DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Artist Satoru Abe is dwarfed by the sculptures made by his old friend, the late Jerry Okimoto, at Nuuanu Gallery at Marks Garage. The space is showing the works, along with some pieces by Abe, through Aug. 30.
An artist's tribute shines a light on his passion and creations from New York
Jerry Okimoto grew up in Waianae and spent most of his career in New York, such that the artist -- whose work is in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Hirshhorn Museum, Chrysler and Cleveland museums of art, among dozens of institutions nationwide -- isn't particularly well known in his home state.
JERRY OKIMOTO AND SATORU ABE
» Place: Nuuanu Gallery at Marks Garage, 1161 Nuuanu Ave.
» When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday through Aug. 30
» Call: 536-9828
His friends want to change that.
As a tribute to Okimoto, who died in 1998 at the age of 74, Nuuanu Gallery is hosting an exhibition of some of Okimoto's last works, along with small sculptures by his lifelong friend Satoru Abe.
In New York of the 1950s, the two were part of a small coterie of Japanese-American artists from Hawaii who formed the Metcalf Chateau -- including Harry Tsuchidana, Bumpei Akaji, Bob Ochikubo and Tadashi Sato -- a group who found kinship through their work and shared cultural ties.
At the Wednesday grand opening of the exhibition, Tsuchidana recalled meeting Okimoto and Abe on his first day in New York, while touring the Whitney Museum.
"I heard these two guys talking pidgin and they looked local, so I figured they gotta be from Hawaii."
Over time, most of the group found their way back home, where they have led successful careers, but Okimoto had found a new home.
"I always thought he was gonna come back, because he talked pidgin and he liked local food," Tsuchidana said. "But he stayed right through."
The artists arrived in New York at the height of the post World War II Abstract Expressionism movement, and, new to the world of fine art, absorbed everything around them. It was preferable to remaining home.
"Hawaii in the 1950s was a sad place. There were no jobs," Abe said. It wasn't until statehood promised a future that investment came, and establishment of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts in the 1960s, that art began to flourish.
"I remember one early painting he did. It was all Cadmium Red, the most expensive color, and he used 25 to 30 tubes. To me, he thought like an artist. He didn't think about expense ... only the work."
Talking about friend and fellow artist Jerry Okimoto
Before leaving Hawaii, Okimoto worked as a graphic designer for clothing manufacturer Alfred Shaheen. One of his colorful prints, called "Pupule," meaning "crazy," was particularly popular, Abe said. "That was a best-seller. If they needed some sales, they would just reprint that."
Abe, who was working for Dairymen's (later Meadow Gold) at the time, recalls how the daily grind of life in Hawaii pushed him to become an artist.
"I saw the light. One day I was packing milk cartons and I thought, 'Is this it? Is this my life forever?' In 1948, I thought that if I can paint like Rembrandt, I'm an artist."
He moved to New York and headed for the Metropolitan Museum, where he planted himself in front of a Rembrandt and began to copy.
"I came across Van Gogh and I said, 'Gee, that guy is terrible.' Of course much later I came to appreciate Van Gogh and know exactly why he's significant today."
COURTESY SATORU ABE
Jerry Okimoto began working with plywood in the 1980s to create towering sculptures by layering and shaping the wood pieces.
AFTER HIS FRIENDS moved home, Okimoto became influenced by the Pop Art movement, when artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol were asking viewers to reconsider simple, everyday objects, from comic strips to soap boxes and soup cans.
Okimoto, who had started as a painter, turned his attention to wood sculpture, adopting a medium familiar from having done carpentry work in Hawaii. He made the transition gradually, cleverly creating color-block canvases framed on wood armature with sliding panels that could be moved to form new, geometric compositions. He called them "Mobile Paintings."
Beginning in the 1980s, he began building humble pieces of plywood into towering vases, cleavers, knives and pencils by meticulously layering and shaping the wood pieces.
Upon his death, Okimoto's family shipped 14 large pieces to Hawaii, where seven have been sold to private collectors and the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts. The seven remaining works on view in the exhibition have spent the past decade stored in Abe's garage, and he is hoping they will find better homes, where they can be properly displayed and appreciated. A high ceiling is a must because the tallest "vase" in the show stands 8-1/2 feet tall, constructed in sections for the sake of transporting the vessel. Others are nearly that tall.
Okimoto worked on the pieces until he died, and both Abe and Tsuchidana believed it was the sawdust from woodworking that eventually killed him.
"It was heavy, dusty. He didn't wear a mask and he died of respiratory ailment," said Abe, who considers Okimoto a "pure artist," who had a singular focus on his craft.
"I remember one early painting he did. It was all Cadmium Red, the most expensive color, and he used 25 to 30 tubes. To me, he thought like an artist. He didn't think about expense, how much the materials cost, only the work."
Tsuchidana said, "He was a hard person to pin down. In all the years I knew him, he was very elusive, and he rarely drank so it was even more hard to get him to talk."
"He had tuberculosis when he was younger, so he always thought he wasn't going to live long," Abe said. "Every year on his birthday he would call me and say, 'I made 65,' 'I made 66.' When he was in his 70s, he stopped saying that. I think he didn't care at that point. He just wanted to finish his work. And he did very well."