The Northwest Artist Paul Horiuchi is renowned for the Zen-like spontaneity of his collage paintings, along with an abstract expressionist command of flat space. The layered paintings carry overtones of fragmented messages, of memories eroded by time. Torn edges suggest wounding and loss. Yet the word most frequently applied to Horiuchi's work was "elegance." The artist traveled from a cultured family in Japan to hard times in America working on the railroad and at other jobs. He married and moved to Seattle and eventually achieved high honor and wide recognition. This biography of Paul Horiuchi is reprinted from Deloris Tarzan Ament's Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002). Note: All quotations from Bernadette Horiuchi and Paul Horiuchi Jr., unless otherwise noted, are from Deloris Tarzan Ament's interviews with them on November 7, 1999.
"I get my best paintings almost by surprise. There is that mysterious moment -- everyone has them -- when something magical happens. After more than 60 years, I still don't know how to get that moment more often," Paul Horiuchi said at age 79 ("Horiuchi Has Painted a Lifetime of Surprises").
San Francisco art critic Thomas Albright once wrote, "No one has ever crowded more subtle nuances in an overall atmosphere of foggy Northwest luminosity --accents of bright transparencies, dusty flockings of metallic silvers and golds. The forms seem to tumble and float through a space of softly modulated Byzantine gold like a Stonehenge in levitation" (Albright).
Childhood in Japan
Paul Horiuchi was born April 12, 1906 -- a white horse year in the Asian zodiac. He was named Chikamasa, the second son of Daisaku Horiuchi, a Kabuki singer and skilled cabinetmaker, and his wife Yasu. Their home was the village of Oishi in Yamanashi Prefecture, on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi, facing Mount Fuji. Daisaku left for the United States when Chikamasa was 40 days old. Four years later, Yasu joined her husband, leaving Chikamasa and his brother in the care of their grandfather, Tokutaro Horiuchi, a cultivated collector of antiques.
In his early teens, Horiuchi was a runner. His best time for the 100-meter dash tied the Olympic record. He was nominated for the Olympic games, but stopped running when he learned he had an enlarged heart.
He first saw Caucasians when a Salvation Army group visited the village. Their blue eyes stunned him. He speculated that they must see the world tinted blue.
Horiuchi studied sumi technique under Iketani, an artist of local reputation, and won a second prize in a nationwide competition for a landscape painting. To the end of his life, he kept a painting of impressive accomplishment that he completed at age 13 as a present for his father. His grandfather posed for it. The painting depicts a saint seated on a porch overlooking the moonlit lake.
The Move to America
His older brother, Toshimasa, later called Tom, joined their parents in America in 1917. Chikamasa embarked for the United States on December 21, 1920. At immigration, he recognized his father by his resemblance to Toshimasa. In Kanda, Wyoming, where Daisaku was a maintenance foreman for the Union Pacific Railroad, Chikamasa met his American brother, age three, and his sisters, age seven and eight.
At 15, Chikamasa too began work on the Union Pacific. He claimed to be 16, and used his mother's maiden name, Kamakura, since railroad rules forbade the employment of fathers and sons on the same work gang. He swiftly learned Spanish from Mexican fellow laborers, absorbing the language without accent, readily convincing newcomers that he was Mexican. He organized a Japanese baseball team. A wit and a practical joker, he became known as "Cheeky." By age 17, he was a section foreman.
He had been in the United States scarcely more than a year when his 45-year-old father died of stomach cancer and his mother returned to Japan, taking the younger children. Chikamasa and Toshimasa remained behind, allowing themselves $10 a month spending money, sending the rest back to Japan to support their mother and siblings, and paying off their father's gambling debts.
Toshimasa took correspondence courses in English and electronics. Chikamasa studied Japanese and English literature. He flunked English -- an outcome that left him so devastated he nearly had a nervous breakdown. At his brother's urging, he returned to Japan for six months. He came back to Wyoming with a complete set of Shakespeare's works in Japanese.
He loved motorcycles. Both he and his brother bought them as soon as they could afford to do so. It was one of Horiuchi's ambitions to ride in a motordrome.
Somehow, in addition to work and study and riding his motorcycle, Horiuchi found time to paint. In 1929, he attracted the attention of a writer for the Salt Lake City Tribune, who reported that "within the last two years, the young man, snowbound on the bleak red desert during the winter months, has turned out 150 paintings of merit" (Salt Lake City Tribune) Most were landscapes.
That year, having paid off their father's debts, Chikamasa and Toshimasa invested in a business to sell and repair radios. The timing could not have been worse. The Great Depression swept through within six months, leaving them again in debt, as customers who were laid off left town without paying for their purchases.
People of the World: Watch My Future
Not long after, Horiuchi accomplished something he was proud of for the rest of his life. Members of the town's Japanese community wanted to start a Japanese- language school for their children. Plans to stage a Kabuki show to raise seed money flagged because the town was too small and isolated to attract professional performers.
Chikamasa stepped in. He not only wrote a play in Kabuki style, he also starred in the show in addition to creating the costumes and makeup. People reportedly came from three states to attend, and were devastated that the show would not travel. No programs for the show remain, and no one now remembers its name. But Horiuchi's widow, Bernadette, remembers that her husband occasionally reprised selections from the show for Mark Tobey, who was so impressed that he said Horiuchi should have chosen an acting career.
If Horiuchi lived simply in those days, it did not necessarily mean that he was modest about his talents. A rock face along the Wyoming railroad line still bears the giant double image of reclining nymphs that he etched with a railroad spike, topping it with Japanese characters that read, "People of the world, watch my future."
His future began to take shape when he met Bernadette Suda, who was to become his wife. She was 21; he, 28. They met in December 1934, at the end of a month-long leave of absence he had taken from the railroad to spend time with Seattle artists Kenjiro Nomura and Kamekichi Tokita. Both Nomura and Tokita were social realist painters. Tokita was known for his paintings of Pioneer Square buildings and of Hooverville, the community of thrown-together shanties that arose near the railroad tracks in Pioneer Square during the Depression years.
When his cousin, Shigetoshi Horiuchi, asked him to meet a girl, Chikamasa wasn't interested. (Shigetoshi Horiuchi was a collector of antiques. His collection was on exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum from the time the museum opened in 1933 until the outbreak of World War II.) Shigetoshi countered that perhaps he wouldn't mind looking her over on Toshimasa's behalf, describing her as beautiful, "just like the Mona Lisa." The description snagged him.
He was taken to the home of Tamotsu Takizaki, a Zen master and kendo teacher who was acting as go-between. He asked Horiuchi to bring a few of his sketches so that they could determine what kind of man he was. When he unrolled them, Takizaki studied them carefully and told Bernadette that he saw something that indicated Horiuchi was different from other men.
Shigetoshi's description of Bernadette's beauty was accurate. Horiuchi was smitten. He decided she was too good for his brother; he wanted Bernadette for himself. He delayed his return to Wyoming for two weeks, during which time the two became engaged.
The Suda Family
Bernadette was born in Seattle. Her parents came from the Izu Peninsula, not far from Horiuchi's hometown. The Suda family grew strawberries, tomatoes, and peas -- across the road from what is now the Bellevue Square shopping center.
Bernadette had lived with the Maryknoll nuns since her parents, two sisters, and one of her brothers drowned when the brakes on the family Model T Ford failed and the car plunged off the end of the Leschi Ferry dock. Bernadette, then 15, escaped and swam to safety, along with her brother George, and Teresa Takizaki. Teresa's sister died in the accident.
Although Bernadette thought Horiuchi "wasn't so bad," she was a devout Catholic, and wanted to marry someone of her own faith. Horiuchi studied for conversion in Rock Springs, Wyoming, during the months in which he was writing her passionate love letters. His daily letters, composed with the help of a Japanese/English dictionary, were flowery extravagances that often made use of terms so archaic that Bernadette had no idea what he meant. When he effused, "I have no sense of propriety," Bernadette had to ask Takizaki, "What is propriety?"
Chikamasa Becomes Paul
On June 11, 1935, they became the first Japanese Catholics to be married in Seattle. The wedding took place at Maryknoll Church. At his baptism, Chikamasa took the name Paul, in honor of Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso. A picture of the young couple shows Paul with his curly hair plastered back with oil. He celebrated by buying a new 1935 Plymouth coupe.
The move to Wyoming was a rude change for Bernadette, who was accustomed to indoor plumbing, electricity, and running water. In rural Wyoming, kerosene lamps provided light, and washing was done on a scrub board. Horiuchi had to teach his bride to cook.
Their first child, Paul Jr., was born April 22, 1936. Jon, the second child, followed on July 8, 1938. Vincent, named in honor of artist Vincent van Gogh, was born October 17, 1947, in Seattle.
Paul changed his name back from Kamakura to Horiuchi in 1937, when Social Security benefits were enacted, requiring lifelong work records to calculate benefits. At the time, he was making a salary reckoned to be "good money" -- $127.50 per month. By 1942, his pay had reached $137.50.
Difficult and Dangerous Years
The Horiuchis' lives, like those of all Japanese Americans, changed with the outbreak of World War II. Because they lived far from the coast, they were not considered a threat to national security, and so were not sent to an internment camp. But the war years were nonetheless difficult and dangerous.
On February 12, 1942, all Japanese were fired from the railroad and given 48 hours to vacate company housing. The Horiuchis could take only what would fit into their 1940 Mercury. Paul made a bonfire of his paintings and the furniture and books they were unable to carry. Standing beside his dad at the pyre, Paul Jr., age 5, asked wide-eyed, "Daddy, are we going to sleep behind the sagebrush like a snake?"
Horiuchi later told the writer Louis Guzzo (1919-2013):
"We had been too terrified to cry up to that time, but little Paul's question really brought the tears. We shall always remember it. I was out of a job for a whole year. Nobody would hire me for anything other than temporary menial work. It was strange. The people themselves were very nice to us, but the men who controlled the jobs were prejudiced against us. Fortunately, we had many friends who shared their food with us and helped us through that bad year" (Guzzo).
He appealed to government officials to send him and his family to a relocation camp with other Japanese, but was turned down. "We envied the people in camp," he said. "They could count on a place to sleep and food to eat."
A black family named Jackson in Rock Springs offered their chicken coop as temporary shelter. It briefly housed both Paul's and Tom's families.
Some of their friends found work in nearby coal mines. But when one of them warned of threats some miners had made to "kill any Japs" they saw, Horiuchi declined to work in the mines. He took a series of jobs in a fruit cannery, as janitor for a Catholic church, and in a tannery -- the latter leaving him with so strong a smell that Bernadette wouldn't allow him into the house until both he and his clothes had been washed.
In 1943, they bought a 7- by 14-foot homemade trailer in which they hauled their few possessions to Ogden, Utah, in search of better work and housing. Carrying his brother-in-law's toolbox to an interview, Horiuchi got work as an electrician for the local trolley company. Horiuchi's brother-in-law was in military service, stationed in the South Pacific. He was surprised to be hired, since he knew nothing about electricity, and told the interviewer as much. His boss later told him, "I knew you could do it when I saw that toolbox."
Because the family lived in cramped quarters, Horiuchi stored a roll of 25 of his best paintings in a friend's basement. Heavy rains that flooded the basement destroyed them.
In 1944, the Horiuchis moved to Spokane, where they lived for 10 months in a tiny house while Paul apprenticed in an auto body and fender repair shop. He became very good at the work. When the war at last ended, the family moved to Seattle. Horiuchi's Body and Fender Shop opened at 12th Avenue and Fir Street. He had outstanding skill at matching paint touch-ups on sun-faded autos, and soon was consulted by others in the business.
But he soon became better known as an artist. In 1947, he won First Prize in oil painting at the Western Washington Fair. One doesn't usually look for fine art at state fairs, but the Western Washington Fair was unusual. It had as its superintendent Melvin Kohler, from the Henry Art Gallery, in Seattle, and called on jurors such as San Francisco art critic Alfred Frankenstein. The show was well respected.
In 1948, Horiuchi's watercolor Boat House won an honorable mention in the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) 34th Northwest Annual Exhibition. In 1949, Kenneth Callahan, writing for The Seattle Times, singled out Horiuchi's Skidroad for praise in the 9th Annual Exhibition of the Northwest Watercolor Society and said La Mer, his painting in SAM's 35th Northwest Annual Exhibition, seemed to "carry extra conviction."
Back in Wyoming, Horiuchi's subjects had often been members of his family: Paul Jr. asleep at age six months; Bernadette holding baby Jon, with the windows behind her miraculously showing Parisian rooftops instead of sagebrush and rabbits. But in western Washington, the world around him needed no substitution.
An accident in 1950 altered the course of his life. He climbed a 10-foot ladder to help a friend hang a sign for the business next to the body shop. When the ladder toppled, he tried to save the sign. The fall broke his left arm and shattered his wrist. "It seemed a catastrophe," he later recalled. "I couldn't work for nine months. We had three children and no savings, and no insurance. We had just bought a record player at Sears, nothing expensive, but we were buying it on time. We had to return it because we couldn't afford the payments" (Tarzan, "Paul Horiuchi: Accident...").
Bernadette took a typing job and later a job in a commercial laundry to support the family. Friends often dropped by with a chicken. One anonymous well-wisher left a 100-pound bag of rice.
A family friend, Cyril Spinola, suggested to Paul that he should sell some of his paintings. When Paul said he had no idea how to do that, Cyril, an insurance salesman, tucked four watercolors into his briefcase to show to clients. A few days later, "he brought back $100 for the sale of four paintings. It was as much as Bernie made in a month at the laundry. We were so happy."
A Career is Born
Horiuchi's career at last was born. He was 45. At the urging of his friend Takizaki, who had an antique shop at the corner of 12th Avenue and King Street, Paul opened an antique shop of his own, Tozai Art, at 409 East Pike Street. The name means "east west." Rent was $25 a month. Paul used the back space as a painting studio.
"He was a lousy salesman," Bernadette recalled. "He thought bargaining was distasteful. If someone started to bargain about some small thing, he would get exasperated and tell them to just take it."
Some customers came to the shop not for antiques, but for the art. Manfred Selig walked into his studio one day and asked how much for everything there. Horiuchi refused, saying he wasn't a wholesaler. For a while, Selig bought a painting from him each week; then later, one a month. Gradually the wall of Horiuchi's studio crept forward to take over the space. He moved his studio to a building owned by photographer George Uchida, on Stewart Street and worked there until 1966, when his home, designed by Gregory Saito, was ready for occupancy. The basement was designed to house his studio.
Friendship with Mark Tobey
Mark Tobey, who used to hang out in Takizaki's shop, soon was hanging out with Horiuchi. The two of them liked to go to Tacoma to look at old buildings along Pacific Avenue and admire decaying walls and the colors of oil slicks on water. Tobey's appreciation of the beauty inherent in humble things impressed Horiuchi. "Don't look at nature, Paul," Tobey advised. "Feel it" (Robbins).
When Tobey expressed interest in sumi painting, Horiuchi gave him a large sumi brush and sumi ink. "He was so excited," Horiuchi later recalled. "He did 90 paintings with it, very fast." One of them, an ink sketch of a young woman, hung on the wall of Horiuchi's studio for many years. (It is now in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum.) "I used to tell Tobey that his paintings reminded me of some of the markings on an ancient Korean bowl, and Tobey would reply, 'Ah, you flatter me.' " (Tarzan, "Paul Horiuchi: Accident...").
They traveled together to Chicago and New York. When Horiuchi went to Venice in preparation for a glass mosaic mural commissioned for Seattle Center, Tobey rendezvoused with him there. After Tobey moved to Basel, Switzerland, they corresponded.
"I have a stack of letters from Mark Tobey," he said in 1984, "and in each of them he says the same thing: Be yourself. Easy to say; hard to do. What does it mean to be yourself in art? I think it means to work with your own rhythm" (Tarzan, "Horiuchi Has Painted..."). Tobey admired Horiuchi's watercolors, but Horiuchi had begun to think they were "too easy."
Not until 1953 did a change in the law permit Horiuchi to become a U.S. citizen. He continued to garner awards in annual exhibitions. In 1952, his painting Dawn was recommended for purchase from the Seattle Art Museum's 38th Northwest Annual Exhibition. But his art was about to change.
The Turn to Collage
Horiuchi gained fame as a master collagist. Collage was a medium whose moment had arrived, the darling of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris. A decorative form of collage, called shikishi, has been used in Japan since the Heian period, in the twelfth century, by poets and calligraphers who arrange torn papers into the likeness of landscapes. Horiuchi drew on that tradition, cross-fertilizing it with a charge of abstract expressionist vigor.
He created his first major collage in 1954, after seeing the shredded rain-blown layers of notices on a wall in Seattle's Chinatown. "It all began with a painting of a red dragon in a Chinatown celebration," he later said. "I had done it in collage, but I didn't like it. The dragon looked too bright. So I stripped it off. When I saw the traces it left, I realized it was much more interesting that way, so I just let it be."
He never returned to figurative art.
Opening at the Zoë Dusanne Gallery
His first gallery exhibition featured four Northwest Japanese artists -- himself, John Matsudaira, Kenjiro Nomura, and George Tsutakawa -- at the Zoë Dusanne Gallery in 1956. Nothing sold.
His first solo exhibition opened at the Zoë Dusanne Gallery May 5, 1957. Although it was often described in later years as a sold-out show, that was not quite true. But the results were impressive enough. Twenty-two of 25 paintings in the show sold. Horiuchi withdrew one for his own collection. It was the most successful art sale up to that point in Northwest history.
He later said, "I was especially fond of two paintings, and I really didn't want to sell them. I priced them at $600 each to keep people away from them. Zoë Dusanne was shocked. She told me I wasn't that famous yet, but I told her I wanted to do it anyway. Those two paintings were the first ones sold" (Tarzan, "Paul Horiuchi: Accident...").
In 1958, he held his first solo museum exhibition, at the Seattle Art Museum. "His collages record the history of rock, wood, or earth surfaces exposed to weather and time," a reviewer wrote (Faber, "Paul Horiuchi's Show..."). That same year, his art was chosen for the Rome-New York Art Foundation Exhibit, in New York and Rome. It was his first important international exposure.
"I believe painting must be both a distillation and an invention," he said. "The source continues to be earth and sky, growth and the seasons; but there continue to be new ways of seeing and thinking about these things" (Faber, "Horiuchi Has It...").
Geometry and Poetry
His technique carried collage into fresh territory. He made it a painterly process. It began with saturating sheets of handmade mulberry paper and rice paper with color. "Once my papers are prepared, the painting is the same as in oil -- I tear and paste, cover and uncover, and from a wealth of colors which I have accumulated over the years, arrive at the subtleties and nuances of color, texture and shape that I want" (Robbins).
His style combined geometry with poetry; the strength of rock with the fluidity of water; the rugged virility of outdoor work in Wyoming with the delicacy of Japanese art. In his collages, the forms are free, yet they retain a sure sense of measure and discipline. Snippets of calligraphy float on rectangular fields of muted color. Feathery sweeps of paint unite the forms.
His collages thunder with black, which assaults the decorative tendencies inherent in fibrous torn edges. The presence of fragmented darkness in his work sets Horiuchi apart from the host of his imitators whose collages rarely amounted to more than pretty pictures.
Michiaki Kawakita, curator in chief of Japan's National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, compared Horiuchi's sensitivity and appreciation of nature to the music of a harp. He hailed Horiuchi as the most impressive Japanese artist in America, saying, "He is fast approaching the complete mastery of his new technique," and adding, "His work is of the finest produced today" (Geijutsu-Shincho).
Horiuchi often painted when he was deeply moved by music or a performance. His 1960 collage The Wall (now in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum) was inspired by a drama he saw in New York, based on John Hersey's novel about the Nazi destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. Horiuchi's favored working time was between 4 and 9 a.m., while others slept.
In 1961 and again in 1964, his collages were selected for the Carnegie Art International Exhibition in Pittsburgh. In 1962, when Seattle hosted the Century 21 World's Fair, Horiuchi received an important commission for a huge outdoor mural, which serves as a backdrop 17-feet high and 60-feet wide for an outdoor amphitheater. He had to learn about a new medium, glass mosaic, in order to translate his signature style into a material suited to outdoor conditions.
Bernadette and the Bonsai Trees
A change in the Alien Land Law in the mid-1960s at last enabled Horiuchi to buy a house. He commissioned architect Gregory Saito to design a home for him with a spacious and airy basement studio on Arrowsmith Avenue S, overlooking Lake Washington and Rainier Beach. In 1966, the Horiuchis moved in.
There, Horiuchi was able to indulge another passion: bonsai trees, which he lovingly shaped and pruned. He called them his silent friends, who never talked back. Bernadette called them his mistresses. He spent hours at Kubota Gardens patiently listening to Fujitaro Kubota relate again and again how he had gotten into the nursery business, in order to soften him up to sell a prize bonsai specimen. "He would tell me he had paid $500 for a tree, and I would find out later he paid $2,000 or more for it," Bernadette said.
Honors and Accolades
During the years of Horiuchi's greatest recognition, Bernadette worked at the International Branch of the Seattle First National Bank, where she had a 22-year career.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Horiuchi received many honors, foremost among them his designation by the Emperor of Japan as a Sacred Treasure, Fourth Class, in 1976. In 1968, the University of Puget Sound awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree. St. Martin's College awarded him an honorary doctorate in fine arts in 1979. In 1989, he received the Washington State Governor's Award of Special Commendation. He was given retrospective exhibitions at the Tacoma Art Museum in 1967; the University of Oregon Museum of Art, Eugene, in 1969; and the Wing Luke Asian Museum, Seattle, in 1987. The Wing Luke Asian Museum also presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995.
Year after year, exhibitions of Horiuchi's work could be counted on to sell out. In 1983, his show at the Gordon Woodside/John Braseth Gallery set a new precedent, selling out before it officially opened. That brought such a storm of protest from disappointed collectors that Woodside vowed he would not allow it to happen again.
In 1974, Horiuchi summed up his life for a reporter for the Japanese community newspaper Rafu Shimpo: "When I was in my twenties, I thought I was pretty smart. In my thirties I thought I was a genius. In my forties I began to doubt. In my fifties I was lost, and in my sixties it's even worse. I feel really ashamed for the little I did." He compared his feelings to those Mark Tobey expressed when the two of them entered a retrospective exhibition of Tobey's work. He said Tobey looked dejected and a sense of shame overwhelmed him as he lamented, "That's all I did" (Rafu Shimpo).
In Horiuchi's case, that "all" covered more than 2,000 paintings. An estimated 1,500 people own Horiuchi works.
Like his father, Paul suffered from stomach cancer. Unlike his father, he survived surgery successfully. But he did not escape Alzheimer's disease, the complications of which ended his life in August 1999.
The program for his memorial service carried a copy of his handwritten statement of intent: "I have always wanted to create something serene, the peace and serenity, the quality needed to balance the sensationalism in our surroundings today. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I'm seeking beauty and truth in nature. This philosophy of mine hasn't changed for the last 50 years."
Paul Horiuchi had heeded Takizaki's advice: "Think good of others. Do good to others. If the man becomes good, then the artist will be good."