And he said, “Where are you from?” I said, “Seattle.” And he said, “No, that’s not what I meant.” He said, “Where are you really from?” No, he says, “Where are your parents from?” And I said, “My father was born in Seattle and my mother was born in Idaho.” So, he says, “What do you do?” And I said, “I teach at KU.” He says, “Oh, really? What do you teach?” and I said, “Art.” And he said, “Art! Little lady and I used to collect art and we collected pictures of them, Gishee (geisha) girls. Do you make pictures like that?” I couldn’t believe this was happening to me, you know. And Mike Ott, who was with me, was just dying [laugh]. So I’m sitting here trying to be as smart as to this guy. And I’m thinking about what I want to say to Mike and what he’s going to say to me and all this kind of stuff. So I just kind of ended the conversation. But I decided at that moment that I wanted to make an art piece out of that. There was something about it that maybe deserves some sort of art effort. And so I went to the student union all the way back from that auction and I bought this book that I had seen earlier and it was called the Coloring Book of Ukiyo-e. And I bought that book and I took to my studio and I did some sketches and came up with the idea for Oriental Masterpiece. So it was born right out of that experience.
HI: I see. I guess Maki was trying to say that until you made this piece with slanted eyes, there was no particular motif that directly reflected racial stereotypes in your paintings.
RS: But it was obviously there (before that work).
HI: Right. We understand that.
RS: They’re just looking for an excuse to come out.
HI: So the inclusion of this motif, I mean the smiley face with slanted eyes, is just sort of one step?
RS: Well, it’s tempting to say it was. But it was a onetime thing just like the first time I used it. I didn’t think I’d ever use that again. When I used it, it was kind of a response to a series of things apparently. Although I don’t know what they are and what they might’ve been. But my intention wasn’t to go any further than that. Then like all things in my life, they usually come back.
HI: I see. I’d like to end today’s session by asking about your trip to Japan in 1975.
RS: On the Japan Foundation grant?
RS: The purpose of it was just to get as much visual material to do this series, Oriental Masterpiece series. I mean that’s how I justified it in the grant proposal. It was so simple, so silly that I didn’t think I’d ever get it. In fact, to the extent that I forgotten that I had applied for it. We were at the beginning of spring semester, and we were making out teaching schedules for the next year. “Oh yeah, I want to teach this, I want to teach that.” Nagging in the back of my mind was that “I think I applied for something that had to do with teaching.” And then, came to me “Japan Foundation.” And so I looked up my files and I found my application. And it said I should have known by now whether I got it. So I called up the office. And they said, “Yes, you got it.” And I said, “How come I was never told?” They said, “I don’t know” and they said, “But you’re supposed to be there in a week.” And I said, “I don’t even have a visa.” And they said, “Well, we could probably get that for you.” And they did, but it was for a full year. And I said, “I’m already locked into a teaching schedule for next year” and they said, “Well, go as long as you can.” And I said, “that will probably be about three months, but you’re going to have to give me a visa.” And so they said, “We’ll take care of that” and they did. I mean it was terrific, because a student that had graduated fall before, was from Japan, Nobuhiro Ōba. He lived in Chiba and he said I could come and stay with him and he’ll be happy to go with me any place I want to go. All I have to do is pick up tabs, you know. So I said, “Great.” So I went there. He picked me up at the airport. We went to his mother’s house in Chiba and I stayed in the omiyage room and it was like a little grocery store. She had all gallons of shōyu, senbei, all this of the stuff. And every time company would come in and bring omiyage, she’d put it on the shelf and take this, somebody gave her and gave it back to somebody else. So anyway, for three months all I did was travel around. Although Ōba was with me maybe half the time, I went to Kyoto by myself. And then I met a guy named Cappy Hurst who eventually became one of my best friends and I was to meet him on that trip. We connected several times after that. So anyway, it was a really good trip and I had a much better feeling about Japan after that trip.
HI: What was your feeling before that?
RS: Um… most of it was my own fault. I just felt like a foreigner. The first time that I felt like no place was home for me. And I don’t know what I expected by going to Japan. Maybe I felt more, you know, maybe it was a grandma thing, something more nourishing or warm or whatever, but it was downright hostile. It wasn’t until about halfway through the trip my girlfriend came to join me in Japan. Having her helped a lot, because it removed the expectations that I spoke Japanese. It removed a certain foreignness. We would go up to a ticket office or something and she would ask in very broken Japanese, few words here and there and then they would go out of their way to accommodate her. But if I went up there and asked, you know, they would say in Japanese, “Just because you’re with American girl, you think you’re trying to impress her? Speak Japanese to me.”
HI: So your girlfriend wasn’t Japanese American.
RS: No, she was hakujin.
MK: Where did you go other than Kyoto? You went to Chiba and then Kyoto.
RS: I went to Osaka just for bunraku theater, and went to Nara, Kamakura, Atami… I think that was it. I climbed Mt. Fuji, too.
HI: As you wrote in your application, did you do a lot of research in ukiyo-e as well?
RS: [started to laugh] Don’t ask that question.
HI/MK: [laugh] Ok. That’s the answer. Just fine.
HI: Next year, you held a solo show at Franell Gallery in Tokyo and Heian Gallery in Kyoto. I guess you weren’t there, because you had been back here. So I was wondering how you made it happen.
RS: I had a friend that was a Ph.D. I think it was the Heian that required help, because Franell was American.
HI: Yes, the gallery owner. I can’t remember her name now.
RS: Yeah. But the Heian was in the shopping center that was more of a typical Japanese gallery.
HI: Right. Like a rental gallery.
RS: Yeah. And they expected me to be there, pour tea every day and explain my work, you know. Well, I couldn’t do it because I was going back to the States. So I had this friend of mine who was a Ph.D. doing postdoc work in Kyoto. I asked if he once a week would go there and serve tea. I met him at a party and he seemed really interested in it. He said he’ll be happy to do that. He probably regretted it, but I took advantage of that. So we did that and he sent me a whole list of things that people said about the work as he poured tea for them. Franell was just like a U.S. gallery. The only interesting thing about their shows was that one in Franell almost sold out. I mean she couldn’t hold on to that works. But the gallery was in Kasumigaseki.
HI: Yes. It was in … what was the hotel’s name?
MK: Hotel Okura?
RS: Right. So all the work sold there went to people from embassies. So they took them back to different parts of the world. But what was funny was that they all think they bought a piece of Japanese art.
HI: I see. So it was like their recollection of their time in Japan.
RS: Yeah. So that was sort of the last laugh on me, not on them, you know.
HI: Even though you felt foreign in Japan, somehow your works meant something Japanese for them.
RS: Yeah, but at the Heian Gallery, no one bought anything. Not one print sold. People were coming from as far away as Osaka on a tour bus to see the show. It was on TV. It was on the newspapers. All kinds of publicity and essentially saying, “Who is this crazy American Sansei? What does he think that he is doing with our national treasures?” So it was very very negative. So that was my Japan experience.
HI: Was it a bit disappointment to you, the reception in Kyoto?
RS: No, it was confirming. It was confirming and for me, you know, throughout my whole career so much of it has been motivated by negative things like that.
HI: Both in the States and in Japan.
RS: Yeah, yeah. I mean one time I had a big painting that was called No-No Boy (1979). It was after I read John Okada’s book No-No Boy (1957). I did this painting in ukiyo-e style. Everybody was in kimono and had a role in John Okada’s book. It was reserved by the Bank of Tokyo and the Seattle Office approved it and had the final approval had to come from Tokyo. And they declined it. It was the first sale they ever declined, because they didn’t…. You know, it was this big 4 by 6 foot sprawling painting. They just didn’t trust it. They didn’t trust a Sansei who did the painting, apparently.
HI: Did they give any specific reasons?
RS: No, they didn’t give any reasons except I was getting opinions from people along the way that don’t expect this to be automatic, because they’re very suspicious about anything that tries to look Japanese, because they think it might be insulting or something. I don’t know. But I was completely ready for it. I was disappointed, but I was ready for it. So something like that provided fuel for years, you know, knowing that or assuming that.
HI: Let me ask about your ukiyo-e prints based on shunga. We saw Seven Views of a Japanese Restaurant yesterday together. If you could tell us a little bit about these erotica prints.
RS: There really isn’t much to say about that other than the fact that it was a deliberate decision to choose something that I knew was going to be controversial. But I also knew that I had enough control over it so it didn’t have to be controversial. I find that always part of the challenge in my work, when I’m right on that cusp of offending someone and then pulling back to a point where I feel like, “Ok, that should not be offensive. But it should still raise the question.” You know. I think that’s probably the first step I encountered on the Seven Views series.
HI: Do you remember when you saw that original shunga?
RS: It must have been… I mean now I have so many books on shunga, but it must have been one of the first books that I got. Tell you the truth, I don’t know. I mean I’m kind of making it up by coming up with some specific story.
HI: I see. But somewhere you encountered shunga … because I’m just wondering in the 70s …
RS: You know, I remember buying my first shunga print. And it was a Japanese gift shop in New York by Bloomingdales. It’s a real famous one. I think they’ve closed down since, but it was on the second floor. From their window, you can see Bloomingdales.
HI: Really? So it’s midtown Manhattan.
RS: Yeah … This is all after what we’re talking about. Although it’s kind of an interesting story, because Greg Kucera. They called me once when I was up in Seattle and he said, “I just bought these shunga prints.” He collects shunga. But he collects shunga about gay people, because he’s gay. But this one he called me up and says, “Come on over the gallery and check this out.” So I went over there and looked at them. There were three prints and they were each of a woman about to be taken by this man in some weird location. And this particular one has a map. The first one he showed me was of a man and a woman making love on a railroad track and the train is coming [laugh]. Anyway, I looked at that and it was a Red Cross nurse, and I said, “My grandmother was a Red Cross nurse. That’s my grandma!” [laugh] He laughed and he said, “You should have that” and so he gave it to me. I can’t remember the other two. But I have that print. It’s hanging up over there. But as I said that’s after I first started working with … so I can’t tell you. I can’t remember.
HI: That’s ok. Maybe we can move onto your grandmother Toku, since you mentioned her. In 1978, you started the Minidoka series incorporating the motif of incarceration camp into your paintings. What made you to decide to start working on this series?
RS: Well, it was because a reparation was in the wind. And Frank Chin. Frank wanted me to come up with silkscreen T-shirts. I think it had to do with reparations or maybe it had to do with the pilgrimage [to Minidoka]. One of the first pilgrimage I went out to. Anyway, I went to Seattle to help publicize this fact and it has something to do with reparations. It was just about time I was applying for a sabbatical. And I thought, “Well, what if I tried to do a series of paintings about Minidoka.” And that’s what I did. I applied for it and I got it and I did it. The rest is history.
HI: So when you were working on Oriental Masterpieces or Oriental Masterprints, you weren’t really thinking about it. You had no idea you were going to work on that Minidoka series in a few years.
RS: No. No.
HI: Because I thought it was a quite big shift.
RS: No, sometimes it doesn’t happen that way. I mean it might have been caused by that involvement the T-shirts. But I don’t recall the flow being that way.
HI: Since you did so many paintings and prints, I guess you were sort of technically already ready for doing something else and making it more complicated, by making a reference to this history of Japanese Americans?
RS: Do you mean before doing the camp work?
HI: Yes, before doing the camp work. Because you had done these series of ukiyo-e works already.
RS: I think what I felt after doing these was a style. That style was looking for someplace to happen, to have a reason, to have a purpose to it. And I think that I was aware that my identity was somehow tied up in this. You know, so every time something would happen in a town like this, you know, I go to Kroger’s or something to the check stand and they would say, “Is this a charge to Haskell?” (Note: Haskell Indian Nations University, located near University of Kansas in Lawrence) You know, just sort of automatically I would feed off of that. That would sort of go in the same pocket as other things that happened. By the way, this catalog up there about … the small one. It’s filled [with these incidents]. (Note: Stereotypes and Admonitions, Greg Kucera Gallery, 2004) There are about 60 incidents of racism that I experienced here in Lawrence or that happened nationally. And … This one in here, in Lawrence. “In the spring of 1970, after moving to Lawrence, Kansas, Roger went to…” I said, “Wilson’s Department store,” but it’s not…what’s the name of the department store downtown?
MK: Oh, yes, starting with W. Weaver’s?
RS: Well, you know what I mean. “[Roger] went to Wilson’s Department store to buy his wife a coat for her birthday. Wilson’s would not take Visa or MasterCard at the time and required that charges be made to a Wilson’s credit card only. The salesperson told Roger that they could fill out an application and obtain immediate approval to charge the coat. As directed, Roger went to the second floor credit counter and requested an application. The woman behind the counter said it was against Wilson’s policy to issue credit cards to Indians. When Roger said he was not an Indian, the woman told him she did not believe him. Roger then asked to speak to the manager. When the manager arrived, the woman behind the counter told him she had dutifully informed Roger that it was store policy not to grant credit cards to Indians. The manager examined Roger carefully and then said, ‘She’s right, sir. We don’t give credit cards to Indians.’ Roger repeated to the manager that he was not an Indian, whereupon the manager said, ‘You’ve got any proof that you ain’t, mister?’”
HI: Unbelievable. That happened in the 70s?
RS: Yeah, yeah. So anyway, this is all made up of stories that happened.
HI: In Minidoka series, you found out the way to narrate the story or experiences that you and your family had—Japanese Americans experiences based on these racial stereotypes.
MK: At that time, were you aware about some Japanese American artists who created their works on the theme of incarceration like Mine Okubo or Henry Sugimoto?
RS: No, not contemporary … to me. I mean I was aware of Mine Okubo. I have a Mine Okubo story.
MK: You have? Would you mind telling us about?
RS: I did a performance at Franklin Furnace in New York City and she showed up with some guy that I think was her photographer friend. He looked like he was in his eighties. And I looked at her and I was shocked, because I recognized her immediately. I walked over to her and thanked her for coming and everything. And I said, “What drew you to come to this performance?” And she said, “I saw someone wearing my number.” What she was talking about was a publicity photograph I had one of my actors wear this name tag that had her camp number on it. That was taken off the cover of her book Citizen 13660. I had that reproduced. And I had him sitting there like this and she saw that in a newspaper. And so she decided to see what the heck is going on.
HI: Did she like the performance?
RS: I don’t know, because she left right after it. I think it was because she didn’t understand it. I’m sure it wasn’t anything like she expected it to be. And so when I turned around, she and her friend were leaving. I think she didn’t want to have to say the truth about how she felt.
MK: That is an interesting connection.
RS: Yeah. I’ve got a photograph of her, though.
HI: So you have a proof that she was there. So, as we started talking about Minidoka series, this is the first work in the series?
RS: Notification (1978)?
HI: Yes. Notification. As opposed to earlier Oriental Masterpieces or Masterprints, where you often only have one central figure, the composition in Minidoka series is more like a history painting with many people and it was a lot more complicated composition.
RS: Yeah, it’s a different attitude. Suddenly what I intended to do required that. You know, in these (Oriental series) you’re making a statement based upon a singular image. That’s all you need. It’s just one image to make the point. But now that you’re going to get into some kind of narrative, you’re going to have to have a lot of things and introduce a lot of things, landscape, room interior, etc.
HI: Since you have many more figures in Minidoka series, how did you find original sources of inspiration in ukiyo-e? Let’s say if there are 10 people here, did you actually have 10 source images for them?
RS: Oh no. Just sort of one by one usually. Just kind of added in there.
HI: Do you remember the original sources was for these people?
HI: Because I’m not an ukiyo-e specialist, I really cannot identify the source images.
MK: That’s going to be an art historian’s job. That looks like (Suzuki) Harunobu? [laugh]
RS: I did have a Japanese art historian look at the paintings very early after I just did Oriental Masterpiece #1. She saw it and got really upset.
HI: Why was that?
RS: Because she mentioned, she said, “Do you realize that you have centuries between these figures?” You know, she said, “As an art historian, I can’t separate myself from where those images come from and the dates.” She said, “Just makes my head spin.” Interesting point, though, I think.
HI: But you never felt obliged to be historically correct.
RS: Oh, no. Just the opposite, you know. If I had a choice, I would make it incorrect every time.
HI: This is the second piece. Minidoka #2 Exodus (1978). There are even more figures in this painting. I was wondering because it’s more complicated and the piece is bigger too, did it take you longer time to complete each piece?
RS: Yeah. One at a time.
HI: How long did it take, if you remember?
RS: I don’t remember. That’s always the question that people ask and I think I intentionally don’t remember, because I don’t like that question.
HI: OK. Why don’t you like that question?
RS: Well, because it implies that that has something to do with the painting and it doesn’t have anything to do with the painting. You know. Because you do what it requires. And it carries with a reference that there’s some sort of qualitative aspect. If it takes longer, it is more valuable or more important or something. If something happens quickly, it has less value.
HI: I see. That’s not the point for you.
RS: Yeah…It takes as long as it needs to take.
MK: Can I ask you one more, maybe art historian’s question? When you’re looking for source images and choose kabuki actors, do you pay attention to the role they play or the theme of kabuki?
RS: Are you kidding? No [laugh].
MK: Well, several of my students came up with this question when we talked about your works. This must be, for example, “47 master-less samurai and so maybe Roger must have made some historical reference here.” But you didn’t …
RS: You just need to tell them. Remember Roger is Sansei and he doesn’t know about these things.
MK: Ok [laugh]. That’s the question I’ve been often asked and didn’t know the answer.
RS: Yeah. I had that question almost one time a year at least from somebody. Especially when I travel around and give lectures, questions like that come up all the time.
HI: When did you first show that Minidoka series?
RS: Seattle. It was at a private gallery. It was called Kiku Gallery. She was a very, very colorful person. I’m not trying to say she was a little crazy. Very colorful and unusual person. Had that whole reputation in Seattle. But she did pretty well. I think she sold half the show or maybe more than that.
HI: Do you know what kind of people bought the painting?
RS: I only know the attorney who bought the one that went to the Seattle Art Museum. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember who bought the other ones. One of them was that Bank of Tokyo that fell through after the show closed. One is that a friend of mine from New York that bought one … One went to my dealer in Kansas City. They bought it and then lost it.
HI: Lost it!?
RS: Yeah. Notification painting you were showing me.
HI: That’s lost? Oh, god. So you don’t know where it is.
RS: I wanted to borrow it for a show and they couldn’t find it. It’s hard to believe. How could they lose a 5 by 6 foot painting?
HI: Do you remember how many pieces you did for this series?
RS: Just six. Called the Minidoka series.
HI: I see. And then one is missing. Do you know where the rest of the paintings are?
RS: I have a record of where all the paintings that I sold, although I don’t have the specific address, just the city and State. But of course over the years that information changes.
HI: In 1978–79, you did those six paintings. And in 1980, you started the Diary series based on your grandmother’s diary. Was is sort of natural… or sort of logical development?
RS: The reason that 1980 series started was I brought the diaries back to Kansas and had them translated. The woman who translated would take about two weeks to translate two weeks-worth of diaries. I mean she wasn’t a professional. She was an art student who had been living in this country for 18 years. So her English was pretty good and her Japanese was still good. So I received a grant to pay her to do that, a General Research Grant. As the translations came in, I would decide upon what painting to do. So eventually, I think there were 25 paintings. Over a period of time, they went to a lot of shows. I can’t remember, maybe 15 solo shows around the country.
MK: So your graduate student translated a part of your grandmother’s diary?
RS: We took the war years. We actually started with … maybe a month or two before Pearl Harbor. And then she did all of the war years and over the camp years.
MK: So between 1941 and1945?
HI: You grandmother had a diary book per year?
HI: How many diary books did she have all together?
RS: I think 37 years. 37 years out of 58, something like that.
HI: What year did she passed away?
HI: How old was she?
RS: I’m not sure. She was in her early eighties.
HI: As you read the translation, did it give you many findings about her life in camp or did anything surprise you?
RS: No, there were no big surprises, I don’t think. What was interesting to me was her blood pressure, because I have high blood pressure. You know, it became clear where it came from [laugh]. She would do things in camp. She said, “Today my blood pressure was 200 over 100.”
HI: That’s pretty high [laugh].
RS: [She said] “I ate umeboshi, ochazuke, and took a nap.” That umeboshi is probably the worst thing you could eat in the whole world, because it’s almost pure salt, you know. And then she took a nap and woke up and felt better.
HI: So it was more like an objective record of her life in general? Did she express her feelings?
RS: Yeah. Certain times she did. I think when the U.S. government told the male internees that they could go fight for America. She had a lot to say about that.
HI: What did she say?
RS: She was very upset about the quandary of how they were—they lost all their rights and were put in camp, you know, all the obvious things. And how that touched her own son, Michio, who fell in that category. So, nothing controversial but quite emotional.
HI: You chose a particular sentence to base your painting on or …
HI: Was it a particular phrase or sentence in the diary that inspired you to make a painting? If there was an order, did you choose the sentence first and then did the painting? How did it work?
RS: You know, I don’t remember. I’d have to see the diary entries … Yeah, now I remember for each painting, there was between one to three sentences, I think. That’s what usually triggered off some sort of imagery.
HI: I was in Washington DC last month and saw the painting Diary December 12, 1941, in which the shadow of the Superman appears behind the shōji screen. I was wondering if this is the first time that an American comic character appears in your painting.
RS: Umm… well, there aren’t any in the Minidoka series. That’s probably the first time in the Diary series.
HI: I wonder if you can tell us why Superman appears at this point in your career. Because you liked American comic books all the way since childhood.
RS: Yeah, I think it’s just a process that happens. As you develop a familiarity with the images that you use, you start to see connections to other things more clearly. And then if you follow these observations, you start to give yourself permission to do things that to a person from the outside that hasn’t developed those connections, it might seem like an unlawful thing to do, when in fact creatively it’s the logical thing to do. Because artists are always breaking down barriers or trying to see more than the average person sees. And I think it’s true in the case of the paintings. So (as an artist) you’re always stretching to find that hit. Sometimes you pick the wrong one. But sometimes when you pick the right one, it’s an opportune time you’re considered a genius for making that choice. But that’s the payoff for trying to always be on that edge. Because artists without having an edge are nothing. They’re decorators. Or the kinds of you go to art in the park, you know, that kind of thing. That has so little do with what I do.
HI: My last question today. You kept references to the incarceration camp quite subtle in the Minidoka and Diary series. For instance, you see only a small bit of barbed wire really in a distance. I read that you made this intentional choice to keep the work accessible to your viewers, because marketability of these works was important to you. I was wondering if you could talk us a little bit about the importance of being accessible and marketable.
RS: I think things you just talked about are important, although they’re kinds of things that artists don’t like to talk about. Because artists like to think they’re beyond that. (They like to think) they don’t make their decisions based upon marketability, and that given a choice they always pick the more controversial. That’s a lot of B.S. I mean, even if it isn’t a lot of B.S., artists got to have a life outside of the studio. And you could make all these wonderful outrageous choices and all that, but if you don’t sell it to somebody, it dies in the studio. Never seen again. Most paintings are only seen after they’re finished. I mean I’m not talking about successful big type artists. I’m talking about just the average painter who does something to satisfy themselves. And that’s the end of it. But if you’re someone with expectations of reaching a larger audience, the work has got to be placed in a situation where it’s seen by a large audience. That means an important collector got to buy, or museum, or some corporation or something like that. It’s got to continue to have a life. It does not have a life in your own studio. So you can sit there and look at works and say, “Well, you know, you really sold out by doing this and that, you really took the edge off of it.” But somebody buys it or it has a life outside the studio, that at least has a chance to be important. Otherwise, you know, it’s just a twiddling of your thumbs.
HI: I don’t think there are many artists who express the kind of view so outrightly. I wonder how you developed this policy.
RS: It’s the teacher in me. I taught painting for so long, you know. One thing I always did was talk about why one shows their work, why it’s happy when the work sells, not just so that they can take that money and buy something. But because it’s an endorsement that life continues for that piece of work and brings importance to them. So yeah, I think that’s where my teaching maybe is a little different than the other people’s. You know, I talked about things that normally are a taboo.