IN A WESTERN MIRROR: 18 Paintings on the Life and Art of Roger Shimomura by Wayne Mi
"IN A WESTERN MIRROR is a series of paintings about a forty year friendship I’ve had with the artist Roger Shimomura. They are about war, race, censorship, imprisonment, youth, age, practical joking, the importance of art and a bad day on Broadway among other things. Some are experiences we’ve shared and others are Roger’s alone. The Western Mirror title refers to the way we see ourselves as Americans and the way America looks back at us. That reflection has been very different for Roger than for it has been for me." WM
An embodiment of friendship: (L) Yellow Terror by Roger Shimomura (collection of Bill & Christy Gautreaux) and (R) In a Western Mirror: 18 Paintings on the Life and Art of Roger Shimomura by Wayne Miller, exhibited together at Cape Cod Museum of Art, Dennis, MA, in July 2016. The installation, part of a show titled At the Crossroads: Six Narratives at the Intersection of Identity and Community, represented more than 50 years of friendship between the two artists, as the three lecterns bearing shared ephemera testified.
I first met Roger Shimomura in 1967 at the Continental Can Company in Syracuse, New York. At that time, the old Can Company building was home to the graduate painting and sculpture studios at Syracuse University. This was the first studio I’d ever had. Roger, on the other hand, who was five years older and married, had not only had his own studio in Seattle, he’d been an army artillery officer in Korea and had attended several art schools. Within days of his arrival in Syracuse, he set up a painting and silk screen studio at the Can Company, and by year’s end, he’d exhibited his work at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York. His work ethic was relentless and I was very much impressed.
Each day I’d pass Roger’s studio on the way to my own, and each day there’d be something new to see and consider. At Mass Art in Boston, where I’d earned an undergraduate degree, we were painters who stretched our canvases with tacks and sized them with rabbit skin glue. But in Shimomura’s studio at the Can Company, magazine photos were soaking in toxic brine, waiting to be transferred to paper or silkscreened onto canvas where they would be altered with charcoal sticks or florescent spray paint or whatever medium seemed appropriate to the image. Art, which applied directly and immediately to our lives, was a new idea to me. So was the idea of recording everything we did with a 35mm camera and a reel to reel tape recorder. Much of the time, the subject of Roger’s work was faces, but at the time I didn’t understand why.
Shimomura Crossing the Delaware, 2010, Acrylic on Canvas, Triptych, 6’ x 12,’ Permanent Collection, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Exhibition Label: "As an artist, Roger Shimomura (born 1939) has focused particular attention on the experiences of Asian Americans and the challenges of being “different” in America. He knows well the pain and embarrassment associated with xenophobia: as a small child during World War II, he and his family were relocated from their home in Seattle to a Japanese American internment camp in Idaho. This painting takes as its source Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, which is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Shimomura presents himself in the guise of America’s Founding Father; he replaces George Washington’s colonial troops with samurai warriors; and he remakes the body of water they cross to resemble San Francisco Harbor with Angel Island (the processing center for Asian immigrants) in the background. The work echoes the compositional format of a Katsushika Hokusai wood-block print."
Through Roger’s work I learned of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, his childhood in the detention camp at Minidoka, Idaho, and the continuing problems of race that are a daily part of Asian American lives. These experiences, plus a lifelong respect for American comics, have fueled Roger’s work for nearly forty years. His work has, in turn informed mine.
For example, in those days, Roger had a habit of working in square or nearly square compositional formats. I tried it and got hooked. To this day, the first thing I do when jotting down an idea for a painting is to draw a square. When the Western Mirror series was nearly completed, I went through my house looking at the Shimomura artworks on display. All but one were square-based compositions. Back in the studio, I looked at the Western Mirror paintings. All but two were variations on a square. It’s no longer a conscious decision.
The Can Company experience was short-lived. The Viet Nam war had escalated and my student draft deferment ended. By summer 1968, I was an Airman training in Texas and by 1969 I was working in a medical evacuation unit in Da Nang. Later, when I got back to Syracuse University, the Can Company was a thing of the past. Painting studios had relocated to B4 Collendale, a collection of WWII barracks buildings at the opposite end of town. Roger had graduated and taken a teaching job in Kansas. After Collendale, I took a teaching job at the State University of New York before moving to New York City.
Aside from a two-person exhibition at the Morgan Gallery in 1980, Roger and I never exhibited work together after Syracuse University until At the Crossroads at Cape Cod Museum of Art in 2016. We’ve followed each other’s careers through letters, exhibition mailers and over drinks when we happen to be in the same city at the same time, and now we have the Internet.
Roger Shimomura and Wayne Miller, showing together for the first time, at Morgan Gallery, Kansas City, 1980.
Reflections of a Friend is the subtitle of the Western Mirror paintings. It’s a play on the meaning of the word "reflection" as both a visual image and a memory, and it comes from a conversation Roger and I had at the Can Company four decades ago.
While talking about John Coltrane’s music, I told Roger that all I really liked about Coltrane’s performances were the piano solos between saxophone explorations. Assuming I knew something about jazz, he asked why I didn’t just listen to McCoy Tyner. Later that day, I went downtown to a record shop and bought the first of many McCoy Tyner albums I would own over the years. The album was Echoes of a Friend, Tyner’s homage to his mentor John Coltrane. Reflections of a Friend is both a reference to that music and a way of thanking Roger for a forty year friendship. WM
Roger Shimomura and Wayne Miller in Truro, MA, 2006. Photo by Jim Peters.
In a Western Mirror: 18 Paintings on the Life and Art of Roger Shimora by Wayne Miller is a profound gesture of friendship. Through this captivating series, Mr. Miller provides viewers with an extremely moving personal reflection on internationally celebrated artist Roger Shimomura's formative years years in detention, as well as the macro-cultural significance of a blatant perversion of American justice known as Minidoka War Relocation Center. In spite of the apology of the U.S. Administration in 1988, viewing the works today brings exquisite clarity to the fact that racial intolerance, both subtle and overt, is a contemporary problem in America.
Contextually, the presence of Yellow Terror by Mr. Shimomura creates a real-time conversation between the two friends, adding a critical level of complexity to the two essential components of the overall narrative -- the converging pathways of a decades-long friendship and a nation’s slow but steady crawl towards racial tolerance.
Detail of Yellow Terror: Roger Shimomura parodies himself, among myriad racially-degrading images of Asian stereotypes that are, to this day, available on the Internet.
Roger Shimomura's art combines American popular culture, traditional Asian tropes, and stereotypical racial imagery to provoke thought and debate on issues of identity and social perception. His father and mother were both U.S.-born Nisei, whose own parents had emigrated from Japan in the early 1900s.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of Japanese Internment, his family was forcibly relocated and incarcerated at Camp Minidoka in Idaho. After about two years at Minidoka, the family moved to Chicago, outside the West Coast Japanese exclusion zone. The family lived there for a few months before returning to Seattle at war's end in 1945.
Wayne Miller and Roger Shimomura met as graduate students in the painting department at Syracuse Universityin 1967, and have since remained life-long friends. The exhibition at Cape Cod Museum of Art in is the second time they have had the opportunity to exhibit work together.
Susan Danton, Miller White Fine Arts, October 2018