Arnie Fujita: The Art of Living

His drawings of fish and woodcarvings of birds made him beloved in the community, but that’s only part of the story. He’s also an 80-year-old Japanese American who enjoys playing flamenco guitar.

Possessing a keen eye—and ear—for cultural beauty, Arnie Fujita is the multi-talented artist whose koinobori design was selected for use at the Japanese American National Museum’s 2006 Courtyard Kids Festival. (The koinobori is a traditional carp-shaped flag or kite typically flown in Japan to celebrate Children’s Day.)

Originally designed 50 years ago for the rededication of Shonien, the Japanese Children’s Home of Southern California, Fujita’s koinobori image uses bold brush strokes and negative space to depict a dramatic and engaging carp—a perfect symbol connecting the tradition in Japan of Boy’s Day to the modern-day celebration of children.

Modest about the appreciation shown for his art, he gives much credit to the cultural diversity he was exposed to during his youth in Los Angeles. His experiences with the city’s variety of ethnic groups continue to influence him today.

“I never forgot the sounds of the cantor singing in the synagogue when I was growing up in Boyle Heights,” Fujita says. “I used to go to Nishihongwanji Buddhist Temple (which later became the home of the Japanese American National Museum) to hear the Buddhists chanting, then to Union Church to hear the hymns, and often to the synagogue in Boyle Heights to listen to the cantor.”

“The sounds I absorbed in Little Tokyo and Boyle Heights have a connection to the sounds of the flamenco, and they inspired me,” Fujita says. “I found an old Cordoba guitar from Spain on Sunset Boulevard and restored it about two years ago, and have been playing ever since.”

Before reinventing himself as a musician, Fujita was also highly regarded for carving wooden bird and animal pins that were meaningful, life-affirming symbols during the painful days of Japanese American incarceration in wartime concentration camps. The pins have been cherished by many for decades.

The artist began crafting the pins as a tribute to his mother, who made beautiful replicas of birds from egg crates by copying pictures from the Encyclopedia Britannica in Poston, Arizona, during World War II. What started as a personal tribute led Fujita to nurture a new generation of bird pin makers who took his classes and have collected his works.

Fujita’s creative spirit has since found a new outlet through flamenco, which he calls an “accessible” art form. “You have to watch the dancers’ feet when you play the flamenco guitar,” Fujita says, revealing his artist’s attention to detail and devotion to the craft.

Retired from his 45-year career as a graphic designer and advertising executive, Fujita remains something of a local icon in the Japanese American community. Through his creativity, he has deepened and enriched our understanding of history and culture while showing that life itself is a truly fine art.

November 2006

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