A Daughter’s Remembrance
THE EPILOGUE BY MADELEINE SUMILE SUGIMOTO FROM HENRY SUGIMOTO: PAINTING AN AMERICAN EXPERIENCE:
Often people have remarked that I must know a great deal about art because my father was an artist. Candidly and ruefully, I have to admit that is not so. Our conversations were more mundane, those of a daughter and her parent.
After having been uprooted from our home in Hanford, California, and moved about from Fresno Assembly Center to two concentration camps in Arkansas, Jerome and Rohwer, we settled in New York City, a longtime hope my father was finally able to realize. Through all those years, home was where we were together as a family. In New York, my father enjoyed exploring the city. Our outings—walks, picnics, ferryboat rides, and community activities—are all happy memories. My father was an avid baseball fan, and so the joys and sorrows of games lost or won by his favorite Mets were an ongoing topic of conversation. My father came to my rescue as I prepared for my State Regents exam, struggling with the difficult subject of geometry. Patiently, he helped me work through weeks of solving those formidable problems.
There was always the studio, and there was always our home. Both occupied space in our apartment. The studio was where my father carried out his work before joining us at the end of the day for our time together as a family.
I can characterize my father’s approach to work—discipline, effort, and commitment. For most of us who work outside the home, there is an externally imposed schedule that structures our workday. Being curious, I asked him about how he set about doing his work. To my amazement, he outlined the plan for each day of the week. As he only painted by daylight, on rainy days he would make frames or size canvases or work on his linoleum or woodcuts, remaining in the studio throughout the day except when my mother would call him for his lunch.
In the 1980s, a few friends were invited to view the large mural commissioned for the Wakayama city hall. Before those present, my father acknowledged that “Susie made it possible for me to paint.” It impressed me how he valued my mother’s sustaining devotion to him, that theirs was an enduring and understanding partnership.
The formality of my father’s words and carriage, if an occasion so demanded, harkened back to his early upbringing in Japan; yet he could enjoy a hearty laugh, tell humorous stories or jokes, or get up to sing a song at a party. My father had assimilated cultural mores from his travels around the world and his years of study in France, so there was a delightful blend of East and West in his relationships.
There was a sense of enthusiasm and purpose to his work, which spanned most of the twentieth centruy. To see him, frail yet energized, standing before the easel with palette in hand, applying sure brush strokes to canvas, is a cherished image. My father, even in his last years, told me that to be able to paint “even for fifteen minutes makes me feel alive.”
My father had both a strong and gentle nature. His personal resources were all that he felt and experienced in his life, and his abiding faith in God. I believe these animated his spirit and enabled his lifelong creativity.
And so—even from afar—he greets us all as we view his work.
For more information about Henry Sugimoto, please visit the National Museum’s online collection at janm.org/collections/henry-sugimoto-collection which includes 137 paintings dating from the 1930s to the 1950s.