Discovering an Artist: Kristine Kim and the Henry Sugimoto exhibition

My first introduction to the work of Henry Sugimoto came when I was still an undergraduate student. It was in 1994 at the San Jose Museum of Art during the run of the exhibition, The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942-1945 organized by the Japanese American National Museum. I found the artwork on view both moving and startling at the same time. The images carried an emotional impact that told me so much more about the Japanese American experience during World War II, than mere facts and figures. As a student majoring in Art History, I was stunned by what this exhibition suggested—that there was a thriving and significant group of artists within the Japanese American community. The history of the pioneering Issei generation acknowledged the tremendous odds that they overcame, the prejudice they endured, and their fierce determination and work ethic. But nowhere before had I read about the artistic and creative pursuits of Issei. Thus, The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942-1945 not only opened the publicís eyes to the tremendous work that these artists did during their incarceration, but also hinted at the thriving community of artists that existed before the war.

Seven years later, in 2001, I was honored to serve as lead curator on the first major retrospective exhibition on Henry Sugimoto. This was the opportunity to make known to the wide public that Sugimoto was not just an artist in camp, but an artist who chose to use his skills to interpret the experiences of those incarcerated during the war. It was the chance to show the extraordinary work that he did before the war—in France, Mexico and throughout California—as well as in the postwar period. One of the most satisfying aspects of the project is to hear people say that they do not understand why they had never before heard of an artist as remarkable as Sugimoto. While we could lament the fact that he was not better appreciated during his lifetime, it is gratifying to know that we have played a part in exposing his work to others, even now. Once people see his paintings, we do not have to do much to convince them of the contribution he made to the history of art and to the Japanese American community.

The fact that the Crocker Art Museum, the oldest museum west of the Mississippi, is hosting the exhibition, Henry Sugimoto: Painting an American Experience says something about the impact that this project has had on the public. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to reach even more audiences during its run at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. Their staff and docents have welcomed us to their institution, collaborating with us on including Historical Guides in the exhibition. These Guides will work in tandem with their Docents to present Henry Sugimoto: Painting an American Experience from both a historical and art historical perspective. If you are unable to join us in Sacramento, the next best thing are the video documentary and companion book to the exhibition where you can be moved, as I have been, by the extraordinary vision of Henry Sugimoto.

Kristine Kim is Associate Curator at the Japanese American National Museum. She has worked on several exhibitions for the National Museum, most recently organizing the exhibition Henry Sugimoto: Painting an American Experience which opened at the Japanese American National Museum in March 2001.

January 2002

For more information about Henry Sugimoto, please visit the National Museum's collection guide. From the collection guide, you can view a fuller biography and background, as well as see his paintings.

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