COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Painter Harry Tsuchidana posed with a recent series of paintings outside his Salt Lake studio.
76-year-old Harry Tsuchidana has devoted much of his life to color and form
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If there is such a creature that can be described as a "pure" artist, Harry Tsuchidana fits the bill. He's spent more than 50 years working as an artist at his own pace, never chasing riches, trends or accolades.
So when I ask him what he hopes his legacy will be, his answer is brief and to the point.
"No Plan B."
Art is his soul, and what he was meant to do.
"I once met a teacher who asked me what I did for a living. I said, 'I'm an artist,' and she said, 'That's not a job; you're in therapy.' So what I tell people now is, 'I'm in therapy.' "
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Tsuchidana's early work, "Woman Washing," circa 1950 and his newest "Stage" series depicts his artistic journey.
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While many artists struggle with issues of form, content and context, Harry Tsuchidana, 76, has no use for such an analytical approach to his work. He would like nothing better than to return to the point of childlike naivete, when putting marks on a piece of paper was an act of pure expression, not one calculated to sell.
'COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE'
Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce 30th anniversary art exhibition:
» On view: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 28
» Place: Academy Art Center at Linekona School
» Admission: Free
» Call: 949-5531
"For artists, the closer you get to yourself, the more you're going to distance yourself from the audience," he said, understanding that his noncommercial approach to art has left him the least known of his generation of Hawaii's postwar Japanese-American artists. But the oversight will be corrected when the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce's 30th-anniversary "Commitment to Excellence" exhibition opens Tuesday. Tsuchidana will be the featured artist at the show taking place at the Academy Art Center at Linekona School. The show will also feature work by 22 invited artists, and about 80 pieces selected from more than 500 works submitted by other artists.
Tsuchidana will be showing a series of linear color compositions that have consumed most of his energy over 30 years. He started his "Stage" series in 1979, recalling that a florist who worked downstairs from his studio, then on King Street, had suggested the name "Back Stage," referring to forms he felt were leading to something big.
"I kept doing other things, thinking I would get away from this, but somehow I kept coming back. I was concerned about the angles," he said of the modular compositions, which have become more refined over time so viewers will not see angles, but vertical planes of color in search of balance.
Lisa Yoshihara, director of the University of Hawaii Art Gallery, who was one of the exhibition jurors, said, "Harry was so excited that after we offered the honor to him, he painted seven new canvases. And those paintings were all in gray scale. So he's taken what he's studied -- color -- and stripped it down. He took it even further."
It's a long way from where he started, creating representational art and figures calculated to please the eye. "I wanted to do figures because the female figure is the most beautiful form."
And he was good at it, having developed a beautiful line early as a result of tracing the strong line drawings in comic books. He later graduated to drawing freehand portraits of actors like Charlton Heston and Bob Hope from movie magazines, and as a teenager began hanging out in his Waipahu neighborhood pool halls, populated by Filipino men whom he also enjoyed sketching.
But what really sold him on art was the idea that "being an artist, you can move mountains," he said. It's a lesson he learned as a student who often got in trouble in art classes for taking liberties with reality.
He remembers walking down Waipahu Depot Road toward Pearl Harbor one day for a landscape assignment, noticing its picturesque qualities were diminished by long stretches of blandness. His dog, Dime, was trailing him, and at one point he turned to look to make sure the dog hadn't wandered off.
"When I turned, I saw this beautiful mango tree, and that was eye-opening to me. I realized I didn't have to leave the tree where it was. I could move it anywhere."
To this day he is a critic of an educational system that promotes right-brain thinking at the expense of left-brain creativity.
"Our educational system teaches you how to write, teaches you how to draw. To me that's not art," he said. "You must talk to a lot of artists, and what do they tell you? They're very literal. They like to tell a story. Art is not like that. Art is more aesthetic," he said.
He's grateful for having been raised by a single mother who, in spite of her own life's hardships, never asked anything of her son. "You know what she said? 'Do what you want to do.' I'm obligated to her to do well."
REMAINING TRUE to his art has meant working many odd jobs after exiting the Marine Corps in the mid-1950s, including working as a night watchman in New York and Washington, D.C., being a short-order cook, working in a kamaboko factory and being an exterminator.
That's not to say those jobs were not part of his art education.
"You learn from everybody. When I was working as an exterminator at a hotel, I noticed that at night (the kitchen staff) would mix all the ingredients in one jar for seasoning. That gave me the idea that I could mix my paint the same way. That's how I learned the value of colors. I didn't learn that in school because I didn't listen. But later I learned, 'Hey, this means something.'"
His night watchmen jobs were at the Corcoran Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, which taught him about art fads and the futility of aiming to please others. An artist's imprint is typically measured over time.
"While working at the museum, I studied all the paintings. I'm so lucky to have seen paintings that are no longer hanging today," Tsuchidana said. "There were a lot of artists who were very popular, but in time they were weeded out."
He leaves his legacy up to historians who might describe Tsuchidana as an artist whose spiritual "mother" is Arthur Dove, an artist who captures the soul of his subjects, and whose "father" is Mondrian, who sought balance in equations of color plus line.
His current work has come closer to Mondrian than he expected, having started out trying to work on a different spatial equation, but Tsuchidana sees no purpose in trying to escape one's influences.
"Rather than avoiding it, you have to keep working. If you do things long enough, you'll evolve from point A to point B. Someday you'll do better than the one who was your influence."