TomieAraiTomie Arai

Tomie Arai has been involved with the Asian Arts Initiative and Philadelphia arts projects for over a decade. In 1996, she was awarded a Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Residency to work with Cambodian and Vietnamese youth as part of a collaboration with the Initiative and the Fleisher Arts Memorial. A second Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Grant enabled her to work with the Initiative’s summer YouthArtWorks program in 2006. Tomie was one of seven artists to create public works of art for Chinatown In/flux in 2006, and later became an advisor for the program. Other local arts projects include a 1996 printmaking residency at the Brandywine Workshop; a two-story mural entitled Harmony, painted and designed for the Chinatown Learning Center and sponsored by the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program; and Printed Matter, a solo exhibition of her work for the Initiative’s gallery in 2001.

Where and how did you grow up?

I sometimes tell people that I lived in every neighborhood in Manhattan. My parents lived in the Bronx and they moved shortly after I was born to Harlem partly because my father had to get my grandparents who were released from the internment camps and were working as migrant workers in California. So we had this large extended family: my grandparents, my uncle, my two uncles, their wives. And we were all living in Harlem; I pretty much grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I went to public schools. I actually went to the High School of Music and Art which was also in Harlem.

My father was drafted during World War II, and shortly after he was drafted by the U.S. Army, his parents were interned. He grew up in Sacramento and his parents were sent to Tule Lake and then to Topaz Relocation Center in Utah. In the meantime, he was sent to Europe to fight in the war.

So when the war ended, he returned from Europe via New York with a lot of other Japanese American G.I.s. There was a big chapter of JACL-Japanese American Citizens League-here in New York that assisted G.I.s in returning home. And my father refused to go back to California. He met my mother at a JACL dance that they organized, and he decided to settle in New York. In fact, I have yet to read anything about this, but there was a large Japanese community on the Upper West Side that settled in Lower Harlem and there were a number of Japanese stores, which was very unusual in the 60's and 40's, and churches. So my parents decided to settle here. There were certainly a lot of opportunities because Columbia at the time was sort of this center for training diplomats and people who were in Japan during the occupation. So my mother learned Japanese to become a translator. There were a lot of jobs for Japanese-Americans as translators and so that's what both my parents did shortly after the war.

What was your first experience wth the arts?

I did only speak Japanese until I was 4. And then I went to school, and I never talked and the teacher mentioned to my mother-this is what my mother told me-that I didn't talk but that I drew all the time.

My mother kind of encouraged me. We were not very well off economically because my father was unemployed; my mother took advantage of every free cultural opportunity. I remember that she enrolled me in the Museum of Modern Art's classes for urban, inner city children-which translated mostly to poor black children-and I got a chance to take art classes at the Museum. In those days, instead of the modern condo next to the Museum, they actually had a building that was just devoted to art classes. And after the art class you could go into the Museum before it opened and walk around, and it was very like a cathedral-like atmosphere and it was really wonderful. But again, here I was, the only Asian in the class of black and Puerto Rican kids and they were trying to teach us how to paint Gottlieb and Klein and all these abstract [European] Expressionists. It was actually quite fun and quite unlike anything I would have ever encountered in public school. I remember at the end of the session they had an art show and parents were invited and it was really quite exciting.

How did you get involved with community arts work?

I got kind of swept up in leftist politics when I was in high school and we organized a huge benefit against the [Vietnam] war. We raised money for these anti-war group and we painted a mural together. We invited all these people to join in and then we auctioned the mural off. This was 1965-it was before people really did things like that, I guess, that experience of working collectively with a group of people. At the time, we were very involved in anti-war activities. I guess it was 1966 - 1968. I'm sorry, I'm trying to remember the year Malcolm X was killed. I remember there was this riot in Harlem, and having to take the train to Harlem and having to walk to school through all of this and realizing that it was a very charged political time and you couldn't close your eyes and ignore it. It was then that I thought that it would be wonderful to be a political artist. Diego Rivera was one of my idols.

Later I left New York and when I came back to New York after going across country, at that time I had had a child. I was separated from my husband, was a single mother without a lot of prospects. And I opened this magazine, and I saw this article-it was this little magazine called Liberation and they had an article, in color, about murals in Chicago. And I remember thinking to myself, "Boy, this is what I would like to do." I didn't really have any idea how I could go about doing something like that by myself. It wasn't until a few months, or maybe a year later, when I was walking down the street in Chinatown and I saw a mural being painted. I was standing on the street, looking up, watching this mural being painted and they asked me to come up and help them. And I guess that that was the moment I realized this was something I wanted to do. This was a way I could connect art with people and community.

Do you believe art can facilitate connections between people and their communities?

While I was painting murals in New York City, I think that there was this sort of genuine appreciation not only of murals but of the process. Very much like the murals that are being done in Philly, it was the act of watching people make art that was so engaging. The fact there were people from the neighborhood making it was even more of a validation of the project-that this was community art, it was something from the neighborhood. The last mural from that period was destroyed last year-a mural I worked on in 1978. It was called, "Wall of Respect for the Working People of Chinatown."

It was on Hester and Bowery which is actually a pretty busy thoroughfare on the side of a theater called the Music Palace, and last year it was bought by a Burmese developer who wanted to destroy the building and build a hotel. I have to say that the response to the fact that it was going to be destroyed was very moving to me. They wrote articles about it in The New York Times and Chinatown papers, and they tracked down all the mural members and interviewed them. The Municipal Arts Society had designated 500 places that matter in New York City, and there was this genuine feeling that it was a landmark, part of the neighborhood . . . I'm doing a project now about gentrification, and I happened to interview a youth group-I think they're called the Justice for Chinatown project, something of that nature-and they did a project on gentrification over the summer. And as an award for people who had contributed, they gave out photos of the mural. It was very touching.

Do artists have a responsibility to address social justice issues?

Working on a mural project with the Asian Arts Initiative was one of the first times I had done a residency outside New York, and I think that it expanded my ideas and notions of community because I had quite literally defined community as a place that had a lot of localness to it before. It probably stemmed a lot from the murals experience in New York and feeling that community in that context was defined as the street a few blocks away. It had to do with what race you were, what your affiliations were, what organizations you work with-it didn't extend beyond it. That kind of validation made it impossible for you to speak for people; if you were an outsider, you didn't have a right to go into a neighborhood or impose your perspective. In Philadelphia, I began to see that artists actually could-that that was an advantage to being an outsider, that you could play a more neutral role that sort of fit into this whole notion of artists as being catalysts, directing a project in a certain way. That your presence might inspire people to think about themselves differently or express themselves in a way that they wouldn't if they felt threatened or competitive. So I think that that was enormously helpful, to feel that the scope of my work could get larger, that I could reach other people, that I could think about the role I could play differently . . .

I think that I very early on rejected the idea of the artist as a solitary individual, and yet in many ways I still am that person. I noticed one of the questions on your sheet is about how art can change the world. I think that's a pretty romantic idea. It's sort of on the opposite extreme. But really, when it comes down to it, that art is the people. Artists are people who have social responsibility. And if you accept that responsibility, how then do you best contribute? An artist obviously can contribute culturally but that doesn't make them any different from a scientist or a teacher. It's really your own sense of responsibility and sense of commitment to change, that will invest the work with that intent.

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