George Tsutakawa was an internationally recognized artist of Japanese American heritage. A native and longtime resident of Seattle, he was a painter, sculptor, and fountain maker. He made an art form of water, setting a world record not only for our age but probably for all of history to date in having created more than 70 fountains for public places around the world. Their shapes, like his own life, marry Japanese and American sensibilities. Tsutakawa taught at the University of Washington for more than 30 years, and received honorary degrees from Whitman College and Seattle University.
Childhood in Seattle and Japan
Tsutakawa was born on February 22, 1910, on George Washington's birthday -- he was named for George Washington -- at home at 1815 Federal Avenue E, a fashionable area of Seattle's Capitol Hill. (His father had bought the house through a lawyer since first-generation Japanese could not at that time own property in the United States.) George was the fourth of nine children of Hisa and Shozo Tsutakawa. He attended the first and second grades at Lowell School, walking home through backyards, eating blackberries, picking roses from the garden at nearby Volunteer Park, and swimming in Lake Union.
At age seven, he was sent, along with his older brother, to Japan to live with his maternal grandmother in Fukuyama. "My parents figured that since they couldn't get citizenship and weren't permitted to own land, they'd probably go back to Japan, and they didn't want their children to be illiterates there. They also were so busy working that they had no time to care for children, so they sent us back to live with our grandparents" (Tarzan). The following year, George's mother died in the 1918 influenza epidemic.
In Japan, he was initially taunted by other children for chubbiness induced by his rich American diet, and for the fact that he spoke no Japanese. He quickly adapted. The rigorous Japanese school system demanded a level of diligence that he often failed to meet. But it instilled disciplined work habits that lasted throughout his life.
His grandmother, descended from a samurai family, took George and his brother to the theater and sent them to study with a Zen master, who taught them philosophy, pottery making, and the tea ceremony.
His paternal grandfather, Kiichi Tsutakawa, had bankrupted the family by ignoring his fields and business in order to study literature and cultivate the traditional arts of flower arranging and the tea ceremony. Immersed in the rarefied practice of his arts, he had no use for any of his children or grandchildren, except for George, for whom he made tea. He obliged George to watch while he arranged flowers and practiced calligraphy, teaching by example. "Learning to use the brush well was part of a gentleman's training, just like philosophy and literature," George explained. He learned to write with the same kind of brush he later used for sumi painting.
Father and Son
In the late 1920s, George's father returned to Japan, leaving two brothers to run the Seattle operations of the Tsutakawa Company, while he managed exports from Japanese port cities. The company imported Japanese food, clothing, and art supplies into the United States, and shipped lumber and scrap metal back to Japan.
Shozo felt disgraced by George's poor performance as a scholar. George had dropped out of school at 17, after five years of high school, when he still lacked enough credits to graduate. He left Fukuyama, traveling with carpenters carrying lumber on a sailboat across the Inland Sea to Kobe, where his father was building a new house for himself and his second wife.
George helped the carpenters build the house. When it was finished, his father sent him back to Seattle to help with the U.S. side of the family business. For the second time in his life, he began anew in a country where he did not speak the language. He had forgotten the English he'd known at age seven.
His homesickness for Japan is visible in a charcoal portrait of his grandfather, which he drew from a photograph still in the family. A shaven-headed aesthete gazes with an expression of infinite sadness into empty space. It is the earliest extant artwork of Tsutakawa's -- an accomplished portrait that not only faithfully depicts the appearance of his subject, but also conveys his state of mind. It is a Japanese subject depicted in traditional European media and style -- already a fusion of East and West.
Tsutakawa used the carpentry skills he had acquired building his father's home in erecting a shack for himself behind the Tsutakawa Company store. He bought a radio and record player, and as many albums of classical music as he could afford. At work, he sold seaweed and soy sauce and sushi rice and sake to Japanese restaurants.
Artist Meets Artists
He met Kenjiro Nomura and Kamekichi Tokita, who operated the Noto Sign Shop, which produced signs for Japanese and Chinese businesses. They were part of a loosely affiliated group of Asian artists who encouraged and supported each other's work.
To reeducate himself as an American, Tsutakawa went to special language classes at Pacific Elementary School, then enrolled in Broadway High School. Although his math classes in Japan stood him in good stead at Broadway, "The mysteries of 'Ivanhoe' and 'The Lady of the Lake' eluded me," he said (Estes). His art teachers encouraged him to apply for study at the University of Washington Art Department. Like the carrot at the end of a stick, that prospect kept him in school, and encouraged him to study English. But he found it easier to learn French than to relearn English. Since he wanted to live in Paris and be an artist, he became an avid student of French. Through French, he relearned English.
Fay Chong and Andrew Chinn, both budding artists, were fellow students. Art teacher Hannah Jones introduced Tsutakawa to carving linoleum block prints and woodblock prints. Impressed with his quick grasp of the medium, she sent him to the Northwest Printmakers group, who exhibited their work at the Henry Art Gallery.
In 1932, one of his linocuts, Iwashi, showing herring stacked on an oval platter, won the $50 First Prize in the eighth student-work issue of Scholastic magazine. A lesser prize that year was won by Morris Graves, who submitted his work from Beaumont, Texas. (Graves had dropped out of high school in Seattle and was living with an aunt and finishing high school in Beaumont, Texas.)
That year, at 22, George enrolled in the University of Washington Art Department. His classmates included architects Minoru Yamasaki, Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985), and Paul Kirk, who remained his friends over the years. He carried a full credit load, while working full-time during the winter in the family store. He spent several summers in Alaska, working at a fish cannery. Not only did the cannery work pay well enough to support him at college for the rest of the year, it gave him the opportunity to visit Indian villages, see the carvings on ceremonial buildings and totem poles, and talk to carvers. He created linocuts and drawings of fish, fishermen, and canneries, and of the dramatic Alaskan landscape.
At the University of Washington, he studied sculpture with Dudley Pratt. Tsutakawa's earliest figurative stone carvings have the compact bulk that characterized Pratt's style. He was also influenced by Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964), who taught at the university during the summers of 1935 and 1936, and by Dudley Carter (1891-1992), a timber cruiser who saved some of the biggest and best logs for his own sculpture, axing out rough-hewn forms powerful in their simplicity and directness.
By 1937, George had enough credits to graduate in printmaking, painting, or sculpture. Asked to declare one of them as his major, he chose sculpture.
But a career as a sculptor took a back seat to family obligations. He became manager of the Tsutakawa Company store. With George at the helm, it became a gathering place for artists. Malcolm Roberts often came to chat, bringing his refined surrealist paintings. So did architect George Nakashima, who was then in Seattle making furniture. Mark Tobey (1890-1976) returned to Seattle in 1938, after time spent in England and Asia. Tsutakawa introduced him to Tokita and Nomura.
The War Years
The first inkling that change was in the air occurred in the fall of 1940. George drove across the Cascade Mountains to eastern Washington. He stopped at a scenic overlook between Cle Elum and Ellensburg, overlooking a panorama of golden wheat fields. When he got out to take a picture, a State Highway Patrol car pulled in behind him, and the trooper demanded to see his identification.
His driver's license was insufficient. George grew apprehensive when the trooper spent a long time talking on the radio. When he returned, he knew about Tsutakawa's business connections, and that he was an artist. "Be careful," the patrolman said as he told him he was free to go. "We have our eye on you" (Kingsbury).
The outbreak of World War II was catastrophic for Japanese Americans. Tsutakawa's uncles and their families were sent to a detention camp in Minidoka, Idaho. His sister, Sadako Moriguchi (1907-2002), was sent to the Tule Lake camp in California. As a native-born U.S. citizen, George was drafted into the army, sworn to protect a country that had just imprisoned the rest of his family and confiscated their family business and property.
He was inducted into military service in early 1942, sent with a train car filled with other American-born Japanese to Camp Robinson, Arkansas. Despite his fears that they were being herded to imprisonment, and rumors that they would be gassed, he was relieved to find that when they arrived, they were treated no differently from other soldiers.
An Artist in the Army
When officers at Camp Robinson discovered he was an artist, they diverted his work assignment to painting their portraits, and executing murals in the officers' club, where he was often invited to eat and drink. His jobs included illustrating training manuals and lettering latrine signs. On weekends, he discovered the Negro jazz clubs in nearby Little Rock. He captured the lively scenes in a series of inspired pastel drawings. He was, in his words, "the camp commander's pet artist" (1984 Interview).
Transferred to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, he was briefly part of the famed 442nd Japanese American combat team, most of whom were a decade younger than George. They were being readied for action in Italy. When the unit was shipped out, George was recovering from minor surgery. He was sent instead to Fort Snelling, Minnesota, where he spent the remainder of the war teaching Japanese language to officers in the Military Intelligence School. Ironically, he had by then forgotten so much of his Japanese that he had to take a refresher course before he felt ready to teach.
Being stationed in Minneapolis afforded the opportunity to visit not only the Minneapolis Art Institute, but museums in Chicago and New York as well. Soldiers in uniform enjoyed free admission to museums and symphony concerts, and he took full advantage of such opportunities.
Love in a Time of War
When he took the train to visit his family in the camps, he found them living in meager but decent conditions, and not as demoralized as he had expected. In Tule Lake to visit his sister Sadako, he met the 20-year-old Ayame Iwasa, an accomplished koto player and performer of traditional dance. He immediately fell in love.
Ayame's mother, Mary Kyotani, had operated a Japanese restaurant in Hollywood, where Ayame was born. Like George, Ayame had been educated in Japan, having been sent to live with her grandmother when she was 13 months old. She returned to the United States at age 13, when her mother remarried. Her brother, still in Japan, was drafted into the Japanese army.
Internees at Tule Lake largely sided with Japan, and expected almost daily to be returned there on an exchange boat. With the sentiments that prevailed at the camp, and with her brother in uniform in Japan, it was a shock to Ayame to meet a Japanese man in a U.S. Army uniform. As she recalls their meeting:
"My mother and I walked the length of the Tule Lake camp -- it was nothing but dirt -- to meet George. We had a nice conversation in Japanese. I liked him. He was so intelligent and so tender. On his way back to Minnesota by train, he stopped in Spokane to see his cousin, Ed Tsutakawa. He told him about meeting me, and they went together to buy an engagement ring for me" (1999 Interview).
Since they had met only once, and spoken of nothing remotely resembling engagement, Ayame was bewildered when, a week later, the ring arrived in the mail with no explanation. Her mother, infuriated by the presumption, walked the length of the camp to return it to Tsutakawa's sister.
When his sister wrote to Tsutakawa to ask the ring's meaning, he explained that he wanted to marry Ayame, and intended it as an engagement ring. In Japan, such arrangements would have been made by a go-between. The Moriguchis returned to Ayame's family as formal go-betweens, bringing the ring beautifully wrapped, topped with mizuhiki, the formal Japanese knots traditionally associated with special occasion presents. This time, Ayame and her family accepted.
It was, in a business sense, an ideal match. Although the Tsutakawa Company had been confiscated by the United States government because of its Japanese ownership, the Moriguchi family assured Ayame's mother that Tsutakawa would be part of their import-export company after the war. (Before the war, the Moriguchi Company had been a competitor of the Tsutakawa Company. After the war, George's sister's husband continued the family import-export tradition by opening the celebrated Seattle store, Uwajimaya, a department store for Japanese products.)
When the war ended, Ayame's mother bought a small restaurant in Sacramento and moved her family there. The restaurant was an immediate success. Ayame reports that far from feeling alienated as a result of the war, "people were very nice to us." But she was in mourning for her brother, who had been stationed in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, when the atom bomb was dropped (1999 Interview).
Tsutakawa was 36 when he returned to Seattle at the war's end. He and Ayame did not immediately marry. George's uncle, his father's youngest brother, had died in camp. George felt obliged to help his uncle's widow and children reestablish themselves. He used the G.I. Bill to buy a house for his aunt and her family. He built himself a one-room shack behind his sister's house.
With the Tsutakawa family business gone and uncompensated, he was free of any obligation to work for the family -- free to devote himself to art. He enrolled at the University of Washington as a graduate student in art under the G.I. Bill.
Art-Lamps and Art-Chairs
George and Ayame married in January 1947, in the Nichiren Buddhist Temple in Seattle. He was teaching Japanese in the Far East Department and was a part-time instructor in the University of Washington School of Architecture while he worked on a Master of Fine Arts degree. It was a slim existence, but Ayame recalls, "I never thought about how much money he had, or what he'd be doing in 10 years. We were never hungry" (1999 Interview).
To furnish their home together, he designed and constructed clean-lined chairs, tables, and lamps, using plywood and bamboo. They were still in daily use more than 50 years later. The simple, handsome shapes and their sturdy functionality make it clear that he could equally well have chosen a career in furniture design. Some of his lamps were exhibited at the Studio Gallery in Seattle in 1947, as part of his first gallery exhibition.
That year, he created one of his most unusual pieces: War Mother. The compact figure of a crouching woman modeled as a clay and plaster bas-relief covers her face in grief, as she cradles an infant. (In 1986, he cast the piece in metal. The original bas-relief remains in the family collection.) The piece expressed George's feeling of guilt concerning the atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which had killed Ayame's brother. The evocative figure was a world apart from the abstract direction most of his art was taking, in keeping with the abstract movement that was sweeping Europe and America.
His art soon was widely exhibited. In 1953, when his work was included in a show of work by Seattle Japanese artists at the Zoë Dusanne Gallery, he also had solo groupings of work in three institutional spaces, and individual pieces in three group shows, nine invitational shows, and two competitions. In 1955, one of his watercolors was accepted into the Bienal Exhibition in São Paolo, Brazil, where it sold.
The Tsutakawas' first child, Gerard, was born in late 1947. Mayumi followed, in 1949; Deems, in 1951; and Marcus, in 1954.
When Marcus was still a babe in arms, the couple bought a view home on Irving Street, overlooking Lake Washington and the floating bridge that links Seattle to Mercer Island. The real estate agent warned that the big house built by a lumber baron for his daughter would doubtless be too large for them. But Ayame loved it on sight, and wrote to her mother, who sent money for a down payment.
Before they married, Ayame related in a 1999 interview, George's friends were mostly Caucasians, and the music he listened to was principally Western. She brought in the Japanese side of his life. When the photographer Johsel Namkung (b. 1919) worked for Northwest Orient Airlines as an interpreter and host, he often brought visiting Japanese dignitaries and artists to the Tsutakawa home.
Even without such visitors, their house was a social hub. Every Saturday night, Ayame recalls, the [Paul] Horiuchis came over, and Paul and George talked about art late into the night, while their children fell asleep on the floor. Often Mark Tobey joined them, and sometimes John Matsudaira. Dinners often segued into sumi painting sessions. Tobey urged Tsutakawa to quit work at the University of Washington, where he had become a full-time art faculty member, in order to pursue his own art. George said he couldn't do that; he had a family to support.
He received his first commission, to carve walnut door panels for Canlis Restaurant, in 1956. That year, he returned to Japan for the first time in 29 years. He guided half a dozen tourists through Kyoto, Nara, and Hiroshima. Sending them on to Tokyo, he met his stepmother and other relatives for a memorial service honoring his father's memory. Afterward, he went on to Tokyo for the opening of an exhibition of his work, along with that of Paul Horiuchi (1906-1999) and Glen Alps, at the Yoseido Gallery.
When he returned to Seattle he created a seminal sculpture he called Obos. Namkung had given him a book, Beyond the High Himalaya, by U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. In it, Douglas described how Himalayan travelers celebrate the successful crossing of a mountain pass by adding a stone to a pile left by earlier pilgrims. The piles are called obos.
George had seen similar stone towers, more attenuated in form, in Japan. Sometimes they are intended as prayers for safe passage, sometimes accompanying figures of O-Jiso-san, spiritual protector of children and infants.
Making obos seemed a fitting way of marking his return from Japan. Obos No. 1 was made from pieces of aged cedar salvaged from the beam of an old ship. Sliced and irregular round forms are balanced in a roughly symmetrical stack 2 feet high. The piece is in the permanent collection of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM).
Obos soon became a highly successful series. Three museums and private collectors, including noted architect Pietro Belluschi, bought Obos sculptures for their collections. The shapes had the simplicity and sense of unity Tsutakawa admired in Constantin Brancusi's work. They also found resonance in the stacked images of Native American totem poles.
The First Fountain
He would doubtless have continued to make obos had he not received an unexpected commission that changed the direction of his life as an artist. In 1958, the board of directors of the Seattle Public Library invited him to create a fountain for the new library then under construction downtown between 4th and 5th avenues. They offered a commission of $18,000. It was the first time the city had commissioned any art except a war memorial in 25 years, since a 1908 bust of Chief Seattle. (Sculptors Ray Jensen and James FitzGerald also received commissions for the new library.)
The library board had in mind a small pedestal in a corner of the auditorium -- an idea Tsutakawa found deeply dissatisfying. He countered with a plan for a plaza fountain outside the 5th Avenue entrance. He told them the total expense probably would be less than the $18,000 they had budgeted, because he planned to have it cast in Japan, where the cost would be half the price of having the work done in Europe. There was at that time no foundry in the Northwest that could handle the job.
He later acknowledged in an interview, "That was almost a disaster for me. I'd never done anything like that before; I didn't know how to proceed." He seriously underestimated the costs and complexity of fabrication and installation. He sent inquiries to half a dozen foundries in Japan. None of them replied. "They simply couldn't understand my design as being a fountain," George said. "It didn't squirt water, it had no cherubs, and it was neither stone nor baroque -- the only fountains with which they were familiar" (1970 Interview).
He had to change his design to one that could be fabricated rather than cast. Jack Uchida, an engineer and a welding expert at Boeing, worked with him on its creation from sheets of silicon bronze cut to shape by band saws, wrought to form by presses and hammers, and assembled by electric welding. It took nearly two years to complete.
Fountain of Wisdom was dedicated March 1, 1960. Its curving shape combined the stacked appearance of Obos with the suggestion of a Japanese pagoda.
Within a week, the fountain had sprung a leak. Water was trickling into the library stacks two floors below. Tsutakawa, who was scheduled to speak to museum docents about the fountain the same day the water had to be turned off, delighted them by reporting: "The fountain is a healthy baby, but the diaper is leaking" (Watson).
Despite the problems, Fountain of Wisdom set the tone for 74 more fountains that followed, in the matte black finish of its curving shapes and open-sided spheres and its softened geometry. The shapes suggest the opening bud of a flower. Tsutakawa spoke of ovoid openings in the spheres as being akin to the eye of Raven in Northwest Coast Native American iconography.
Fountain Design and Fabrication
Tsutakawa's fountains look as if they are shaped by the water itself. He explored the shapes falling water would take by holding spoons under faucets and making small models from sliced Ping-Pong balls. Some of his later fountains were dramatic departures of form. Giant stacked discs were perforated to release columns of dripping water like a slow Northwest rain.
It must not be imagined that the fountains were a solo endeavor. Their production was a team effort. In the 1960s, as a young teen, Gerard became his father's fabrication assistant, gradually assuming responsibility for the technical production and supervision of assistants. Simultaneously, he began to create his own sculpture, winning commissions and making a substantial independent reputation as a sculptor. Uchida was responsible for the technical calculations of water volume, pipe capacities, pump power, and drawings that specified sheet thickness and installation specifications.
Ayame was the family business manager, handling the finances and billing for his commissions: "He had a wallet with a $20 bill and a few smaller bills in it all the time. I used to put them there. He always carried it, but he never knew how much money he had, or how much the family had. He didn't like to count money. He just signed checks like he was making a drawing" (1999 Interview).
Although fountain commissions sound fat, often topping $100,000, two-thirds or more of that typically went to site preparation, drawings and detailing, materials, labor, shipping, and installation.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Tsutakawa became the preeminent and unrivaled creator of fountains in the world, installing them in cities throughout the United States, and extending his reputation with works in Canada and in Japan. "For Tsutakawa, ultimately water stands in relation to humanity and to life as the great continuing cycle of all things," art historian Martha Kingsbury pointed out (Kingsbury).
Tsutakawa explained his fascination with fountains to interviewer Jane Estes in 1978:
"Our sense of continuity and rhythm is universal in water. Even in childhood I was interested in running water, in the recycling process of water. I remember Mark Tobey talking to me about the life cycle of the universe and the fact that water moves about endlessly in its various forms, vapor, ice drops forming in the clouds to be released into the rivers. This recycling always fascinated me" (Estes).
It was the essence of the Northwest itself, with its rain and its ubiquitous bodies of water.
Fountains, Gates, Street Furniture
Of all the fountains Tsutakawa created, the Fountain of Lotus, sponsored by his former classmates in Fukuyama, his Japanese hometown, meant most to him. It was dedicated November 2, 1988, at the Fukuyama Fine Art Museum. The museum was newly erected that year in front of a seventeenth century castle where George used to play, on a site that in his childhood had been the castle moat, filled with lotus blossoms. He designed the fountain to recall those remembered flowers. Installation and dedication of the fountain are included in a video documentary of Tsutakawa produced by the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art. He and Ayame used a photograph of the fountain on their Christmas cards that year.
In 1967, he received the Washington State Governor's Award of Commendation. That was the year in which he executed bronze gates for the Lake City Library. In 1976, he created bronze gates for the east road through the University of Washington Arboretum.
In 1978, he was given a $25,000 commission for a 14-foot sculpture in the heart of Seattle's International District, at the intersection of Maynard Avenue S and S Jackson Street. On its surface, he added Chinese characters for heaven and man. He referred to the piece as "street furniture" because he incorporated a seat into its base.
Another particularly meaningful sculpture for him was a memorial sculpture he did in 1983 for West Coast Japanese Americans interned during World War II. It stands on the Puyallup Fairgrounds, on the site where internees were gathered before being shipped to camps.
Through all of these years, he continued to paint in sumi ink and watercolor. In contrast to his early works, later paintings, largely landscapes, were airy celebrations of the shapes of mountains and trees. His technique betrays the strong hand and sculptural eye of an artist accustomed to thinking in terms of volume. Mountains are swept into shape with broad strokes. Blowing grass is feathered in whispering plumes; hills are traced in resonant curves. Swaths of color darken the sky and reflect in ribbons of water. The track of the brush is immediate and immutable on the absorbent mulberry paper on which he usually worked.
In the 1960s, he began to travel. He went to Europe in 1963; to Mexico, especially the Yucatan, in 1964. He went to east and central Asia in 1969, as well as to Paris; from there, he and Ayame extended the trip to fly to Basel to visit Mark Tobey. Their chief recollection of the trip was of Switzerland's extreme cold (1999 Interview).
In 1977, he traveled to Nepal, where, on trek, he at last saw the stacked rocks of the obos whose forms had so long influenced his work. He saw them first at a place called Labouje, at an altitude of 16,000 feet. Seeing more than 20 such piles against a backdrop of Mount Everest was, he later said, the most exciting experience of his life (1984 Interview).
Accolades and High Honors
In 1981, the Emperor of Japan presented him with the Order of the Rising Sun Award, Fourth Class. University of Washington named him Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus 1984. He received honorary doctorates from both Whitman College, in Walla Walla, and Seattle University in 1986. Unfortunately, his father was no longer alive to appreciate the honors heaped on the son of whom he had once despaired.
After a 34 year teaching career at University of Washington, part of that time in the school of architecture, he became Professor of Art Emeritus. Even then, he continued to teach classes in sumi painting. He had a reputation among students as a kind person and a generous grader.
Ayame recalls that George became more Japanese as he got older. After their grown children left home, George and Ayame customarily spoke Japanese with each other rather than English. Freed of their kids' preferences for typical American teen food, their diet became more Japanese (1999 Interview).
Tsutakawa died on December 18, 1997. An earlier heart attack had left him weak. When doctors said they could do no more for him, he came home from the hospital. "One morning I went up to see him and his hands were cold," Ayame says. "He just passed into eternal sleep, very peacefully" (1999 Interview).