The Story of the artist Jimmy Mirikitani reads like a work of fiction by Haruki Murakami, except Murakami did not invent this tale. Jimmy was born Tsutomu Mirikitani in Sacramento, California in 1920, and was therefore an American citizen. However, he had spent his youth in Hiroshima, only coming back to America when he was eighteen in order to attend art school. When America declared was on Japan after Pearl Harbor, Mirikitani and 120,000 other Japanese-Americans were swept up and taken away to internment camps all over the Western United States. At that time, Mirikitani was living with his sister in Seattle, but families were often separated, and his sister was sent to the Minidoka internment camp, in Idaho, while Mirikitani wound up at Tule Lake, in California. Mirikitani, outraged by the injustice, renounced his citizenship rather than sign a forced oath of allegiance. And so begins Mirikitani’s strange and sad odyssey—from handsome young artist to indentured servant after the way, to traveling cook after his citizenship was restored, to live-in chef, to homeless man on the streets of New York. Through it all, the artist, even as he aged, did his drawings every day through every season, just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. So many surreal elements in this saga, so much fertile ground for an ultimate rebirth facilitated by the filmmaker Linda Hattendorf and her award-winning documentary The Cats of Mirikitani.
In her film, a miracle slowly unfolds as Hattendorf, taking an interest in Mirikitani and his daily life on the corner of MacDougal and Prince Streets in SoHo, begins to film the shy artist. She is curious about his dedication to his work, his mysterious persona, the story of how he wound up homeless. But it’s only after 9/11 that Hattendorf becomes directly involved in Mirikitani’s survival as she literally moves him out of the dust and ashes from the collapsed Twin Towers and into her apartment. This is the crucial intervention that begins the unraveling of Mirikitani’s past, present, and future selves and leads to the artist’s familial, and financial, resurrection. Hattendorf brings about a reunion between Mirikitani and his sister after fifty years; he gets healthcare and his own place to live; and recognition comes to him for his drawings. Mirikitani’s art functions as a bridge to his cultural roots, to his memories of being unjustly interned and humiliated at Tule Lake, and to his childlike wonder at the world of cats and fish and flowers.
Mirikitani’s exhibition at Eight Modern has a direct relationship to The Art of Gaman at the Museum of International Folk Art, and one of the artist’s images is in that show, a panoramic view of the Tule Lake camp done when he was interned there in the early 1940s. The Art of Gaman incorporates the work of many individuals who used whatever materials they could lay their hands on: pieces of discarded wood, metal, toothpicks, buttons, sewer pipes, weeds, string, and pieces of cloth. And they created a variety of things: dolls, furniture, elaborately carved walking sticks, games, paintings of the camp, carved relief sculptures. And there is one example of a traditional-looking baseball shirt created from a mattress cover—the Japanese-American men loved the game of baseball and promoted the playing of it in the internment camps. In addition, they fabricated a lot of jewelry, and none of what I saw seemed as if it was made from found objects; it was all very professional looking and ran the gamut from traditional Japanese motifs to up-to-date stylish designs.
One piece of particular interest, both visual and cultural, was the suite of decorated envelopes created by Mikisaburo Izul and addressed to his son, George, who had been released from internment in order to go to school. Sent from the camp address of 41-3-F, Minidoka, Idaho, to places in Illinois, Izul’s envelopes were small works of art, with ink drawings on the left side—either a camp scene or a botanical study. These envelopes are not only things of beauty, they are an archive of longing symbolizing the will to rise above the hand of fate. Is that the end of the story? No. Unlike the artist Jimmy Mirikitani, not everyone held in the camps had such inspiring chapters added to the dark parts of their story—few individuals were able to pick up where they left off in their previous lives, as careers had been shattered and houses and property confiscated or sold off to the highest bidder. A complicated saga such as Mirikitani’s rarely gets such a redemptive blast of hope and good will at the eleventh hour, let alone a measure of recognition for the commitment to his artwork against all odds.