Takao Tanabe – exhibit at Nikkei National Museum
A Conversation with Takao Tanabe
by Sherri Kajiwara
Much has been written about Takao Tanabe’s distinguished fine art career and his many accomplishments but his time spent in Japan in 1959 and 1960 is a little known yet fascinating chapter of this enigmatic artist’s life. I had the privilege of speaking with him about this time at one of his favourite Vancouver coffee shops. What was revealed was not only one man’s pursuit of creative evolution, but ultimately a search for his heritage.
SK: Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
TT: No…being born in the north of BC, the son of a fisherman… suppose I always thought…I’d just be a labourer all my life. But the war…well, the move to Vancouver in 1937 sort of opened the eyes a bit to other possibilities. But one was still part of a hated minority in the area of Vancouver, and when the war came, in 1941…the war started earlier, but for us the war was in 1941 when Pearl Harbour was bombed, and all sorts of restrictions were brought in, to control the Japanese population. And then very quickly, it was formulated that we should all be gathered together and sent off to….. it wasn’t called internment camps but that’s what they were…makeshift camps in the interior of BC. One hundred miles inland from the coast so we wouldn’t be…enemies.
SK: Where did your family end up being interned?
TT: We were first gathered in Hastings Park camp, or where Hastings Parks was turned into a camp and people were then sent out from there to various places. We ended up in the Slocan Valley. We were destined for a place called Lemon Creek which was being built on a farmer’s field. My father, my younger brother, and I worked in different groups, helping to build the little shacks, and Lemon Creek became home for a couple of years. The alternative was to go to a farm on the prairies and be indentured for one or two years, which is what two of my older brothers and one sister chose. After a year and a half, they were allowed to leave the farm if they wished and soon they relocated to Winnipeg. I decided I had to get out of the camp and I went to Winnipeg, to join them. That was 1944.
SK: Before the war ended, you went to Winnipeg and you went to art school in Winnipeg, but had you made any art before that?
TT: No, I was working for the Koz brothers in Winnipeg, who were wholesalers of clothing, gumboots, and so on. I worked there for a year and a half or so…..I thought to try to go finish my high school, because I’d only finished grade ten, and continue my education. I don’t know how, but somebody pointed me in the direction of the art school as an alternative. So I went and talked to them, to a very nice man, who was the registrar, and taught sign painting. I said, “I have to learn how to sign paint so I can make a living as a sign painter. I haven’t finished high school, but can you let me in for a year or two?” And he was very sympathetic. He said, “we don’t teach sign painting here in the day, but there’s a night class …”. So I signed up for the art school and I think I did take one evening class in sign painting. I got quite good at it but I just couldn’t bring myself to go out asking for jobs.
SK: When was your first discovery of sumie?
TT: In the ‘50s I had gone to New York and I decided I have to go to Europe, because I was a Western-style painter. When I came home from Europe in ‘55, I said to myself I have one more area that I want to study, which is the Japanese style of painting, and to see whether I was really Japanese. So I had to go to Japan. I finally managed to get enough money together in 1959. It was the end of the summer and by that time I was married. And so we went to Japan in August of 1959 and found a lovely Japanese-style house in Tokyo – tatami floors and all. I think it was a typical little Japanese house. I went to the University of Tokyo and inquired about sumie and a teacher who would take a student who didn’t know anything about it and just teach me some of the basics once or twice a week.
The teaching style was just about copying what was in front of you and a particular kind of brush mark. It was all black and white, which is what I wanted to learn.
SK: It’s documented that the initial funds to help you get to Japan came from the Canada Council for the Arts.
TT: Well, they gave me two thousand dollars. I applied for and got two thousand dollars. It was a scholarship.
SK: But you managed to stay for a couple years?
TT: Well, I’m a smart guy, and I convinced a guy in Winnipeg who liked my abstract paintings to give me a thousand dollars and I would give him three or four paintings. He said “Here, I’ll take two paintings now and I’ll get two paintings when you come back, and after a year of painting, you can show me what you done.” So I said, “Do you have a friend who I could get another thousand from?” He said yes, and of course I had a stack of unsold paintings because they were abstract paintings and they weren’t selling. So that managed to spread for a year and a half. Towards the end of 1960, I was running out of money so we came home in early ‘61 on a freighter which was the least expensive way of getting back.
SK: Do you have any words of advice for young artists today?
TT: No. If you’ve got to be an artist, you’ve got to be an artist, there’s no advice to give. They have to have the drive, or not and that’s an individual choice. Most of the time…most people have to put up with a lot of hardship. It’s very difficult to make a living, practically impossible to make a living, so you have to be prepared to work at other things.
SK: Your sumie exhibit at the Nikkei National Museum, is this going to be the first time the public will be able to see the work?
TT: Absolutely the first time they’ll be seen in any quantity. I think I’ve had one or two included in other exhibitions, but this will be an-eye opener for a lot of people. And I’m rather looking forward to the whole.
Excerpted from an interview printed in full in the exhibition catalogue: Takao Tanabe, Sumie: Ink Brush Paintings.
Sherri Kajiwara is Director/Curator at the Nikkei National Museum in Burnaby, BC