American Original

Kate McGraw
08/10/2012

“How long have you lived in this country?” This seemingly innocuous conversational gambit carries a real sting for Roger Shimomura—because the answer is, “All of my life. I was born here.”

And all of his life, the award-winning artist has wrestled with a feeling of “otherness” because of his Japanese-American heritage, a feeling he translates as a sense that non-Asians consider him an “American knock-off,” a less-than-acceptable copy of an American, a foreigner in his own country.

He’s memorialized the stereotypes—and the sadness and rage they engender—in a show of 14 “self-portraits” called “An American Knockoff” that opens today at Eight Modern on Delgado Street.

Shimomura was born and raised in Seattle. During World War II, he was held for two years at the Minidoka internment camp, one of 10 built to confine American citizens of Japanese descent. He went on the earn a bachelor’s degree from Washington University and a master’s in fine arts from Syracuse University. Sine 1969, he has lived in Lawrence, Kansas, and he taught at the University of Kansas for 35 years. He is the university’s Distinguished Professor of Art Emeritus.

“Since living in Kansas, I have found it to be routine to be asked what part of Japan I am from, or how long I have lived in this country,” Shimomura said. “Just has commonly, subtle references continue to connect me to stereotypical ‘oriental’ traits, both physical and behavioral.

“Far too many American-born citizens of Asian descent continue to be thought of as only ‘American knock-offs.’ This latest series of paintings in an attempt to ameliorate the outrage of these misconceptions by depicting myself battling those stereotypes or, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, becoming those very same stereotypes,” he said.

Using a characteristic style that fuses American Pop art and ukiyo-e imagery, Shimomura has focused particular attention on the experience of Asian Americans and the challenges of being “different” in American. In his words, he seeks to “address sociopolitical issues of ethnicity.”

Shimomura’s exhibition probes what it means to be an “other” in American, presenting 14 paintings (all self-portraits) that skillfully blend anger and absurdity. Shimomura’s work draws heavily on his own experiences as an Asian American—in which he is often perceived and treated as a foreigner in his own country.

In “An American Knockoff,” the artists surrounds or subsumes his own likeness into iconic representations of American and Asian popular culture. Shimomura’s distinctive round glasses and salt-and-pepper goatee appear incongruously on the famous visages of cartoon mice, pigs and crime-fighters. Frequently misidentified as Chinese, in “Chinese  Imposter #5” he paints himself as a muscular Chinese revolutionary off of a propaganda poster.

As for people who say he’s got a ship on his shoulder, Shimomura said in an email interview that from their perspective, they are right—and also wrong.

“That is a common accusation,” he said gently. “That verifies, to me, that you have to be a person of color to understand how profound and pervasive it is to be ‘the other.’ So many people from the majority culture think it is fashionable to be the other and that one can wake up another morning to be a member of the majority, thereby putting all these issues behind you. I am fortunate to be in a profession that allows me to tell my story without having to defend it while sharing it.”

Born in 1939 in Seattle, Shimomura spent two years of toddlerhood in the internment camp in Idaho. His love affair with art started almost immediately, he said.

“I drew extensively when I was a child, drawing everything my parents couldn’t afford to buy me, such as cowboy boots, fancy bicycles, nice fishing tackle, etc., etc.,” he said.

“And I had three uncles who were all very successful graphic designers in the Seattle area, so they were my role models.”

As an adult and teacher, he has received many awards. In the fall of 1990, Shimomura help an appointment as the Dayton Hudson Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carleton College, Northfield, Minn. During his teaching career at Kansas University, he was the first faculty member ever to be designated a University Distinguished Professor, in 1994; to receive the Higuchi Research Prize, in 1998, and the Chancellor’s Club Career Teaching Award, in 2002.

In 2004, he retired from teaching and started the Shimomura Faculty Research Support Fund, and endowment to foster faculty research in the KU Department of Art.

He found teaching a challenge as well as enjoyable, Shimomura said. “It’s challenging to be forced to talk about and be positive, though cynical, about art.

“Also, many of my best friends today are former students from points in my teaching career,” he said. What he loves about retirement, the 73-year-old said, is the chance “to finally be the artist I always wanted to be. To paint, exhibit, and lecture.”

Shimomura’s work is in the permanent collections of more than 85 museums nationwide. His personal papers and letters are being collected by the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. In 2002, he received the College Art Association Distinguished Body of Work Award. The following year, he delivered the keynote address at the 91st annual CCA meeting.

In 2003, he was the recipient of the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painting Award. In 2006, the University of Washinton-Seattle gave him its Distinguished Alumnus Award from the School of Arts and Sciences. He is a past winner of the Kansas Governor’s Arts Award and was designated the first Kansas Master Artist in 2008.