Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience

On May 9, join us for a special free screening at JANM of Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience. This documentary, a co-production between JANM’s Watase Media Arts Center and KCET for the series ARTBOUND, explores how the World War II American concentration camp experience impacted the lives of five Japanese American artists and designers and ultimately sent them on trajectories that led to their changing the face of American culture with their immense talents.

From the hand-drawn typeface on the cover of The Godfather to Herman Miller’s biomorphic coffee table, the work of Japanese American designers including Ruth Asawa, George Nakashima, Isamu Noguchi, S. Neil Fujita, and Gyo Obata permeated postwar culture. While these second-generation Japanese American artists have been celebrated, less-discussed is how their WW II incarceration—a period of great hardship and discrimination—had a powerful effect on their lives and art.

We talked to Akira Boch, Director of the Watase Media Arts Center, about the process of making this documentary.

JANM: Did you learn anything surprising or new about the featured artists that you didn’t know before?

Akira Boch: I only had a basic knowledge of each of these artists before jumping into this project. I knew the highlights—that Fujita created The Godfather logo and legendary jazz album covers, Noguchi made the Akari lanterns and lots of public sculptures, Asawa made her iconic hanging wire sculptures, Obata was the architect behind America’s most celebrated sports stadiums (and JANM of course), and Nakashima was famous for his live-edge wood furniture. Delving deeply into their lives made me realize that each of them lived boldly, and had lives of great adventure. They lived with curiosity and without fear—which made each of them a great artist whose work we’re still celebrating today. I hope that we were able to capture some of that and do justice to their lives in our film.

JANM: How long did it take to produce the documentary?

AB: The idea for the film came from an article written by Alexandra Lange for Curbed. I was first contacted about working on the project in September of last year. I immediately started researching and making contact with potential interviewees. We shot the film primarily in October and November of 2018. Editing started shortly after that.

JANM: What was the most challenging thing about making the documentary?

AB: The most challenging thing was creating a structure for the film that told the stories of five main characters and tying them all together thematically. Ensemble stories are difficult to tell because a limited amount of screen time needs to be shared equally. We wanted to be sure that the audience got a good sense of each of the artists, their struggles and accomplishments.

JANM: Was there a location you visited while making the documentary that stands out in your mind?

AB: We shot this film primarily in San Francisco, New York City, and New Hope, Pennsylvania. I think shooting in New Hope was the highlight in terms of locations. There, we were able to see the magnificent compound—utopia, if you will—that George Nakashima created in the woods of Pennsylvania. He was the architect of all of the structures on the property, which includes a couple of houses, a work studio, a showroom, a wood storage barn, and a guest house. Because he had worked as an architect and lived in Japan for several years, he embraced Japanese aesthetics. So, it was amazing to see those Japanese architectural influences in the middle of an American forest. And of course, the buildings were full of his gorgeous furniture.

JANM: What did you learn by making the documentary?

AB: All that I learned about the extraordinary lives of the artists that we featured could not be included in the one-hour time limitation of this film. That’s why the final piece is so packed with fascinating material. For the audience, I hope this film is a jumping-off point for further investigation because each of these artists led such rich, complex lives. In terms of life lessons gleaned from these artists, I’d say that the combination of persistence, hard work, curiosity, and courage can lead to a remarkable existence.

This screening is free, but RSVPs are recommended using this link. A Q&A with the filmmakers and some of the people interviewed for the film and a light reception will follow the screening. If you’re not able to make the screening, starting May 15, the film will be broadcast in Southern California on KCET and available for streaming on kcet.org/artbound.


A Post, In Gratitude

In true clichéd fashion, the last ten weeks have flown by. As I sit in the same desk, at the same borrowed computer, within the same borrowed space of the Frank H. Watase Media Arts Center wherein I wrote my very first blog post, I can’t believe how quickly this internship has come and gone.

In ten short weeks, I learned the ins and outs of media art construction, from working a camcorder (make sure your input mics are working, your indoor/outdoor light settings are correct, and you remember to press record) to the sometimes tedious essentials of editing on Final Cut Pro (Cross-Dissolve-Copy is one of the transition favorites among the staff) to the joys of a finished DVD and the triumph involved in pressing the PLAY button.

But more than this skill set, I feel overjoyed with the life lessons and friendships I am taking away from the experience.  As I’ve mentioned many times over, I’m an English and Asian American Studies major.  Living with girls majoring in Communications, Sociology, Art History, and Black Studies, the running joke for the last two years is that once we graduate, we’ll all have housing consisting of cardboard boxes with varying levels of finesse and artistic value, depending on the individual.  As graduation time grows near, that joke has become less and less funny…

However, as my time as the 2011 Media Arts Intern comes to a close, I leave with my head held high.  More valuable than the new skill set I’ve acquired and refined, I’m pleased with personal enlightenment I can take away.  For years, I had resigned myself to the fact that if I wanted to devote my life to Japanese American history and the richness it holds, it would have to be a side hobby, hidden behind a steady, if less satisfying, “normal” job.  My time at the Museum has shown me that one can find a career, and fulfillment exploring history, edifying others, and serving the community.  It’s opened my eyes to the opportunities, and wonderful people available in the field.

I’ve been amazed by not only the wealth of compassion, kindness, and friendship the Museum has surrounded me in, but also the validation in knowing that there are so many others that share my passion, and have managed to make a career of it.   All in all, my short time at the Museum has been life changing.  As I write my final blog posting for the summer, I just want to share my extreme appreciation and thankfulness.  I loved every second here at the Museum, and know it will be an experience I’ll never forget.

Thank you all, and enjoy the rest of your summer.

Best,

Alyctra Matsushita

Media Arts Getty Intern, 2011

Getty Intern Alyctra and her amazing supervisor, John Esaki, hanging out poolside. Photo courtesy of Clement Hanami

Dancing for Dango

As a child, Little Tokyo was my stomping grounds.  My mom was a member of the Little Tokyo Library, and it felt like every other weekend we made the hot car ride into LA just so I could sit in the back of her meetings with my coloring books.  After the meetings, my brother and I loved playing on the huge two-rock sculpture in front of the JACCC. We frequented the JANM, visiting the Children’s Courtyard so we could see our names in the stone.  But as we grew older and our schedules grew busier, the family visits in to LA eventually slowed.

Even though we were no longer in Little Tokyo, my brother and I still had shreds of our heritage to cling to.  As children, we both attended culture camps, but closer to home, in Gardena.  We tried to learn the language; I was sent to Gardena Buddhist Church every Saturday for a few grueling hours, trying to remember my rus from my ros, while my brother tried his luck at Gardena Valley JCI.  Try as we might, the language evaded us year after year.  Although we may have blundered while talking to Bachan, the one thing we were really able to get behind was Japanese carnivals.

While memories of those Saturdays may be a bit sour, I still look back fondly on the weekend carnivals that only summer could bring.   Almost immediately after school ended, JCI carnival came to town.  I remember it as the first taste of dango for the summer, the only Saturday my basketball coach ever let us off the hook for practice, and the only place for Pachinko.  Not to mention the bake sale, Jingle Board, and the nice man on the second floor whose art class let you make one free bracelet (and would only smile if you went back to make a second free bracelet on Sunday).

My other childhood tradition came towards the end of the summer.  Always the last of the season, Gardena Buddhist Church’s Obon would be the final chance for dango for a good nine months.  As a child, Gardena Obon was where I’d see my friends all dressed up (those who were more organized in kimonos whose obis left them breathless, while the less formal of us wore hopi coats and flip flops).  We’d dance the night away to the beat of the taiko drum, shuffling our feet in the chalk lines, only stopping with a final gassho before running to the Bounce House and Dime Toss in the parking lot.

For years, these memories were forgotten, pushed aside by the seemingly more pressing matters of school: “Where did I put my copy of The Woman Warrior; I need it for my 122 paper!”  “I’ve run out of money on my copy card already?”  “What days am I working this week…?”  But with school on hold and my current daily commute in to Little Tokyo, I can’t help but be reminded of my roots.  That, and a little help from my supervisor…

For the last eight weeks, my wonderful supervisor John has been practicing the traditional Obon dances.  Even though he’s been to carnival a million times over, he’s never actually danced in one.  This summer, I’ve had the privilege of watching him knock it off his bucket list.

Almost every week, John told me about how his dancing was coming along.  Of how many songs there were, the difficulties of synching hand motions with dance steps on top of trying not to trip over the children running around that seemed to pick it up so quick.  He even set up a tutorial session with an instructional DVD one day with some other Media Arts workers. The gang stood transfixed in front of the monitor, mimicking the steps, usually only a half a second or so too slow.

But John has improved leaps and bounds.  This summer, he’s gone to not one, but several Obons, all over California.  He’s seen and heard the different styles of Northern and Southern California, and sampled all the dango in between.

So I’d say for us both, our summers have culminated in a throw back to our roots, a nod towards our culture.  For the first time in years, I’ve returned to my stomping grounds.  This summer at Obon, I was amazed at all the familiar faces I saw.  While my presence had lapsed, others from my past sill managed to attend the tradition of Obon.  Beyond that, I saw many unfamiliar faces, of excited children who were making their own memories about the wonder of Obon.  But, most surprisingly, standing in as my symbol of where my past and present met, I saw my supervisor John, dancing in his first season of Obon, to the beat of the taiko drum.

–Alyctra

John at Obon



Evan Kodani, 2010 Getty intern

Getty Summer Internships at JANM

If any of the following make you flee in terror then this internship is not for you:

  • Air conditioning
  • Your own edit workstation equipped with Final Cut Studio, Photoshop, dual monitors, and a furry tiger hat with ears.
  • Socializing with other people your age
  • Socializing with other people not your age
  • Free admission to many museums
  • Producing your own work and making contributions that matter
  • Immersion into Japanese American history and culture (and food)
  • Casual field trips and networking opportunities
  • Getting paid real money instead of Monopoly money

Still here? Then apply to be the Museum’s Getty Media Arts Intern for this summer.(2 other positions open in Curatorial and Graphic Arts/Production)

Deadline to apply: May 6.Evan Kodani, 2010 Getty intern

For requirements and more: http://www.janm.org/jobs/

Evan Kodani was the 2010 Getty Media Arts Intern.He recently graduated from UCLA with a degree in communications.The internship was, by far, one of his most valuable college experiences, improving his skills in editing, videography, and understanding of what a real work environment feels like.It also got him a girlfriend.