Original article published by The Seattle Times, written by Jerald Pierce, published Jan. 13, 2023
George Tsutakawa’s public artworks made him a Pacific Northwest arts legend, from his over 75 fountains, including the “Fountain of Wisdom” outside the Seattle Public Library Central Library, to his numerous wood and metal sculptures, like the “Lake City Library Gates.” Though he’s most known for his public sculptures, an exhibition currently running (through March 26) at the Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds seeks to give visitors a rare look at Tsutakawa’s early-career work in less prominent mediums.
“There are probably pieces in there that I’ve never seen,” Mayumi Tsutakawa said about “George Tsutakawa: Early Works on Paper,” which features works collected from the Tsutakawa family’s home archives. These works, including sketches and watercolor paintings, show a different artistic side of George Tsutakawa that stands apart from the oil paintings, sculptures and fountains that made him a standout artist prior to his death in 1997.
This exhibition serves as a companion of sorts to last year’s “George Tsutakawa: Language of Nature,” which ran at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art and focused on Tsutakawa’s work from 1950 on. Cascadia Art Museum’s current exhibition focuses on the Seattle-born Tsutakawa’s growth, from his early education in Japan, his return to Seattle where he attended Broadway High School, and the growth of his career through his eventual graduation from the University of Washington with an MFA in sculpture in 1950.
Through the exhibit and an accompanying book, curator and author David F. Martin works to place Tsutakawa’s artworks and life experiences alongside historical photos and details of the art world at the time Tsutakawa would have created these works. Regarding Martin’s accompanying book on her father’s early years, Mayumi Tsutakawa said it’s “really one of the best that has been written about his earlier development and placing it in the context of the other artists of this region.”
“This exhibition is a rare opportunity for the public to see a body of work that has mostly been in storage for decades,” said Martin, who said he was lucky to know George Tsutakawa in the 1980s, hearing personal stories of his early career. “Contrary to what the public might presume, Tsutakawa’s earlier works are highly informed by European Modernism and not Japanese art or technique, that came later in his career. So, George really transcended labels and was truly an independent modern American artist.”
Earlier this month, I spoke with writer Mayumi Tsutakawa about her father’s work, early years and what visitors can learn from this exhibition. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Are there any works that you see differently or in a new light because you can now see them in the context of the exhibition?
There’s a painting called “Fort Snelling,” 1946. He served in the U.S. Army in the Military Intelligence Service. Because he was born in the U.S., raised in Japan, he was completely bilingual. So when he entered the U.S. Army, he was placed in this military intelligence school in Fort Snelling in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he taught Japanese language.
It’s watercolor and graphite on paper. This Fort Snelling is a very modernist, angular depiction of the Army base. It takes the planes of buildings, the sharp angles, and it puts them into a really interesting composition that is very modern, and the color palette is pastels, which is different from his other more traditional landscape kind of artwork.
That’s just an example of something that surprised me. It was completely not landscape, which so many of his Northwest paintings are. He was just in love with the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Northwest, but Fort Snelling is really a surprise piece.
Do you see this as your father trying to convey something specific through this representation of Fort Snelling or was this more of an opportunity to experiment with that sort of angular depiction?
I think that he was not only prolific, he was highly intelligent, and I think that he was interested to experiment. The oil paintings, which are not in [this exhibition], they were abstract, even cubist and surrealist in their tone. What this piece does is it takes a typical scene of army barracks or buildings, and it juxtaposes them, tosses them into different arrangements and planes. It’s quite different, and I think a real good experimentation of different form.
Is there anything you think visitors, especially young artists, can learn from seeing these early works from your father as they go forward in their own careers?
If you look at the early block prints, you can see a really fine ability and composition. Going back to the early days, using only the tones of black and white, he was able to create these portraits and scenes of buildings. And there’s one where it’s a Christmas card. Those, to me, would be interesting to young people, specifically looking at the pieces that he created when he was a college student in Alaska.
If you look at the sketches, paintings and block prints that he created in Alaska, these could be inspiring to young people, because he was there in person working alongside these other cannery workers and also visited Native American villages and observed the artwork, the craft, the wood carving there. It really made a good strong impression on him. He had the chance to travel, to meet other people, to work hard in the natural environment and just really be blown away by the fantastic scenery of Alaska.
This exhibition has been framed as a chance to see the origins of concepts and inspirations for your father’s later work. What are some aspects of his early work that you see your father utilize later in his career?
Well, for example, this 1942 sketch of Mount Rainier, he went back many times to sketch and paint Mount Rainier. This is quite early in his career. He had finished his BFA, but he had not gone to graduate school yet. This shows the really great dark-and-light composition depicting the snow. In his later life, he really developed the landscapes in black-and-white.
But if you’re talking about inspiration from this earlier period, you’d have to combine his life experiences and travel around the world to personally view the Nile in Egypt and Iran and so on. He was always studying; he was always curious. He was always reading and seeing other exhibitions.
This earlier period didn’t just neatly morph into his later forms. But I think that [the exhibition] lays a real basis for people to see his talent in the different mediums. You can see that he has a lot of skill and then went on to develop that later using other different inspirations.