[watched excerpts of Shimomura’s theater piece Seven Kabuki Plays (1985) for the first 10 minutes]
HI: We just saw an excerpt of Seven Kabuki Plays, which you directed in 1985. I’d like to start today’s session with having you talk about your memories about your grandmother, Toku [who inspired you to make this piece]. What was she like? What was her background?
RS: There’s a Japanese word that was always associated with her. It was chanto.
HI: Like “proper”?
RS: Yeah. People always used to see she was a real chanto lady. But I think the thing that made grandma unusual was that she had a sense of history. And I probably inherited that from her. You know, the fact that she kept the diaries. And for the last 14 years of her life, I gave her a diary for Christmas. Empty diary. So it’s kind of poetic that it should come back to me after all those years. But because we lived so close to grandma, I think that had a lot to do with the relationship that she and I had. I saw her almost every day and I could tell that I was her favorite, because she delivered me, you know. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that she always treated me specially. But one thing she would always tell me was that—and later on in life I sort of discovered or interpreted it as almost being a curse—“Remember whatever you do in life, good or bad, will reflect on the entire Japanese race.” And I thought, “Oh, my God,” you know. I mean what a thing to tell to a 5 years or 7 years old boy.
HI: A big burden on your shoulders.
RS: Yeah, but then I soon found out that’s sort of how the Japanese community operated. There was a lot of truth to that. And so as much as I sort of tried to ignore that in my life, because I thought it was such an unfair kind of comment to make to a child, I have to admit that it had a certain influence on me. You know that I always felt like I was representing something bigger. I mean it may not be Japanese people, but it could have been the university or could have been anything else. So … I think those things were pretty much based on the fact that she delivered me. She did bring me into this world and that was the basis of the relationship she and I had. She was always very proud of everything I did. I almost felt guilty at times, because I felt like my sister, my younger sister wasn’t getting that kind of attention. And then again maybe it was that Japanese male thing, you know, whatever that thing is.
HI: Your grandmother was a nurse and then she did a midwife work.
RS: Yeah. She was a nurse in the Japan-Russia War (1904–1905). She wrote a story about that. I don’t know if you’ve seen that story. Do you know the book Issei by Kazuo Ito? (Note: Issei: A History of Japanese Immigrants in North America, translated by Shinichiro Nakamura and Jean S. Gerard, 1973) She wrote a story about her experiences as a Red Cross nurse and told a story about the famous sea battle in the Russo-Japanese War. They were expected to lose that war or that fight and if so, she thought they would be expected to commit suicide. And so they were waiting to be given suicide pills and they cleaned up their rooms to get ready for it. And so all night they sat in their rooms, waiting and they can hear the battle going on and finally… oh, they would rush over to the deck of the ship and look at the water and they would count the number of bodies that would float in from the sea to see how many were Russian and how many were Japanese. But as it turns out Japanese defeated the Russian naval fleet and they won the war. So after that, she became a nurse in a silk factory and it was there that she met my grandfather’s brother. And the brother was impressed by grandma and said, “I have a brother who lives in the United States. He went there in 1906.” The San Francisco Earthquake happened in the same year. But he said his brother lived in the United States and is open to a photo marriage and asked her if she’d be interested. Apparently she said yes, because the families got together and eventually, it was approved and both sides agreed. And then in 1912 my grandmother got prepared to make this journey across the ocean to meet her husband. And the day she left, she talked about writing a list of gifts that she exchanged with friends. You know, they came to see her, wish her good luck and give her a little gift. And she made a list and that list became the beginning of the diary. When she got on board, there were 60 other photo brides on the ship and they took off. She immediately started writing about what it was like and what it felt like and all that. Every day she wrote quite a bit. And until she got to America and then she wrote about how all of the women rushed to the front of the ship to show photographs of their future husbands. Of course, none of whom they had met before. And then for the next two weeks or so she didn’t say anything about. I mean she talks about Seattle and what an incredible place it was and what an incredible adventure. But she didn’t say one word about grandpa [laugh]. We found out that much later in life, she said frankly she was disappointed. But she said he was a good man. So she didn’t want to say anything disparaging about him. And then she found out how good of a man he was through life and how he was perfect for her. And you know it was a wonderful marriage and all that. So anyway from that point on, she continued to write in that diary for the next 57 years until she passed away in 1968.
HI: It’s impressive that she was a real career woman already in Japan. She was among the first generation of working women.
MK: So, during the Russo-Japanese War, she was at the front.
RS: Yeah. The sea battle was the biggest sea battle of the Japan Russian war, I think. It was the decisive battle. I cannot remember what the name of the sea was, Tashima or something. I cannot remember. She had medals. And I think in the picture we use, she’s wearing them.
MK: Those stories you just told us became a source of inspiration for your most recent works, there [pointing to the series of works on the wall]?
RS: Yeah. Yeah, Diary of an American Midwife (2017).
HI: So in 1968, she passed away. That’s around when you were in graduate school trying to become an artist. But back then, you had no idea that you were going to use her diary as part of your work, as your inspiration.
HI: But you always thought that these diaries had historical importance. You were aware of that?
RS: Yeah. Probably when I brought them back to Kansas. Well, back up a little bit more than that. The diaries were in a bookcase that belonged to her. My dad always used to say, “Why don’t you take those back to Kansas with you?” Because he wanted more space [laugh]. I think he knew that of all the family members I would be the most likely to do something or make some use out of that or translate them or something. And so I took them back to Kansas. I decided to have them translated or as many as I could afford to. I think at that point I knew that there was potential and I almost made up my mind. Even if there wasn’t anything obviously appropriate, I could still work with someone.
HI: Because you had already started your Minidoka series in 1978 and it was after that you started having the diaries translated.
RS: Yeah. Actually I think it was during the Minidoka series they were being translated, because I think the first diary painting was 1980.
HI: That’s right. And then after the Diary series in 1984, you did the first theater piece, Toku’s Dance?
RS: Well, I did that one before Seven Kabuki Plays.
HI: I’m not sure if Toku’s Dance is a part of Seven Kabuki Plays or it was separate.
HI: Then it was before Seven Kabuki Plays. So I wonder if this is the first theater piece you did.
RS: Yeah. Toku’s Dance was the first. That was done in a gallery here in Lawrence.
HI: How long was it? Do you remember?
RS: How long was the piece? I don’t… Well, here [looking up some document], it was really short… It doesn’t say, but I think it was about five minutes.
HI: I see. So it was done in a gallery as part of the opening event or something?
RS: No, it was done as a special event. I was thinking about a bigger performance. But I knew nothing about it. I mean absolutely nothing, you know, about how to put something like this together. And so I wanted to create an event where I had to go through everything, you know, including invitations, lighting and guest list and all of the stuff. Just so I’d become familiar with everything that I would be facing, if I got into it. So the performance part was actually quite small, quite minimal, although visually it certainly related to what I was doing in my paintings. But I had never dealt with sound and music. So it was an opportunity to bring that into a small piece.
HI: I see. So it was just this character dancing.
RS: Yeah, yeah.
HI: Not to sound or anything.
RS: Well, no, there was sound that she was dancing to, but it was inappropriate sound, because it was a kind of disco funk that she was dancing to. So that was an important part, see? During this time, every Wednesday night, I was working with Marsha Paladin who was a choreographer and she had a dance troupe of six to eight women. She was pretty well known in this area. So I saw her as a resource and asked her if she would be interested in coming over to my studio on Wednesday nights and dancing or moving or something to different kinds of music and I’ll videotape her. We’ll just play to see what happens. She said she’d love to and so she started doing that and it worked out so well that she said, “Can I bring one of my dancers?” and I said, “Sure.” And then it was two and then it was three. And I had all these kimonos. I had about 50 different kimonos that I had bought in this sale from Japan. And so we would just set up real simple props and put them in costumes and masks and I play all kinds of R&B music and they would try to make Japanese dances out of R&B music. And of course, they knew nothing about Japanese dance. And that was the idea, because the whole thing was meant to parallel what a Sansei might do, you know. That Sansei doesn’t have that connection. They’re giving up, you know, he or she is giving up that connection through generations and so what happens as these customs start to mutate. So in some ways I was seeing that bigger picture that I was dealing with and, you know, a lot of more recent work about how things mutate as they go through generations. The sushi that Sansei make just taste different than the sushi that’s made in Japan. So that was the idea of this. It was sort of a starter performance for the Kabuki Plays.
HI: I see. In the first place, how did you come up with the idea that “I want to do a performance” and “I want to incorporate my grandmother’s story into it”?
RS: How did that come to me?
RS: I don’t know. It was apparently there. I don’t know. You have to ask a psychologist that [laugh]. I’m just grateful there was something there.
MK: Was it something to do with the fact that you studied filmmaking at Syracuse?
RS: Sure. That kind of linear progression, linear development of an idea certainly ties in with studying film. Yeah. There was always that desire, I think… you know, when I came to KU and asked to teach freshman design class, it was because I knew there was an opportunity to have some kind of performance in there. I mean at least I felt like as a professor I could introduce something I wanted to do to my class and I knew that I could justify it verbally. And so I was having my students doing performance in freshman design class before performance ever became of academic interest here at KU. So in the 1980s, I was already playing with it and sort of doing my own sketches for some of my own ideas.
HI: You had already incorporated your grandmother’s story and diary into your paintings. Was there anything that only performance and theatre pieces can express about your grandmother’s story? And something that painting cannot do.
RS: Well, all of the information that my grandmother left… Starting with the audio tapes that she left… Of course, she’s talking and I’m really not sure what she’s talking about, but I’m sure she’s probably reading from the Bible.
HI: Why was it recorded?
RS: You know, I don’t know except that the tape recorder was a new invention. It just came out. And, you know, I have to give my grandmother a lot of credit for how many Issei would pick up a tape recorder and decide to do something with it. She sang in the church choir. So she was recording the rehearsals every week. And she would use it to critique not only choir but her own role within the choir. She would pray these long prayers and you could just hear her in this low voice. I could see her with her head bowed and just going on and on, you know, holding a microphone in her hand. But perhaps the most valuable thing to me was when grandma and grandpa knew that they didn’t have too much longer to live, they each wrote a letter to their relatives in Japan that outlined everything that they accomplished in America. Everything they experienced in America and talked about how good their lives were, how they’re so glad that they made the decision to come to this country and so on. Those long letters grandma and grandpa both wrote. Before they mailed the letter, they read it into the tape recorder.
HI: That’s amazing.
RS: Yeah. Then they mailed the letters and I had the tapes or my dad had the tapes. After grandma passed away, grandpa missed her so much that he would listen to the tapes, grandma’s tapes, again and again, you know. And one night, very late at night, grandpa was living with my mom and dad and they could hear grandma’s voice coming from downstairs and grandpa was downstairs listening to it. And my dad went down to see how he was. My grandpa was in anger and frustration and pain, and took the tapes out of a tape recorder like that and shredded the tapes. It was just this big mess, torn up in all these pieces. And my dad said he grabbed them all, all the tapes, and took them away from grandpa. And then over the next few months, he put it all back together, listening to it, taping it, you know. And finally, he got it all back together again.
HI: That’s what your father did.
RS: Yeah. So I had that tape and the tape recorder. Then I had all of her tapes that she made reading poetry. This was in a box all by itself. There were also autographed books and in these autographed books were all of her trips—you know, they would ask people to sign it. Just about anybody that would sign it. And she even had their drawings by other people in there. So I had that as well. But of course, it was all written in nihongo (Japanese), so I couldn’t tell. But there was a woman on the faculty here, Kimiko Yamamoto, who taught Japanese. And she and her husband Akira and I were good friends. So they became an important part of all our performances. Kimiko would translate. And Kimiko sounded like my grandmother! And she was really good in front of a microphone. She wouldn’t get nervous. So I had her read all of the stuff that were among my grandmother’s things. And I had to read them to find out what they were and then we started finding a lot of poetry and we found poetry that was written in camp. Of course, that’s what interested me the most.
And then there were lyrics to songs like folk songs. And it was really interesting watching Kimiko work with this and she’s reading the poem that she translated and she’s going like this… [Roger singing]. She says, “God, that’s familiar,” you know. And then she took the poems and it’s perfect. There were the lyrics to the song. Folk song. The lyrics were made by Issei in camp in a club. They had a haiku club that they would get together once a week and write poetry. So all of a sudden, we found out that Grandma was in that club and she was writing haiku and writing poems about camp. So, you know, this is a long answer to your question, but all this kind of information you can’t paint it. You know, it doesn’t lend itself to a painting, but it’s perfect for a performance. So at that point, you know, there were just more reasons to go forward to use this stuff. Thanks to Kimiko and Akira, I was able to incorporate all the boxes of stuff. By the way, it’s all at the Smithsonian now. (Note: In 2016, Shimomura donated his collection related to his family and incarceration camp, including his grandmother’s diaries, to the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution.)
HI: I see. As part of your family history collection that you donated to the Museum.
RS: Yeah. Right.
HI: So these friends, Kimiko and Akira, listened to the tapes and then found out what’s been recorded?
HI: You said your grandmother’s diary wasn’t always emotional or expressive, but in lyrics or in poems, was it different?
RS: Oh yeah, very much. I think she knew that poetry was meant to be read and heard by an audience, whereas the diaries were just her daily reminder of events. There were just certain times that she became really invested in the diaries and started writing about things. I have a feeling that she was hoping someone would read so that they would know how she felt. But when you’re writing haiku or you’re writing lyrics to a poem, there’s a public aspect of that and I think she was aware of.
HI: Are there any haiku or lyrics that particularly inspired you?
RS: Yeah, there was a performance that I did… [looking into a file]… I think it was a Trans-Siberian Excerpts (1987) … but I don’t have it there. There was some haiku that I used and I can’t remember them offhand, but yeah I did… I mean that’s the reason that I became involved in all the tapes and all that to use them in the performances so there were other instances that they appear, you know. They just sort of come in and go out with no explanation. You know, but they were definitely put to use.
HI: In Toku’s Dance and in Seven Kabuki Plays, actors put on a Noh mask. If you can tell me why.
RS: There’s nothing really symbolic about that other than the fact that I wanted them to wear a mask. And if it confused the Japanese, fine. All the better. I’m just interested in extending the mileage that a lot of these images had and that goes for other things, not just the masks but certainly kimono that they wore. All I cared was that they look Japanese. Whereas Japanese would look at it and they would say, “No one’d be wearing that in a situation” and all that. That’s exactly what I was willing to settle for, you know, to re-examine the way culture translates things and are passed from one generation to another. How do you force someone to see that by distorting it and force them to say, “That’s distorted,” you know, before they would have said anything. It would’ve just gone by.
HI: What you just said sounds like related to another performance piece, Funky Odori in 1987. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
RS: It was done in Eastern Illinois University. I had heard about the sort of game that kids would play in a bus where they would make up a story and tell the person sitting in front of them the story. And then that person would tell the person next to them that story and they would tell them. And they go all the way around the bus and then it would come back. And of course, the person who started it would get the biggest enjoyment, because it wouldn’t sound anything like [the original story], except certain words that sort of withstood all that translation going around. I got to thinking that’s a lot like the way traditions are passed on from generation to generation whether it’s sushi, whether it’s dance. By the time it goes around Issei, Nisei, Sansei, Yonsei and comes back, the sushi may not even have rice in it any more [laugh]. So I decided I would express that and deal with that idea through dance.
I had my three performers and there was this outdoor festival at the University. The music started that I had written by a local hakujin composer. I told him “do something Japanese,” and I had him listen to some bonodori music. So he had some idea of the rhythmic structure and the dance ability of it all that. And so he wrote this piece and I started playing it. And everybody, several hundred students, nodding their head like this, listened to it. Then, my three dancers came, and they started doing this dance. They didn’t know how to do that kind of dance either. In fact, the way I taught my choreographer how to dance was… I went to Seattle during Seafair week with my video camera rehearsals and I videotaped all of the Nikkei practicing odori. And then I brought that back and showed it to Marsha, my choreographer, and then she picked up certain movements and then she taught her two dancers how to do it. So now we’re getting this passing thing, right? And so the two dancers picked it up and their movements were really kind of funny. Didn’t look Japanese anymore [laugh]. But they were gonna to teach the students at Eastern Illinois how to do that dance. So that’s what we did. And so the music starts and they start marching through all the students and students stand up and start following them. I’m standing there just laughing [laugh]. I mean this was happening for me, right there—all these students doing this funny dance. And the music sounds vaguely Japanese—vaguely, you know. So the message went around the bus and came back to where it started from me. So that’s what that piece was about.
HI: That sounds amazing. And then in 1988, you did California Sushi. So this period seems like you were really productive and into the stage works. It seems like once you started, you couldn’t get enough of it or something. Was this true?
RS: Yeah, I don’t know what prompted me to be so active other than the fact that I was being so productive. But it doesn’t mean anything unless it’s seen. That’s what I I’ve always said to my students, “You could do a painting, but unless other people see it, unless that’s shared, you never did it.” So I followed my own advice and I just suddenly threw all my attention to performances. But predictably, if you’re going to do a performance, a lot of museums want to see paintings, too, to provide sort of a background. Not literally, but you know. So consequently, I was exhibiting as well at that time. I think if you look at my resume, you’ll see that during all those years that I was performing, I was still showing.
HI: I see. Meaning you were also painting.
RS: I was painting as well. Yeah. You know, I mean I could do that because I was single … I wasn’t married, let’s put it that way [laugh]. So I was able to devote every minute and it was something I loved to do. So it was easy to do. It was a natural thing to do. I surprised myself sometimes when I look back on those times and see that I was also so active in painting.
HI: You’re still very active and productive. In terms of your belief that it has to be shared and it has to be seen, what was your audience like for these performances?
RS: Well, when I built these performances, I think I built them just like I did with my paintings. There was an element of entertainment—for the lack of a better word—especially in the performances, an element of entertainment and an element of aesthetics. There was something for everyone to understand what was going on, whether they tried or not. And then after that, there were layers of complexity, including a layer that I didn’t understand myself. That layer was for me and anyone else who wanted to come along for the ride. So it was simple to be able to put all those things two dimensionally, three dimensionally, four dimensionally and to find excitement in doing all that. I don’t know how else to put it… It was just sort of natural excitement. You get up every day excited, you know, and you see things that are relevant to what you’re doing. Even going out and collecting and buying stuff and all that. All related I tried to somehow put [into my art]. When I used to have a big antique toy collection, toys made in the 1930s, I started painting them, but I never came up with one that worked. There were a few I guess [that worked]. But for the most part, it was an attempt to bring in my individual interests outside of art into the art sphere.
HI: You said Seven Kabuki Plays sort of developed gradually. You first did one act and then it became three acts. How long was the piece altogether in the end?
RS: An hour and 20 minutes, I think. And I think it had an intermission.
HI: I see. When did you perform the complete piece for the first time?
RS: It was a small college in Kansas called Winfield or Winfield Kansas. It’s the name of the city. I can’t remember the name of the college but something like Southwestern College.
HI: So you were invited to give your performance there?
HI: Since it was in Kansas, I presume that most of the audiences were Caucasians?
HI: How did they respond to the piece?
RS: The challenge was to keep them awake [laugh].
HI Were they mostly college students or just members of the community?
RS: I think they were mostly older hakujin people. I swear to God that half of those fell asleep, because I’m backstage, I’m looking by the curtains, see how many people are there, you know. I could notice these people falling asleep. I’d say all the musical would wake them up, coming up “boom, boom, boom, boom,” you know, but they didn’t even move [laugh]. I mean it wasn’t always like that. I’m being cynical, but I think the biggest performance we had was Sansei Story, the final act. I mean the final package and we did it at Haskell Indian Nations University, where we had over 600 people show up. But to tell you the truth, I don’t know if anybody got it. A few people did. I mean my friends for sure, because I talked to them about what the piece was about and all that. But …
HI: So for those who didn’t really share the experience or interest in that part of history, it was hard for them to feel connected to?
RS: Yeah, to understand the depth and the subtleties. And there are also so many, you know, because in the last version of Sansei Story, I had a kurogo running into the audience and doing something with one person seated in the audience and doing this little mini performance. (Note: Kurogo refers to an on-stage assistant in Japanese traditional theater such as Kabuki and Bunraku. They wear black robes called kurogo and are supposed to be invisible to the audience.) And no one else in the theater would know what’s going on. I mean some people would see this kurogo coming and wondering what he or she is doing. It was a part of the performance where I talked about how religious grandma and grandpa were. I had kurogo come in and minister a communion to one person and go up and say, “Take drink. This is the blood of Christ that he gave for you.” And then the person here would take a little sip of grape juice and eat this wonder bread that’s cut up, the body of Christ, you know. And of course, the reference to that was not just the communion that was going on stage. It had to do with the fact that when I was young, I was what they called an altar boy. I used to administer this to people with the minister and I’d hold a tray of grape juice and then I cut up the wonder bread ahead of time and put it in a plate for the body of Christ and offer. So it was bringing back that recollection for me personally and of course none of 600 people knew that I had this experience, right?
So there were frequently a point where these gestures that I would make in the performances would end up being a very personal, private kinds of things that I really didn’t care whether anybody else got or not. But I did think that they had to sort of prove theatricality worth, you know. So…there was a moment where you know that Nisei especially were famous for inventing really crazy nicknames for their kids. Names like poison, goofballs things like that. And my grandma, because she was a midwife, after one year the mother would give the midwife a photograph of the baby, a 1-year old photograph of the baby. So she had stacks of these pictures like this, because she delivered thousand babies. And I got those pictures and I Xeroxed them and made them into cards and titled them “goofballs Yamamoto,” you know, things like that. And then sometime during the performance when on the stage you were talking about grandma delivering me, I had kurogo running into the audience and pass out these pictures of these cards to show what Nisei grow up to become, you know.
MK: So when you put your performance in the areas which are more mixed than Kansas, did you get a very different reaction from the audience?
RS: Um… that’s hard to tell. It will be easy to say that the response was different. That’d be hard to prove wrong, but just from the standpoint of turnout, we did the performance in Overland Park at Johnson County, that has this incredible theatre. And we sold out the theatre, but it only seats like four hundred fifty or something like that. And the response was really good. I mean I couldn’t have been happier with the way the audience was and what people said and all that. So that was probably the most sophisticated audience as opposed to Winfield Kansas. That was the least sophisticated and I felt the difference. So maybe that’s an answer to your question.
HI: Have you shown any of your performances to the Japanese American community? An audience of mostly Japanese Americans.
RS: Mostly? No.
HI: So it was always rather white dominant or a little bit mixed?
RS: Yeah. Maybe a little bit mixed. Twenty percent would be a lot.
HI: I see. But Japanese American audiences, I would think, they would respond in a different way…?
RS: The last performance I did was done in Bellevue Washington, which is a suburb of Seattle. You just go across the bridge, it’s right there. So it’s like Seattle. I did two nights in a small auditorium with seats maybe about 200 to 250 max. And they sold out both nights and they did an overflow with a video camera, you know, wired out into the lobby so that other people could see it from the lobby. That may have added another 50 or something, so might have been about 300 two nights. That audience was probably the highest percentage of JAs that I’ve ever had. The piece was called Amnesia (2002), probably the one I was most pleased with and if I were still doing performance, I would have done that with that kind of format in that I paid everyone. Money was no option. I knew I had to have a singer and I had to have a good singer, because she would have to sing the aria to Madame Butterfly. And I turned to a woman named Karen Paludan. She was my choreographer’s daughter. She performed as a child in a lot of my performances. She always just stole the show. She was so good.
So I knew I wanted to work with Karen, but I didn’t know where she was. I’d lost track of her. So I made a few phone calls and found out she was in Washington D.C. When she performed for me here in Lawrence, I would give her a hundred bucks afterwards and she just thought that was incredible, you know, so much money for a young child. But I’ve always paid people to work for me even though it’s small, because I was able to get grants support to help pay. So I asked Marsha where Karen was and she gave me her phone number in D.C. I called her up and said, “Karen, I want to use you in a performance,” because I knew that she sang opera after she grew up. And I said, “Do you know the aria to Madame Butterfly?” And she said, “Oh God, yes.” And she said, “I would love to do it,” because she said, “I’ve never been able to perform that on real stage, because I’m too tall.” She’s 5’10 and the woman in Madam Butterfly was only five feet, 4’11 or something like that. So she said, “I would love to” and I said, “Yeah, I’ll pay you of course.” And she said, “Well, you have to because I’ve been in a union.” Since I heard that word union, I thought “uh, oh.” And I said, “Well, what do you charge?” And I’m thinking “I paid her a hundred bucks when she was a kid. What’s this going to be?” And she said, “Well, minimum is five thousand dollars.” And I said, “Five thousand dollars?” And she says “Plus expenses.” She said, “I’ll have to go from Washington D.C. to Seattle on a train, because I don’t fly.” You see, so a train is five days and then there are 15 meals [laugh]. That’s one way, you know [bigger laugh], times two. So I said, “OK. Can you give me a break on the fee?” So she gave me a break. Like she did it for half or something.
But anyway I say that, because my style of working had changed at that point where I could afford to pay, with sales of paintings subsidizing the performances. But then I had to have a koto player. And I had to have a koto player that played Western music on a koto. But I was able to find someone. And so she was willing to put on a cowboy hat and cowboy clothes and play Don’t Fence Me In on a koto, which was a reference to camp. And then I had one more person and she was Japanese American, Issei, actually. Keiko Kira, who was one of my drawing students and became really important part of all my performances, lived in Kansas City and was willing to do it. So those were the three principal players in this Amnesia performance. It cost a lot of money to do it. But I found that when you pay people well, they respond well and they pay attention and they’re professionals. So the whole thing about Amnesia was a lot more smooth than other performances. So it was long answer to your question. I think it was much more successful in that regard, and was therefore understood by the audience.
MK: Why did you choose the title Amnesia for this performance?
RS: Well, because the performance is actually about condemning the Sansei for forgetting about camp and the effects that camp has had upon their lives and the sacrifices that were made before them not being appreciated and being forgotten.
MK: So you’re sending some message to the younger generation of Japanese Americans or maybe young people.
MK: Was there any particular event that drove you to make that piece focusing on that … kind of new theme, I think, amnesia?
RS: No, I think what led to that was the fact that in all of my performances and paintings and everything I was going direction that was maybe a little bit more direct, less subtle. So Amnesia would stimulate questions like you just asked and I think that comes from a certain directness of what that might mean. But anyway, I think all the performances, like the paintings, were kind of evolving. You know, [looking at his files] I just noticed this one. It’s called La Carta (2001) and it was with this flamenco dancer and I brought in the reference to camp in the letter that grandma wrote to her relatives. And I had Kimiko duplicate this letter. And I had a video of her writing in nihongo, this letter. And so as grandma is talking about her life in America, this kurogo right here pushes this guard tower, pass the letter as a reminder to the audience that grandma’s talking about camp in the letter. And then the performance she was this incredible flamenco dancer. She is dancing all this time. It’s a real postmodern kind of reference to all these cultures clashing on the stage.
HI: So in these theater pieces, you’ve never been on the stage as an actor yourself. You were always directing.
RS: Yeah. I had no interest in being up on the stage [laugh]. I don’t even like at the end where they insist you go out on the stage and bow with the whole cast. Oh god, I hated it. I think I worried about that more than the performance [laugh].
MK: It’s interesting, because you often appear in your own paintings and prints, but not on the stage?
RS: Yeah, right.
HI: If we can go back to your painting series, you started the Montage series from 1985. We saw one of the pictures, Dinner Conversation with Nancy (1983), at the Spencer Museum the day before yesterday. In this series, there seems to be a change of tone from your Minidoka or Diary series. I wonder if you can talk about it.
RS: Yeah. From a formal standpoint, I think I was just interested in changing the paintings from something narrative to something that was kind of splashy, you know. Plus I was accumulating all this stuff. I mean the house I had previous to this one was half the size, but it was similar in that it was like a New York loft. I had it built and it was just a big open space and half of it was my studio. And I think I was being influenced by all the stuff that was building up. I collected this, collected that, you know. And I wanted to use that in the work. So I think that’s a reason for the look of that series of work … It allowed me to bring, let these things interact with each other by being next to each other and let the audience play with that same thing as well.
HI: While you were busy with your stage pieces, you said you were always producing paintings as well and showing them in a gallery. I wonder if you can tell us about your relationship with galleries. Which one is your main gallery, and what has your relationship to dealers been like?
HI: Yes, gallery owners.
RS: Well, whenever I hear about an artist that pays homage to their dealer or credits their dealer or something, I think they’re lying, because I don’t think it’s possible. I’ve had so many bad incidents with my ex-dealers. I mean I could write a book on just that, you know [laugh]. I forced galleries to close for nonpayment. Oh gosh, my head is just filled with million stories about what happened with my dealers. In fact, one of them was a dealer named Polly Friedlander in Seattle who had the hottest gallery in Seattle. And I had several shows with her, big shows there, big galleries and it always sold well. But I seldom got paid my money. I’d never gotten paid everything that she owed me. And one time I won the commission from the Seattle Opera House and another artist in the gallery who was the big star, Alden Mason—he was one of the most well-known painters in Seattle—called me up and said, “Roger, I hear you’ve got the Opera House Commission!” And I said, “Yeah” and we were both with Polly Friedlander Gallery. And he says “That’s great, congratulations.” And I thought he was congratulating me, because I used to be one of his students at the University of Washington. And he said, “Well, now that means that I’ll be paid.” And I said, “What?” And he said Polly Friedlander, the dealer, said that the next money she makes from the gallery will go to Alden, because she owed him so much money. So as it turns out he got all the money from the Opera. I never got paid a penny for that Opera House painting. This is just the way things happen. And then eventually it got so bad and she owed me so much money. I went into the gallery one day and said, “I want to take all my prints out of the gallery before you sell them. Give them back.” And she said, “God. I didn’t want to tell you this.” And I said, “What?” and she said, “They were all stolen.”
RS: Yeah, I said, “What?!” And she says “Yes, it’s just all gone” and on. I was just in shock. “Are you insured?” “No.” She said, “Let me work on it.” She was trying to give me a little hope and I left the gallery. And about three or four months later I’m at an opening and this guy comes up to me and says “I own a lot of your work now.” And he said, “I put in a new boiler in the Freelander Gallery, and she couldn’t pay me so she gave me all your prints as payment.”
HI: So they weren’t really stolen. She just gave them away.
RS: She gave them away. She paid her bills with my prints. So that’s just, you know, I could go on and on.
HI: I see. There is no particular gallery that you consider as your main representative?
RS: Well, it’d have to be Greg Kucera in Seattle, because I’ve been with them for 28 years now since he opened.
HI: I see. They are not that bad, I hope [laugh].
RS: No, although I’ve been suspicious [laugh]. I mean I know so much about how a gallery operates. I know how you could be cheated and that it can’t be traced and can’t be proven.
HI: But in some ways, you need to work with them to show your work.
RS: Yeah, you got to have them. I mean otherwise you’ll never have a show. You never get into collections.
HI: They’re like a necessary evil?
RS: Yeah. See the problem with my relationship with him is that he only represents me in Washington State. So if I sell something in Idaho or Oregon, he’s not part of it. But if he helps organize it, then he makes himself part of it and takes his commission. You know, that’s 50 percent. That’s standard over the country.
HI: My next question was actually about your first solo in New York in 1989. Did you always want to have a show in New York?
RS: That was probably the biggest turning point in my career, because getting a gallery to be represented in New York is probably one of the most difficult things. Although there are a lot of galleries, it is such a closed system. You have to know somebody, you know. Bernice Steinbaum was known for the fact that she represented half women and half people of color. But even then, there’s hardly room in her stable for more than one Asian American, maybe two, because most galleries represent 15 to 20 people and she already had a full stable. But the way it broke for me where everything changed was my friend Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. She and I were jurying grants for the Mid-America Arts Alliance. And there was a former student of mine that was a finalist for one of these fellowships, Edgar Heap of Birds. And I was really pushing him all the way through and I expected Jaune to help me, because she was Native American, but she didn’t. And after the whole process was over, she finally voted on him, just because I came off so strong and supportive of him and he got one. And then Jaune and I went out for dinner and I asked her. I said, “Do you have a problem with Edgar?” And then the story opened up about how the Indian world was divided in half and half of them were Jaune Quick-to-See’s people and the other half were Edgar Heap of Birds’ people, you know. Two were like this [fighting]. And anyway I won’t go into that story, but that’s how Jaune and I became good friends and a part of the dinner conversation was this performance that I wrote called KIKE. You know what “kike” is?
HI: It’s like a derogative way of calling Jewish people.
RS: Yeah, probably the most obscene and racist thing you could say to a Jew is to call him or her a KIKE. But that was the name of my performance piece. And Jaune said, “tell me about it.” I said, again, this comes from real life. I was in a bar one day. One of my former students, female, came up to me and said, “Roger, you know what a Jap is?” And I said, “Yeah, I know what a Jap is” [laugh]. And she said, “No, no, not that. It’s a Jewish American Princess.” All across the country, there was a sort of phenomenon going on about the Jewish American Princess, about how that was a very negative stereotype about Jewish women. And Oprah Winfrey had a special on TV and it was called “JAPs.” As I watched it, never once did she disclaim the term Jap and that it really referred to Japanese people. And so I decided to do a piece about it, based upon what my student had said to me. So I did this performance piece and I used the word KIKE, because KIKE was foulest thing you call a Jewish person.
And so I took K.I…this is too difficult to explain. So I’m skipping it and I don’t expect you to understand it. But KIKE, I took the words that began with those letters and these words are related to immigration. And then there was another row and another row. And in each row the words were changed until at the bottom it referred to America. You know and I said that the bottom line that KIKE stood for “Kiss Ass Immature Kimono Empress.” And I said this is what Japanese American girls call each other.” And I said, “When you hear someone call someone else a KIKE or you hear someone call someone else a Jap, it’s the same thing. Jewish American Princess and Kiss Ass Immature Kimono Empress.” And of course, Jewish people don’t like that, they have no sense of humor about that word. So I told this story to Jaune and she said I got to tell my dealer that. Jaune was already with Bernice Steinbaum.
So I got a phone call in a few days from Bernice. “This is Bernice Steinbaum in New York City” and says that “I understand that one of my artists said that she had a dinner with you the other day” and she said, “You know I’m the mother of all Jews in New York City.” And she said, “Tell me about this piece that you wrote about KIKE.” I think she said, “You Jap.” So I explained just like I did to you right now. And she said, “Would you like to do that in my gallery?” And I said, “Yes, I would love to.” You know, I’m thinking myself, “God, New York City. Quite a few Jewish people New York City,” you know. She said, “I want you to send me slides of your paintings. So I could see what you do.” So I sent the slides of my current work and she wrote back and said, “I want you to do a performance at the opening of your show.” You know, “Wow.” When it rains, it pours.
And so time finally came and I met Bernice ahead of time. We went to close the deal, sign the contract, and meet Miriam Schapiro and some of the stars that were in the gallery. So time came for the performance, I bring two people with me to help and set everything up to do this one performance called KIKE. Some woman comes in and buys a painting, the big painting that’s on the poster. And that is great and I met her and I said, “You’re gonna stay for the performance.” She says, “Oh yes. I’ll stay for that.” And so we set everything up, opening starts. Bernice announces, “OK, we’re going to have a performance.” So I do KIKE. When it’s over, this woman standing next to me, she is Jewish, screamed and passed out. She fainted! She fell on the floor right next to me and they went up and dragged her into Bernice’s office to revive her. And another Jewish woman came up to me and said, “Who on the hell do you think you are! Bringing that kind of story in this…” Screaming out, you know. Another woman was crying so hard, because she was so moved by the performance that felt so bad, because she’s using that term Jap for her own daughter. And of course, everybody else was too. And then the woman that bought the painting changed her mind, didn’t want the painting. Blasted it off. She was going to buy the painting for her son who couldn’t make it to the opening. And he is a CBS producer and he was the first producer in America to do a show on the camps for CBS. His name is Mitchell Cannold. So he never got the surprise birthday present. He owned one of my paintings too, but… So anyway that was the response. But then to Bernice’s credit, she said, “Well, welcome to the gallery.” So [I showed with her for] the next 15 years or so, and then she closed and moved to Miami. So that’s end of that.
HI: You talked about the reception to the performance, but what was the reception to your painting shown at the gallery? Did you get any reviews?
RS: I think she sold three or four paintings… But the response to the performance was just so overwhelming. I mean that’s something that you’ll never forget. You couldn’t write up a script that was more dramatic than that and in the heart of New York City, SoHo at that time. And then from the standpoint of the way that that changed my career, you know.
HI: When you had a show outside New York, did your paintings always sell well?
RS: No. Well, you know, I do a lot of shows in museums, you know, places that are not commercial galleries. They don’t sell well at those places. Commercial galleries usually pick you, because they think they can sell your work. So there’s always been kind of a minimal amount of activity. But I’ve always sold the best in Seattle, because that’s home and I’ve shown there for so long. I think I’ve had about 15 solo shows in Seattle and all of them were not with Kucera. I probably had five one-man shows with Kucera. But I’ve always sold something.
HI: How about your gallery in Kansas?
RS: Well, the one that I just signed on with is Sherry Leedy. I’ll have a show there in a year, but I haven’t had any experiences with her so I don’t know. It’s a new relationship. I’ve had a lot of shows in Kansas City, but the one with Jan Weiner was the longest relationship I had. I probably had six shows with her. And she always sold work.
HI: And the relationship with her was ok?
RS: With Jan Weiner? No [laugh]. It was never ok. You know, the number one thing that happens is that dealers pay whoever they owe money to the longest. Everybody knows that. So usually if you sell a painting, the person that showed before you was probably going to get paid for that. So you just hope that the next person that shows after you will sell something, so you can get paid.
HI: I see. Let me move onto to your installation work in the 90s. Yellow Potluck show near Times Square. Was that the first installation you did?
RS: Um… you’d have to compare the dates of that to the one I did at the Spencer Museum when I had my retrospective.
HI: I think that came a little bit after. That’s 1996, if my memo is correct.
RS: Then, probably [Yellow Potluck] is the first.
HI: How did it happen?
RS: I got a call from Creative Time, which is still in operation in New York City. They do alternative work and is privately funded. And they called and said that at 42nd Street, there’re going to have a big turnover of businesses. They’re cleaning up that whole area of porn shops. Walt Disney was taking over that area, and some other companies too. And they want to celebrate this occasion by having artists come in and doing some kind of installation in the windows of what used to be porn shops, you know. And that they will be up there for five months or something. And they guarantee that something like 2 million people would see your work and they’re going to pay for everything. I mean it was terrific. I think there were 30 of us involved in this. So I agreed to do it and the shop they assigned me to was the oldest porn shop in New York City [laugh]. I was kind of hoping I’d go there and find all these things left over, but they were all cleaned out, you know. So I did this piece called Yellow Potluck which was a just kind of a window display of a situation where a mixed race couple was having a potluck. And this hakujin woman who was coming, because she was invited to the potluck and she has a bag of groceries that she spills—all these things come out and they’re all sort of multi-ethnic, multi-racial types of food, Japanese food made in New York and stuff like that. And then the host is a man with a samurai head, but he’s got Western clothing. Well, you can just look at the pictures…
HI: Can I look at this file? So the other artists were working on window displays in different corners of the street?
HI: So the whole block must have looked really interesting.
RS: Yeah, it was several blocks and then they had a big opening and I wanted to add a performance element to it. And so I got Kuang-Yu Fong, Chinese dancer. She’s a classical Chinese dancer in New York. Her cousin is a famous movie director. So I had her do a Chinese opera dance to some Heavy Metal band.
HI: [looking at the file] Pink Floyd?
RS: Pink Floyd. I hate Pink Floyd [laugh]. So anyway, you could understand what I was trying to do is all this multi-ethnic culture that was represented in the installation. Also for the press opening, I had this dance. So all those pots and pans music “pop, pop, pop, pop,” comes on and then over that Pink Floyd and one of his songs and then she’s doing this classical Chinese dance to that music.
HI: So it was like an installation mixed with performance.
MK: Can I ask you one more question? It’s really a side issue, but at that time “Godzilla” was very active in NYC.
MK: Godzilla, Asian American artist collective. Did you come to be in touch with any members?
MK: Not at all? Not working together or anything.
MK: Because I thought one of the members participated in the same event. So I wondered, but you didn’t.
HI: Since we talked about Yellow Potluck, let me ask you about Relocation Luncheon. This is the installation that you did for your retrospective at the Spencer Museum of Art?
RS: I don’t remember the larger timeframe, but it was an award that I won in Minneapolis. And one of the requirements for the award was that you had to do either a performance or installation in Minneapolis. You could do it at their site. It was called Intermedia Arts. So I wanted to do this piece that felt enclosed like you were in camp. So I had four TVs mounted up high with barbed wire and the fence. And then I used Kimiko reciting grandma’s diary through four weeks in December. Since grandma would talk about the weather, the weather would change in these four TVs up there that had barbed wire. Actually, she said, “It began snowing today” in the diary. So we had to hope that it would snow here in Kansas so that Joel Sanderson could film snow falling on this fake barbed wire that we had set up. And so that’s what it was. There were pieces of sagebrush that I cut when I drove up to Seattle that summer and brought it back so that actually comes from camp site. And it’s on a piece of black tar paper I found at the site as well in Idaho. So that was the centerpiece on this roughly-made table that we found and there was the sense that you were enclosed by barbed wire. So that went through 30 days, rotating through 30 days and then restarted. So that’s what that piece was.
HI: And it was presented as part of the exhibition?
RS: Yeah. The installation was the exhibition.
MK: Was there any music playing behind or it was just Kimiko-san reciting your grandmother’s diary?
RS: I think there was some real low music almost like organ music “zzzzz,” you know. More like a sound than music. And then the grandma’s voice with Kimiko speaking with her accent. And so that was perfect. Just like grandma, you know.
HI: I see. In the 1990s, just as you dealt with the theme of camp in this installation, the theme sort of developed in other series like Yellow No Same, An American Diary, Memories of Childhood, and Minidoka on My Mind. Could you tell us a bit how the theme stayed with you and then you kept going back to the theme and developing it?
RS: Well, in each instance there was a different intention. Some are prints and others are paintings. Like Yellow No Same.
HI: That’s prints, right?
RS: Small prints. An American Diary is the small painting. Memories of Childhood is…
HI: That’s a book that we saw the other day.
RS: Yellow No Same, those small prints, addressed the issue of how America would not distinguish between Japanese and Japanese Americans. So in this case, the format was that Japanese people were all on the outside of the fence and they were not incarcerated, but the Japanese Americans were incarcerated. And it’s a very simple theme. I think the fact that it was so simple made it easy to come up with all these different examples, different kinds of how we see Japanese people and then very American representatives among the Japanese Americans.
MK: Why are they so small?
RS: I don’t know. I wanted to do a lot of them. And I knew that if I did them small, there was a better chance that Mike Sims—my printer—would take this on (Note: Michael Sims is the owner of Lawrence Lithography Workshop, K.C.). Because normally if you tell someone you want to do 12 prints, they’ll just say, “Oh, maybe in your lifetime, you could do 12.” See, but if I said I want to do just one print, then say, “Oh, by the way instead of one big image, there are twelve small ones,” and you know there is a better chance that he’ll do it. So that’s the reason. It just seemed like one of those ideas that there would have to be a lot of them. You wouldn’t want to print one at a time.
MK: Well, actually it works very well on my students. Sometimes, they just don’t pay enough attention to big works, but for small works, they try to see what’s exactly happening.
RS: Yeah. With An American Diary, I wanted to do a real tight show that the images were direct representatives of grandma’s diary entry. And something that was very easy to digest. I wanted this to be an educational opportunity for people that saw the show. So in order to do a lot of diaries, I had to make the images small. And that’s why the paintings were small. So that was An American Diary, something that lent itself to educational programming in which people look at the picture and read the image. There’s no question. And to reach a larger audience it went to all these museums. It’s one of the few shows that I curated myself. I did all the preparation, museums contacting, so the show would travel a big circle around the U.S. And then most of the venues, they got a copy of Memories of Childhood as a thank you gift, which has in turn really sparked a lot of interest like the San Jose Art Museum. I see that is reproduced all the time so they’re using it. Memories of Childhood, which year was that?
HI: 1999. Memories of Childhood was produced as a picture book. How did this idea come about? Did someone ask you to produce a book?
RS: It came from Bernice Steinbaum, New York. She had artists, 15 or 20 artists that were all atypical in that half of them were women and half of them were people of color, who had interesting stories. So she wanted us to try to remember our first 10 memories of life and to make pictures about them. So my first 10 memories were all in camp. And then she had a show and it was a fascinating show, because her artists of color did not have this typical Hollywood Ozzie and Harriet upbringing. So that’s how this came about and then it traveled around the country just like An American Diary did.
HI: In this series or in your relatively recent works, I feel like your references to ukiyo-e sort of faded. It’s still in Pop-like style, but not really American pop-like any more. I was wondering if you can talk about your stylistic shift.
RS: Well, I use whatever I need. Because my interest at a particular time changes, my usage of ukiyo-e comes and goes as well. Obviously, ukiyo-e has a different kind of relevance I could use in the Diary series. But not in something like Memories of My Childhood.
HI: I see. Because here it’s about your personal memory.
RS: Yeah, yeah. So that’s how all images sort of come and go in my work. The style has remained the same, because I’m comfortable working in that kind of a comic book style. But what I actually depict will change. You know, things will come and go. Minidoka on My Mind is probably the most comprehensive series of work that has to do about the camps. I think I’ve done close to 100 paintings in this series. The other day, somebody just asked me this question how many I sold of Minidoka on My Mind. I sold 53 paintings. I have another 25 or 30 that are in my storage unit.
HI: How many are there left in your storage?
RS: I’d say about 30. That one right there is the painting that K-State, the Beach Museum, Aileen Wang. I think that’s the painting that they wanted to buy. But I’m trying to keep together in case I’m asked to do a show of the camp paintings. I need that. So I gave her first rights of refusal.
HI: Here you use this cloud that’s like an East Asian device for a perspective.
RS: Muromachi period. I think I did five versions of that painting. And most of them have clouds like that.
MK: Did you use any particular pigments other than acrylic paints? Like some natural pigments or gold.
RS: You mean to get the gold? It actually has gold in it. Power, powered gold.
MK: Technically and in terms of material you used, it is new to you?
MK: How did you find these new materials?
RS: Because it’s commonly made now. It used to be kind of tricky to make and it was difficult to use. But through advanced processes, now it’s a lot easier. It goes on just like any paint and dries very flat. But it actually has metallic property to it.
HI: You also collected things are related to internment camp. Could you tell us how you started collecting these items?
RS: Well, it started with things that my mom and dad left. So I had a collection already to start with and then because I was buying a lot of things on eBay, whenever something came up about camp, I would bet on it. What interested me most was these yearbooks, because I had the Minidoka yearbooks and I was wondering what the other camp year books look like. So when they first came out, no one knew what they were and so I was paying five dollars for them on eBay. The last one I paid over a thousand dollars for. That’s how prices went up and all of that stuff. So among other things I collected, whenever I saw anything that had to do with camp, I’d buy it. Those yearbooks, I ended up collecting close to 20 of them. And there are only 10 camps. But they did them for two years usually. So I think I had all of them. So as I collected anything that had to do with camp, I just got more and more stuff. I mean it was overwhelming and I didn’t display it. I kept them in boxes. And then I did that show right here in Lawrence.
HI: Shadows of Minidoka?
RS: Yeah. The show that combined the artwork with the collection. I started negotiating with the Smithsonian saying that “Listen, I have all this stuff that comes out of camp and I know you people collect.” And I say, “You’re collecting my artwork and archives of American art” and I said, “Would you be interested in the camp collection?” And they said, “yeah.” And so I sent them a list of what was in it. And they sent three people here and Noriko Sanefuji was one of them and they cataloged everything. One by one, they were here for three days. And they made a list of everything and then they accepted everything on that list. And then I insisted that I get some sort of tax break. Normally I don’t consider that, but this time, you know. It was over a hundred thousand dollars. Tax break would help me. So since that time, my cousin said she has a lot of stuff, too. She just wrote to Noriko and Noriko said, “Yes, we want it.” So it’s good for the family. All that stuff is going to have a place.
MK: We want to go back to the question about your friendship with other artists. We know that you were inspired by Andy Warhol and very closely worked with the choreographer like Marsha. But are there any contemporaneous artists that you’ve developed particular friendship and maybe inspired each other?
RS: Um… [started laughing]…
MK: No? [laugh] Not at all?
RS: No, to tell you the truth, I feel very isolated here…The associations that I’ve had have been one that through correspondence and people like that. I mean probably the other artists that I’m closest to is Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. She’s Native American and knows a lot about camp and all that. But I think kind of people you’re asking me about, I just don’t have the relationship and it’s because I’m in Kansas, you know. And people … just don’t take you seriously if you don’t live in California or New York City. There’s some young woman that wrote a book on Asian American artists. I saw this book years ago in Seattle and there’re a hundred artists, Asian American and I wasn’t on the list.
MK: Do you remember the book title?
RS: I can’t remember, because somebody else asked me about that. Actually, someone brought it up to me and said, “I was looking at this book. I expected to find your name in it and you’re not among the hundred most well-known Asian American artists.” In fact, it might have been Japanese American, which made it even worse [laugh]. But my point is that living in the Midwest has this disadvantage in regards to those kinds of things.
HI: Has it ever occurred to you that you should move to other places like California or New York?
RS: There’s also an advantage to it as well, though. And I essentially live in Seattle for two or three months out of the year. During summer and Christmas. I’m usually up there. I could go up there and access that scene. And there are a lot of people who think I live in Seattle.
HI: Just like I did [laugh].
RS: Yeah. I don’t know if I could really draw benefits from being here like if I were in a scene like New York City. But you know, a couple of years ago I was named Artist-in-Residence at New York University, the Asian/Pacific/American Institute. You know, Jack Tchen was the director. It’s supposed to go to an Asian American artist living in New York City. They gave it to me because my wife has an apartment in New York. And they know that because they tried to borrow it several times. So just because of that, I was able to provide them with a local address in Manhattan. So I was able to make a lot of money and I had a show and a catalog. I think I gave you the catalog, Prints of Pop (& War) (2013). So, from a political standpoint, being able to use my wife’s address in New York City gave me these benefits to be called an Asian American artist in New York City. So that had to do with address. It’s really stupid. And most people think of me as a Seattle artist. But no advantages living here other than peace and solitude. I say that cynically but in truth that’s valuable. Because I don’t know whether I would like being in San Francisco and getting calls “Would you be at this show? Be in that show? Would you lecture here? lecture there? You got to go to so and so’s opening, because you’re friends,” you know. I don’t have any Asian American friends here that have shows. None.
HI: So you don’t have to be bothered.
RS: Exactly. So what’s happened over a period of time is I’ve begun to shut down. You know, because there’s been so little activity. I stop locally. There’s only one event that I go to, and that the art auction at the Lawrence Arts Center. That’s it. Even though they got somebody every week. And they’ll do things like “will you join our Imagination Society? Costs a thousand dollars a year. You get all these perks.” You know, the Arts Center is a pretty big deal. And I said, “no, thank you.” And then they said, “Well, we’ll make you an honorary member.” Just so that they could try to get you there. But I still don’t show up. There are times when I say “I’ll go” and then I don’t go. So I’ve hit rock bottom. But at this stage in my life, that’s a positive, because I don’t need those other kinds of distractions, openings and all that kind of stuff. I don’t know many artists in this town even though there are hundreds.
MK: Well, I should make another appointment with you to ask this question, but as you know, I’m very interested in Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani. I think you had a very close friendship with him. Was it kind of exceptional for you?
RS: Well, I knew Jimmy before anybody, because of eBay. So when I got to meet him… You know, every time I went to New York, he would be on Washington Square which is real close to our apartment. And so I visited him and then one day he wasn’t there and I thought he died, because he was in his seventies and it was winter and all that. So I thought he had died and then all of a sudden, one day I got this tube of drawings that belonged to him and Linda Hattendorf—she is the director of the movie that she eventually shot (The Cats of Mirikitani, 2006)—said that she met Jimmy and Jimmy said to send me these drawings to take care of for him. So she sent them to me. I have all these drawings of Jimmy, all of a sudden. She said the reason he’s not in Washington Square anymore is he’s in the Korean food store in SoHo. I knew where that was. So the next time I went to New York, I went to see him. And he had just been mugged. His back was messed up and he was cut up and beat up and everything. So I was talking to him and I looked up and I saw somebody with a video camera shooting us across the street. I assumed that must be Linda Hattendorf and so I waved and she waved and came over, introduce herself. And then all three of us went out for miso soup. That’s when I first met Linda. She said that she lived just a block away from Jimmy and she was thinking about maybe making a movie about him. So every time I went to New York, she, Jimmy and I would interview in some restaurant that… Jimmy was filthy. He looked like a wad of grease like this. And people in restaurant, they don’t want him in there. So it was kind of touchy. But Linda found places that no customer’s in there [laugh]. So anyway eventually 9/11 happened. She took Jimmy into her apartment and her apartment is small, studio apartment, no bedroom. And she put a curtain up in the middle, “Jimmy, that’s your half and this is my half.” Of course, that’s it. You’ve seen the movie?
MK: Yes. Several times. I’d love to hear more about it, but we should move on, too.
HI: Yes. I’d like to ask you about contemporary art in Japan. I read somewhere that you went to see Takashi Murakami’s show, the one he curated at Japan Society in 2005 (Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, 2005). But before that exhibition, I wonder if you have any thoughts or feelings about Pop Art that became quite popular in the Japanese art scene in the 1990s.
RS: Um… When I think of contemporary Japanese art, I naturally think of Murakami and just that kind of attitude. I mean, if anything is to interest me about what they’re doing it would be that. And I see it as a kind of a parallel. And the thing about parallels is that they never meet. And so that’s sort of what I think about that work. It’s just culturally alien to me. Even though 999 people out of a thousand are going to say, “I bet you were influenced by that,” because there are certain overlaps between what he does and what I do. But I see they are so different, even though the shapes and forms may be similar, intentions… [are completely different]. Murakami is like, he’s a corporation. Corporations think differently, you know. And they do things for different purposes. So I really don’t spend any time. Occasionally I’ll reach and use one of these images and I’ll do that just to be kind of nasty, you know, just to be arrogant or whatever or to invite someone to ask me why I did that. And I could just brush it off and say “No reason” and to put it aside, at least from my standpoint.
HI: I see. And what about the Little Boy exhibition that you saw in 2005?
RS: Well, actually that’s what I was talking about. It was that Little Boy show and my response to Little Boy and all those images.
HI: Oh, I thought you were talking about Murakami’s work in general, but you were actually talking about…
RS: Well, I was also talking about Murakami in general, too. I mean I’ve put all that together. I actually own a Murakami, the sculpture piece. This is one of those payback things my dealer in Seattle, Greg Kucera [laugh]. He was on the mailing list of Peter Norton, who’s a famous collector. And every year Norton would commission a famous artist to do a piece of sculpture and then he would give it to 200 people on his mailing list. Merry Christmas. So he got Murakami at a very young age and Greg Kucera, my dealer, who had never heard of Murakami—but it’s a Japanese name, right?—called me up and said, “Hey Roger, I got something, Murakami, blah blah blah.” I said, “Oh?” And I said, “I don’t know who that is.” You know, I knew he was [laugh]. And he said, “Well, you could have it if you want it. It will be here next time you come up.” So next time I was up there, I went right to the gallery and got this piece, which is now worth a tidy sum of money.
HI: Little Boy exhibition also had a historical approach. But I think that approach is very different from yours.
RS: Yeah, yeah.
HI: This question is a little bit related to the previous one. Your use of motifs of contemporary Japanese pop culture like Hello Kitty or Pikachu.
RS: Hello Kitty and Pikachu are two images that are not Murakami. They represent something entirely different. They’re more of a rightful example of American images, you know, whether it be Walt Disney or whatever. And so I feel a little differently about them. I did a sort of homage to … let’s see … I did this big painting. It’s called Hello Kitty and in the middle is me working on a painting of Hello Kitty that’s filled with all the other Hello Kitty, you know, airplanes and all that. And my idea there was nothing really political except for the fact that I was in the middle of the painting. I think it was more positive than anything. It was like giving an approval or allowing it to come into my world. And Pikachu, I used that in a big painting that recently was shown in Cuba at the National Museum. It belongs to the Bronx Museum and it’s called The Rape of Nanking. It’s a huge painting. It’s 6 feet by 18 feet. And it consists of five panels you put together, and in the main panel is a Japanese woman being raped. Oh, excuse me. A Chinese woman being raped by a Japanese man. That’s why it’s The Rape of Nanking. And right over where the sex organs are, his penis and her vagina, there’s Pikachu. It covers it up, so you can’t see it. All I knew was that’s a pretty volatile image. So anyway, and then the rest of the panel was typical Chinese woman and typical Japanese sword … I think there was another male, but anyway that was the painting.
HI: And you yourself start appearing in quite many of your works. I wonder if you can discuss Shimomura Crossing Delaware (2010).
RS: That was just the idea, imagine how different history would have to be if George Washington was Japanese American. I mean, it’s just so inconceivable. I mean, where do you go to make that happen? How far back do you have to go to make that happen? Obviously at some point Japan will have to take over America so that Shimomura has an opportunity to do something as significant as crossing the Delaware, assuming the purpose would be the same. In other words, it was just a play on all of those events, because George Washington was so deeply embedded in this country. Imagine if a few things in history could have been changed, there could have been a Japanese American and not George Washington. So that’s all of that.
HI: Were you thinking of a painting by Robert Colescott? He did one on a similar theme (George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware, 1975)
RS: Yeah, yeah. So did Roy Lichtenstein. There were several artists, well-known artist that dealt the same thing.
HI: You maintain your interest in racial stereotyping and discrimination, which became like a new issue with 9/11, I think.
RS: With what?
HI: With 9/11. It gained a sort of new relevance with that event and you make it into your work, such as Not Pearl Harbor, 2012. Could you talk a bit about that?
RS: Not Pearl Harbor was inspired by the fact that as soon as the attack on the World Trade Center happened, everybody talked about Pearl Harbor. It made me very uncomfortable, you know, made me feel like, “Oh, here we go again.” It’s starting all over, just when you think that we’re coming to some degree of understanding, a resolution, it’s starting all over again. So I did a couple of small paintings right after it happened that were solicited by a gallery in Washington D.C. that wanted to do a show about it two days after it happened. That inspired me to do that big painting. So the painting is roughly divided in half and in the right half is the Japanese and Japanese American response to the Trade Center and the left is the Middle Eastern response to the attack on the Trade Center and in the bottom you have the World Trade Center actually going up in flames and the smoke goes in both directions like this. And one side you have Japanese zeros coming in and then you have the American airliner coming in the other side. So it was sort of a warning not to be so quick about saying that the two events were the same thing, because you could see it coming all over again that Muslim people were going to be the new Japanese Americans. Of course, that came to be true. A lot of the paintings that I’m doing now have to do exactly with that. [Pointing to a painting on the wall] That one in the upper left hand corner with Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe and the Muslim woman in the guard tower in the back is going to be in a show. That’s going to travel for three years around the country.
HI: And now that you mentioned Marilyn Monroe, I was wondering about the Great American Muse series.
RS: Great American Muse? Yeah, this is a really difficult one to talk about because of it’s so far from a lot of the previous paintings. And it’s sort of mutated into something else now and I don’t know what that something else is. I haven’t really developed it yet. But Great American Muse came from the idea of Tom Wesselmann and the Great American Nude series that he did with the elements of an American female nude in a bathroom with usually one or two other objects, whether it be a table or a toilet or whatever and then a piece of artwork. And the viewer would try to bring meaning to those three things, the relationships of the juxtapositions. And so that’s what I wanted to do with my paintings, to bring in three elements like that. What happens when you have a Japanese American woman next to a radio, next to a Roy Lichtenstein painting of a fighter plane, you know. And so I kept repeating three different things. And then all of a sudden, I started adding. “Why am I limiting myself to three things? Using maybe four or even five things to make it more complex.” And then pretty soon the references that these objects made were not to war or not to historic events. So all of a sudden these paintings became something else.
That’s when I had my show in New York, which I named Minidoka and Beyond, because there are a lot of camp type imagery in it. And now I don’t know where I am at except I just find reason to keep making paintings of them. All the titles are so screwed up now [laugh]. And that’s why I’ve sort of stopped doing them temporarily and I’m trying to take a deep breath and catalogue what I have and then decide where I’m going to go from there. But my next show is going to be in Kansas City and I think I’m just going to get all of those paintings that are 24 by 24 and …you know, it’s like that painting of Raphael and the woman undressing in front of Liz Taylor. I mean you could draw all sorts of conclusions from that and that’s fine. But I don’t know if I have my own [laugh]. I think that’s what’s missing. I usually have my own sort of interpretation, but I don’t feel like I’m getting there from these…
HI: I see. So that’s unusual for you.
RS: Yeah. So I’m not quite comfortable with them.
HI: That’s interesting. For an artist with such a long career, you can still be unsure. I guess you have talked about this a little bit already, but I think it’s related to the next question. After this long and prolific career, you are still as productive as ever. I wonder where your energy comes from.
RS: Maybe, it’s grandma. Everything you do, good or bad, would reflect upon the entire Japanese race. Maybe, you know, I don’t know. In some ways, I hate to admit that’s true, because I think I would never say that to my own kids. I think that’s damaging. But if you do buy into it… I mean I’ve always found reason to put that first and my life was to be prolific to leave a mark … I don’t know. I don’t have a good answer for that.
HI: That’s a very interesting answer. One of the last questions. This is a question we always asked our interviewees. In your long artistic career, what have you valued most?
RS: Valued most? You mean… um… talk a little bit more about that?
HI: I guess I didn’t do a very good job translating the Japanese question into English here.
RS: I mean in some ways it’s so broad. In my entire career, what have I valued most?
MK: What is the most important thing for you as an artist? Well, it’s still very broad, but…
RS: Maybe, it’s the opportunity to say how you perceive the world. You know, I feel as though I’ve been allowed the opportunity to do that and not in a way that’s easily understood. But someone will have to make a commitment to my work in order to understand how I perceive the world. So that makes the artist kind of a magician in a way, in that you can manipulate how other people may see your work, think about your work and all that. And that’s a pretty powerful position, to be able to do that. It’s also kind of enjoyable in a way. There is also a part of it that’s not to be taken really seriously. So I like the fact that it’s sort of multifaceted. There are a lot of reasons. There’s a range of reasons why I feel like I’ve done it, but they all turn around and it all starts with this piece of art. And I’ve always said that if it’s good art, it really keeps growing, it grows into a lot of parts of the viewer’s psyche or mind. I think it ties in with my teaching career. I’m still in touch with a lot of students who used me as a touchstone for things, you know, they’re living all around the country. And that’s probably more important association to me to have rather than traditional good friends, as I know I’ve made some effect upon people’s lives.
HI: I see. Here comes our very last question. What are you planning to do in your next phase?
RS: As I said earlier, I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I met sort of a point where I sort of feel capable of doing almost anything I want to, whether or not the commitment to that idea or the curiosity about that idea is strong enough or interesting enough. The only thing I know for sure is that I’ll do something [laugh]… create more stuff, need to get a bigger storage space. No, I mean I’m renting a storage space upon 6th street. My printer, Lawrence Lithography Workshop, is closing the shop. So it means that I won’t be doing any more prints with them, but in a way I’m kind of relieved, because that’s one less thing to focus upon. Maybe, a thought came to me about doing a big painting. I’ve done a lot of big paintings. But I haven’t done a lot of big paintings by hand and I’ve gone through a process to do—not billboard, well, I’ve done billboards—murals on metal like the one in Seattle. The thought has occurred to me to do one big comprehensive painting before I die. But I think “Well, what a shame if I died before it’s done,” you know, with all that wasted energy and effort.
HI: So you might not do it?
MK: Or you cannot die [laugh].
HI: I guess that makes it a nice ending.
RS: Yeah, with the word “die” [laugh].
HI/MI: Or “cannot die.” Thank you very much.