A Forgotten Asian American Artist of Hope, Resilience and Peace | Haiyun Lu | 7 Min Read

July 11, 2023

I asked ChatGPT to give me a list of well-known American artists. From Jackson Pollock to Robert Rauschenberg, not a single Asian American artist made it onto the list. I’m not surprised since the majority of Americans cannot name more than five Asian Americans in general.  If the most resourceful ChatGPT yields biased information, then something is seriously wrong. 

This void has truly proven that an expert series’ talk cosponsored by Nō Studios and Milwaukee Art Museum is extremely valuable. The panel discussion I participated in was a dialogue between American’s well-known filmmaker and screenwriter, John Ridley, and the late American artist Chiura Obata’s granddaughter and author, Kimi Hill, on Chiura Obata’s life and contributions.

During a time when division, mistrust, the lack of tolerance, and unwillingness to compromise dominate our culture, media, and society, a discussion like this is critically important in fostering understanding, empathy, collaboration, and acceptance in our country.

Born in 1885 in Okayama, Japan, Obata had love, passion, and appreciation for art and nature from a very young age.  When he was 14 years old, he left home, went to Tokyo, and became an art apprentice to learn traditional Japanese painting and Western-Style art.  Remarkably, by the time he reached 17 years old, he had already begun supporting himself through his artistic endeavors.

Obata dreamed of going to the art capital of Paris and leaving his mark there.  However, his parents were poor farmers who struggled daily to get enough food on the table.  Studying art was a luxurious pursuit.  Therefore, as the only son in the family, Obata thought he would go to America to seek his fortune first before setting sail for Paris. In 1903, he arrived in San Francisco’s Japan Town.  He was determined to make the U.S. his launch pad into the glamorous artistic world.

Therefore, the initial language barriers and financial hardship did not deter him.  Working as a janitor and a houseboy for affluent white families, Obata squeezed out every penny he could from his meager earning for his dream.  Whenever he had a brief moment of free time, he would draw.  His passion for art propelled him through scary darkness and unbearable loneliness.

In 1912, Obata met the love of his life, Haruko. They fell deeply in love, and Obata expressed his desire to take her to live in Paris if she married him. However,…

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Haiyun Lu

Haiyun Lu, a Chinese language teacher at the University School of Milwaukee (WI), is also a writer, blogger, trainer, curriculum designer, meditator, and Co-Founder at Ignite Chinese.