Where the Art Is: The Artwork of Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani

Walking through the streets of downtown Utica, you might have passed the darkened and blank facade of the Stanley Theater, which on a performance night is usually buzzing with activity. If so, you might have glimpsed a small flyer indicating the opening of “The Artwork of Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani.” Say you followed the sign, entered the side door and climbed a winding set of stairs – what would you have found?

In order to view the newly opened art exhibit, you might have to make such a journey, but the results would be well worth it. Mr. Mirikitani is a Japanese American artist, whose works delicately address his life experiences – his forced confinement in a WWII internment camp, losing his family in the Hiroshima attacks, living homeless on the streets of New York and witnessing the attacks of September 11. Despite the bleak facts of his life, the 89 year-old Mr. Mirikitani maintains a sunny and peaceful disposition, and it is this tension between sorrow and joy, between despair and hope, that makes Mr. Mirikitani such an intriguing figure.

In this most recent exhibition, Mr. Mirikitani’s drawings are thematically separated: his World Trade Center and Lake Tule series occupy one section of the gallery, and his more playful portraits the other. But it would be a serious error to assume that this division indicates a spiritual discordance. Take, for instance, “World Trade Center 1.” Mr. Mirikitani renders the uncomfortable image of two looming buildings caught in the swirls of smoke and fire with the finely detailed lines of his pencil. By abstracting and concentrating the blackness of the buildings, the undulating plumes of smoke and the almost gentle reds of the fire, the overall effect of the drawing is a profound sadness rather than anger. He uses a similar technique in his “Lake Tule” series, which does not display the people or events of the Japanese internment camp but rather the landscape of the place. A mountain, bathed in sunlight, dominates the center and background of the canvas, while the two rows of internment buildings are shuffled off to the right-hand side and the barbed wire fence a mere suggestion in the horizon.

On the opposing wall are compositions of an entirely different tenor; here one will find Mr. Mirikitani’s famous animal drawings, which playfully portray cats, fish and other animals closely associated to the Japanese spirituality. What combines these two bodies of works is their technical sophistication and mingling of playful and serious. All of Mr. Mirikitani’s drawings display a careful fusion between traditional Japanese style – calligraphic brushstrokes and natural landscapes – and a western aesthetic, using colorful hues and collage-like compositions. For an artist who has trained with famed Japanese artists Gyokudo Kawai and Buzan Kimora as well as American icon Jackson Pollock, this artistic synthesis is perhaps not surprising. What is surprising, instead, is the very presence of this notable artist – whose work is displayed in the Asian Museum in Seattle and whose biography, captured in Lina Hattendorf’s film Cats of Mirikitani, has met international and critical acclaim – in Utica, New York.

The opportunity to see high-quality visual art in this part of New York is not nearly as uncommon as one might imagine. The Stanley Theater is case in point. The 3,000 seat theater is a cavernous hall designed in a “Mexican Baroque” style, bedazzled with mosaic titles, gilded columns and a resplendent chandelier. That this incredible space is veiled in an unassuming facade is symptomatic of the crisis of the visual arts in Central New York.

“The Artwork of Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani” will run until March 22.