07 March 2012

East to West : American Painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi

America or military school was the course I had set my heart on when a boy of thirteen. My parents did not approve of my choice, but beeing a spoiled only child, I aimed for the stars, not really expecting to have them. Father thought I was too young to live alone far from home, and the military school held no appeal for him since the Russo-Japanese war was then in progress.

Nevertheless, and much to my surprise, he finally gave his consent to my coming to America all alone. I thought of all the exotic and wonderful things I would see, and when the time came to go I left without sentimentalities or tears and with a brave adventurous spirit.
I had no definite plans when I arrived on the West Coast in September 1906, a vague idea that I should like to stay two or three years, learn to speak English fluently and be able to translate English into Japanese. Then all polished, return home.

My dream of America and actually seeing America were two totally different things. I thought nothing of money, expecting to pick it up practically from the streets.
Unable to speak but a few monosylables in English, with no friends or any experience it was far from easy at first. I realized more than anything that I had to earn a living before I could go to school to learn English. I got a job working in a railroad in Spokane, through the good services of the hotel manager at a Japanese hotel where I was staying in Seattle.
After two days of sweeping out the round house, carrying buckets of water and sleeping on the wooden bunk without any mattress I went scuttling back to Seattle. This was my first real smack of America and it left me shattered, I began to long for home, but I had been so brave when I first landed here, that I had sent all the money I had back to father and told him that I was in a country where there was lots of money and so I didn't need it. I was stranded and so blue. I would have gone back if I had any funds after being here for only a month.
I've never forgotten the feeling of sitting day in day out in the harbor watching the big boats go by and eating peanuts. It was the first taste of peanuts I had in this country, and I've never eaten them since.

-Excerpt from "East to West" by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, published in the Magazine of Art (February 1940)

Yasuo Kuniyoshi was born in 1893 in Okayama, Japan. At the age of thirteen he came to the United States and a year later began studying at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design. In 1910 he moved to New York and took courses at the National Academy of Design, the Independent School of Art, and the Art Students League, where he studied with Kenneth Hayes Miller. He was married to fellow artist, Katherine Schmidt from 1919 to 1932, and after traveling throughout Europe, they moved to the Woodstock, New York in 1927 and took part in the Woodstock Art Colony.

Kuniyoshi studied and later taught at the Art Students League summer school there. By 1930, he had established himself as an internationally known painter and graphic artist. In New York City he taught at the Art Students League, the New School for Social Research, and served as the first president of the Artists' Equity Association from 1947 to 1950. Kuniyoshi was active in social organizations, especially Japanese American organizations, such as the Japanese American Committee for Democracy, and took an active role in the war effort during World War II. Yasuo Kuniyoshi died in 1953 and was survived by his second wife Sara Mazo who preserved the legacy of his work.

View the Yasuo Kuniyoshi papers at the Archives of American Art
Visit the Yasuo Kuniyoshi Museum in Okayama

Portrait of Yasuo Kuniyoshi in his studio by Bumpei Usui, 1930.