Remembering Roy Kiyooka: 1926 – 1994
in my book of sacral nomenclature
the pear tree bespeaks all the unimpeachable days
we savour’d under its green umbrella •
‘pears’ kisst into existence by the sun will nourish
compost and bury every lover • given
its seasonal epiphanies i would be a fool indeed if
i didn’t turn inside its ring-of-seasons and
yes sing my adamant self alive ~
Text on bench at UBC commemorating Roy Kiyooka. The bench is located behind the Belkin Art Gallery and beside the Fredrick Wood Theatre. If you sit on it you can see the Fine Arts building.
It was twenty years ago this January that Roy Kiyooka died suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving behind an incredibly diverse body of work that speaks to the restless creativity and curiosity that drove him over the course of his lifetime and his career as an artist.
Although he started out as a painter, he soon moved on other mediums and he is known as a sculptor, photographer, musician, film-maker, poet and teacher.
Although he eventually settled in Vancouver, he lived, worked and studied in Mexico, Regina, Montreal, Halifax, Toronto, Calgary and Banff. In 1975, the Vancouver Art Gallery organized a twenty-five-year retrospective of his work. In 1978, he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. His book, Pear Tree Pomes, was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award.
Roy published a number of books including Kyoto Airs (1964), Nevertheless These Eyes (1967), StoneDGloves (1970), transcanadaletters (1975), The Fontainebleau Dream Machine (1977) and Pear Tree Pomes (1987). Another book, Mothertalk: life stories of Mary Kiyoshi Kiyooka, was published posthumously in 1997.
The Bulletin takes a look at his life through the eyes of his daughter Fumiko, a Vancouver-based filmmaker who for many years worked on REED, the Life and Works of Roy Kiyooka, a film about her father.
a brief history of roy kiyooka, 20 years after his death in 1994
Compiled by Fumiko Kiyooka
Edited by Renee Rodin
Roy was born January 18, 1926 in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada. Within a couple of years of his life his family moved to Calgary, Alberta where he had many friends until the war interrupted his schooling in Grade 10.
He wrote about this time later in a letter: “I had the obscure feeling that something formless dark and stealthy had fallen upon me during my sleep but when I awoke nothing outward seemed to have changed, even though my childhood friends began to fall away from me. I might add that it’s a loss I’ve never fully recovered from.”
Because of racism his father, Harry Shigekiyo Kiyooka, lost his job at a hotel and the Kiyookas were shunned by many. They moved to the small town of Opal, Alberta and Roy worked at odd jobs to help support the family. There were seven children, two of whom, George and Mariko, came over later from Japan. For many years Roy was the oldest child in Canada. His younger siblings were Harry, Joyce, Frank and Irene.
Roy’s father helped his kids get through the war years by filling up at the used bookstore whenever he was in Edmonton. Roy and his brother Harry would spend long evenings in deep conversation about culture. In the summers he went with other Japanese Canadians to Great Slave Lake to fish and to work in a fish processing plant. His friend, Henry Shimizu, who was also there, said while cleaning fish they would talk about poetry, philosophy and art. Humour was an outlet during the dismal war years. While in Opal George took a correspondence course in cartooning and Roy too wanted to be a cartoonist.
After the war, in 1949, Roy returned to Calgary to attend the Alberta Provincial Institute of Technology and Art where he studied with Jock Macdonald and Illingworth Kerr. His brother Harry, said, “you can’t imagine how (Roy) felt to go back to a place (he) had once fled.”
Roy and Monica Dealtry Barker, an architect, were married In 1955. The same year he won a scholarship to the Institutio Allende in Mexico where he, along with his friend, Ron Gyo-Zo Spickett, studied under James Pinto. He was hired in 1956 to teach at the Regina College of Art and his daughters, Mariko and Fumiko, were born in Regina.
When dad died 20 years ago i realized how much he had been there in many ways and not just for me, but for the community of artists, friends and family across the country and in Japan. And i’ve become extremely grateful to have gotten to know many of them and for their support and friendship while making my film on dad, REED: The Life and Works of Roy Kiyooka. What comes to mind at this point is that they seem ripened… themselves with values that reflect a caring community.. this seems CRITICAL at this time, instead of what we get so much of… mammon and power mongering. My younger son Elyjah said to me yesterday: “I think you grew up in a golden age mum where people actually cared.” For me i see the last twenty years raising my kids have been crazy with wars, with crazy weather due to global warming and us killing the earth… (fracking, tarsands, nuclear radiation) i can see what he means, but we do have alternatives (wind, wave energy, battery run cars, etc.) and must change for the better or we will all die as fools…
Influenced by his time in Mexico he made mosaics on the south and west exterior walls of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and Phoenix Rising Out of the Fire is at the First Presbyterian Church on Albert Street in Regina. He spent summers at the Emma Lake Artists’ Workshops where he helped arrange for New York art figures such as Clement Greenberg, and Barnett Newman to teach and later taught there himself. It was Newman who introduced him to the concept of the “sanctity of the studio,” a practice Roy tried to maintain, and it was in this period that he made his “Emma Lake” paintings.
In 1960 Roy moved to Vancouver to teach at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art and Design), where his daughter, Kiyo, was born. While living in Regina he had made his “Hoarfrost Paintings” and scrapper blade paintings and was closely affiliated with a group of other abstract painters. Shortly after he moved to Vancouver, the group, who became known as the “Regina Five” began to receive recognition, but Roy was not included.
After seeing Yvonne Rainer and Merce Cunningham in performance Roy and his students, including Carole Itter and Brian Fisher, organized Vancouver’s first multimedia show in 1960. He also brought together a group of young UBC poets known as “Tish,” (publishing the poetry newsletter) and the downtown Vancouver poets associated with blew ointment press, Intermedia, etc.,
At the Vancouver Poetry Conference, organized by Warren and Ellen Tallman, Roy especially liked the work of Allen Ginsberg and Black Mountain poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. After returning from Japan where he had been reunited with his sister, Mariko, he wrote his first book of poetry, Kyoto Airs (Periwinkle Press, 1964).
In 1965 he and his family moved to Montreal where he taught at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) and exhibited at the Galerie de Siècle. It was during this period, while he was making his hard-edge paintings, that he began to receive international recognition. He was made a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1965 and the same year represented Canada at the Eighth Sao Paulo Biennial where he was awarded a silver medal.
Roy and Vicki Tansey’s performance art piece at Sir George Williams in 1965 was part of Montreal’s first “happening.” He helped organize a poetry conference where American poets including Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov and Muriel Rukeyser came up to read with Canadian poets Margaret Atwood, bp Nichol, Michael Ondaatje, Richard Sommer and others. His book of poetry, NeverthelessTheseEyes, For Stanley Spencer was published in 1967 by Coach House Press with whom Roy was to remain associated.
After he and his family moved back to Vancouver in 1969 Roy was commissioned to build a sculpture for the Canadian pavilion at Expo ‘70 in Osaka, Japan. “Abdu Ben Adam’s Vinyl Dream” consisted of metal frames in the shape of tetrahedrons covered with lit up canvases.
While it was being assembled, Roy took photographs of the workers’ gloves discarded on the ground. These became the basis for a large photographic series and a book of poetry, StoneDGloves: Alms for Soft Palms (Coach House Press, 1970). The images were shown in Kyoto at the National Museum of Modern Art in 1973 and at the Tokyo Museum in 1974 and was titled Japanese Artist in the Americas, it also showed at the Canadian Embassy in Paris, the National Gallery in Ottawa, etc.,
He returned from Japan with Syuzo Fujimoto who had helped him build his sculpture in Osaka and now worked with him on 16 Cedar Laminates. In 1970 he taught briefly at the University of Calgary and while there he made a series of silkscreens prints, Ottoman/Court Suite, which were shown at the Bau Xi Gallery in Vancouver l971.
In 1971 Roy was hired to be head of the painting department at NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design). Because he and Monica were in the midst of a divorce, his family did not accompany him to his new job location. He wrote about his experiences and thoughts during this time in a series of letters, which later got published as TransCanadaLetters (Talonbooks, 1975).
While at NASCAD Roy organized the Vancouver/Halifax Exchange the first part of which took place from March 6 to March 11, 1972 when 11 Vancouver artists (Don Druick, Gathie Falk, Gerry Gilbert, Carole (Fisher) Itter, Garry Lee-Nova, Glen Lewis, Michael Morris, David Rimmer, Dallas Selman, Cheryl Sourkes, and Vincent Trasov) visited Halifax.
Along with showing their visual work, members of the group staged multimedia performances, held poetry readings and film screenings at NASCAD, Dalhousie and other venues. The Exchange reflected the strength of art being made on each coast of the country and also revealed the differences. At panel discussions there were lively debates over issues of concern to the Canadian as well as to the international art scene. It was a spirited time in the world of art.
After his job in Halifax Roy was hired in 1973 to teach at the University of British Columbia which enabled him to be nearer to his children. He remained teaching there until his retirement in 1991.
From 1974-1982 Roy was in a relationship with poet/writer, Daphne Marlatt with whom he lived along with her son, Kit. During this period Roy was writing, working with photography, making super 8 films, playing music and doing performance art. As Daphne said, “he was so good at venerating the daily, a lot of his work was about that… It just flowed in and out of the dailiness of our lives. He enshrined the domestic, the small moments….”
Artscanada/afloat, a photographic series, was completed in 1974. The Vancouver Art Gallery showed in 1975 Roy K. Kiyooka: 25 Years, a retrospective exhibition of his work. The Fountainebleu Dream Machine: 18 frames from a book of rhetoric was published in 1977 by Coach House Press. The same year, he and Michael deCourcy published, with the National Film Board, 13 Cameras/Vancouver, a book of photographers’ work. Roy arranged for the images to be shown at the Vancouver Art Gallery and the National Film Board Gallery and they are now part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection.
Roy was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1978 in recognition of his painting and teaching. While he’d been in Japan for Expo ’70 and his father was visiting him he began a book of poetry which he finished years later. Wheels, a trip thru Honshu’s Backcountry a manuscipt edition was published by Coach House Press in 1981.
In the early 80’s Roy had a studio on Powell Street and ran “Blue Mule” a gallery where he showed artists’ work and held informal performances. Some of the people he played music with there and elsewhere were Don Druick, Maxine Gadd, Paul Gibbons, James S. Munro, Dale Pickering (now Dante Ambriel), Rhoda Rosenfeld, Trudy Rubenfeld, Minoru Sumimoto, Themba Tana, and Takeo Yamashiro.
During the difficult time leading directly up to Japanese Canadian Redress, Roy managed to write about his experiences during the war years in a letter addressed to Joy Kogawa and Tamio Wakayama titled “We Asian North Americanos: An unhistorical ‘take’ on growing up yellow in a white world.” This letter was read at the Japanese Canadian/Japanese American Symposium in Seattle, May 2nd, 1981 and later published in the back of “Mothertalk.” At this time he was also dealing with his and Marlatt’s separation. His book “Pear Tree Pomes” illustrated by David Bolduc (Coach House Press, 1987) was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award.
He began to travel to Japan more frequently and spent a great deal of time with Isamu and Kazuko Akino who were living in a small fishing village in Okinawa. During this period he produced several series of photographs.
In January, 1994 Roy died at home where he was found by his daughter, Kiyo. He had been working on a series of interviews with his mother, which had been conducted by Matsuki Masutani in Japanese and then translated by him into English. Daphne Marlatt, who knew his mother, edited “Mothertalk: Life Stories of Mary Kiyoshi Kiyooka” (NeWest Press, 1997).
Other books published posthumously include:
“Pacific Windows: Collected Poems of Roy Kiyooka”( 1997) edited by Roy Miki.
“All Amazed: For Roy Kiyooka” (Arsenal Pulp Press, Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, Collapse, 2002) edited by John O’Brian of UBC. Based on the “Roy Kiyooka Conference” ( 1999) organized by Naomi Sawada of the Belkin Art Gallery.
“Pacific Rim Letters”, including TransCanada Letters, (NeWest Press, 2005) edited by Smaro Kamboureli.
From a manuscript on the life of Tom Thompson found after Roy died, “The Artist and the Moose: A Fable of Forget” (LINE books, 2009) edited by Roy Miki.
Roy’s visual work is in public galleries across Canada and in private collections internationally.
Roy is survived by his daughters, Mariko, Fumiko, and Kiyo, along with his brother Harry, who is a painter and art historian, Harry’s wife, Katie Ohe who is a sculptor, his brother, Frank, who is a potter, Frank’s wife Anne, a nurse, his sisters, Joyce and Irene, his grandchildren, nieces and nephews. And many friends….
on my dad’s birthday, January 18
Grandma called Tosa “Her heart’s True Country” in the book Mothertalk. And grandma (Kiyoshi) managed, although extremely poor most of her life, to go back for visits to Tosa a number of times.
My father also returned to Japan many times later in his life as well. And I have been very fortunate with the help of many people to have been able to show my film REED: The Life and Works of Roy Kiyooka throughout Japan in June 2013 and on part of that trip Roy Miki accompanied me and spoke about Roy Kiyooka and with questions from Glen Lowrey he also spoke about transforming the Japanese Canadian experience through photoshopping photos from that experience and changing them to a brighter future. I was so pleased to be with him, one of the leaders of the redress movement in Canada. The redress movement I felt helped push Canada towards the forefront in issues such as social justice, human rights and equality for all. This is something Canada can be proud of and lets hope it continues to uphold those values particularly where the aboriginal people are concerned, because their old values of mutual respect are something we can all learn from. Respect for each other, for the living organism that is the earth that sustains us (without the earth we ALL perish), thus we need to take care and not to pollute and destroy her and for animals and all things, but I am getting diverted. It has been 20 years since dad passed away and I am writing this on his birthday January 18. He devoted his life to being an artist and to other artists and writers in the community, saying how the arts are as important as any other group of lawyers, doctors, academics, etc. “…because without them the world as we know it would virtually cease to exist…” and i suppose if you look back historically it is through the arts (painting, pictures, etc.) and writing that we know ourselves as humans.