Growing up: Seattle to Tokyo
She was born Eugenia Sumiye Ushiyama in Seattle, Washington in 1921, the first child of one of Japan's earlier entrepreneurs in the West. Unlike most Japanese immigrants arriving on the West Coast of the US in the early 1900's, Ushiyama Masaburo was so quickly discouraged by the discrimination against Japanese and Chinese, that he soon headed inland. Somewhere he hooked up with the Ringling Brothers circus, introducing judo to American audiences. "These 'Oriental' men, whom many Americans had never seen before, asked for volunteer wrestlers from the audience," Ms. Okoshi would explain, "and these short Japanese men would demonstrate their judo on the tall Americans." Pocketing some money, he studied business at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Ushiyama returned to Seattle, and by 1920 had married Ryoko Fukuda. In 1921 Eugenia Sumiye Okoshi was their first-born of four children, all daughters. His occupation is listed on her birth certificate as an importer-exporter. According to ship records, she made her first trip to Japan after her first birthday with her parents. From the French inventor, Georges Claude, in the mid- 1920's Ushiyama obtained the patent rights to neon lights in Japan. "They said, 'He lit up the Ginza,'" Ms. Okoshi would smile quietly and gently laugh. In 1928, the family moved permanently to Tokyo. It was a very comfortable childhood for this family with new money. Sumiye attended the private school, Rikkyo Jogakuin (St. Margaret's Episcopalian School).
Tokyo, World War II; A Young Widow
Sumiye Okoshi was 21 years old when Japan declared war on the US. Shortly before, she had married Toshiaki Okoshi, a journalist for Asahi Shimbun. During the war, he was sent to the Philippines as a war correspondent for the Japanese Army while she lived in the daily air raids on Tokyo, as bombs were dropped all around. For a time she was able to retreat to her family's ancestral home in Nagano, a beautiful mountainous land. Once upon returning to their Tokyo house, her family found it intact but with an unexploded missile lying in the front yard. The destruction of Tokyo and the wondrous nature of Nagano were in sharp contrast --- as well, she was to experience life at its social class extremes.
With the surrender of Japan in 1945, Toshiaki Okoshi was diagnosed with tuberculosis when taken by Americans as a prisoner of war, and then sent back to Japan. Sumiye Okoshi was asked by Asahi Shimbun to make the long trip to visit him in Ohmura, in the Prefecture of Nagasaki. As the train from Tokyo to Ohmura approached Hiroshima, the conductor instructed all passengers to lower the window shades. However, Ms. Okoshi peeked out from her lowered shade to silently gasp, a breath still held in memory 60 years later. Far worse than the years of bombing of Tokyo, after the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, "there was nothing,. Nothing."
Arriving at the medical camp, it was difficult for Ms. Okoshi to find her husband, but as she entered the area where he lay on the ground bedding, he called to her. After the years of separation and the massive world tragedies of war, he joked that she had forgotten who he was. She would recount how she had brought a bag of rice from Tokyo. Food was scarce: each grain was precious. With no coal to cook, she dug a hole in the ground, gathered anything that could burn, and cooked the rice in a mess can she found on the ground for their first meal together in years. After about a year, they returned to Tokyo, where he was in a hospital and later moved to a TB sanitarium in Kiyose. In 1950 he tried returning to work at Asahi Shimbun. The couple had been saving and building a small house in Suginami-ku, Tokyo. Toshiaki died the second night after they moved in.
"Go (back) to America."
A widow at age 29, Sumiye had also lost her mother in the first years after the end of the war, during the American occupation. She briefly went to live in her father's house until he announced he would be re-marrying, so that would no longer be a place for Sumiye in his house. "Go to America," he said, "there is more opportunity there." Ms. Okoshi would often relate this story very matter-of-factly. It was the way things were done in Japan, perhaps, but also, Ushiyama himself had once made the most of his experience as a poor immigrant in the US. There was no place for a widow in Japan, and moreso, in post-war Japan.
Ms. Okoshi's petition for re-entry into her native US was denied several times before she was admitted into Seattle in 1951. From 1952-1958 she took a job as a housemaid to a white family. She often told the story of this family once telling their dinner guests, "Don't talk to her like that, she's from one of the wealthiest families in Japan." At night, she started studying art with Fay Chang, who was familiar company with some of the Northwest School members. From 1954 - 1958 she studied with Nicholas Damascus at Seattle University, and from 1957 to 1959 was on scholarship at the Henry Frye Art Museum By the time she left Seattle, she had had begun to locally show her work, and to sell some of her paintings.
New York City
In 1959 Ms. Okoshi moved to New York City. Why and how that move was made is unknown, but so many arrived with no more than their artist selves in those times. From July 1959 to January, 1963, she resided at 43 5th Ave (at 11th St), settling in Greenwich Village during its vibrant decades of developing talents. During this time, she came to know Kenzo Okada, the abstract expressionist painter. As well, many other Japanese artists were arriving in New York, founding the Japanese Artists Association. In 1960 she painted Ruins at Sunset at least a few times, and continued to experiment with abstractionism on canvas. From 1963 until 1970 she resided at 9 Patchin Place. She remained in contact with her father, who would sometimes write letters in a much more vernacular English than her own. One letter stated that he would send money to help her attend beautician school. Once licensed, she began hair styling by day in Greenwich Village, and painting at night. From 1964 she increasingly showed her work in New York, and was included in some galleries in Sweden and France. By 1970, the Miami Museum of Modern Art invited her for a one-woman show.
Shortly after arriving in Greenwich Village, Ms. Okoshi met George Taizo Mukai, a Realist painter who lived close by on W. 8th St. Unlike her first husband, a journalist veteran of the Japanese Army during WWII, George was Japanese-American, from a farm family who had homesteaded southern California, and a veteran of the segregated U.S. Army 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe during WWII. When the City of New York established the Westbeth Artists housing in 1970, Ms. Okoshi was one its original residents. George moved in during the ensuing years, and the two rented a working art studio together on the 13th floor, with ample natural light. Having grown up on a farm, George supported Ms. Okoshi's art as her production hand, making many of her canvases and frames, with an artist's craftsmanship. They married in 1976.
Ms. Okoshi increasingly received invitations to show her work. From 1950 through the 1970's she produced a variety of abstract paintings. Some time in the 1980's she began the Plenum and Persistent Light series. For each work, she meticulously cut each of the mulberry paper (washi) ovals with hand scissors. All work was of her own hands. Although she tried various times to hire an assistant, she found no one who could cut the curve of the ends of the ovals to her satisfaction. Thus, each oval of these "washi on canvas" works is as if it is her own calligraphy. By the 1990's the Viridian Gallery was showing these works regularly.
By 2000 she had sold over 100 paintings. At her last Viridian Gallery show, she said, "This is my last show, I am getting too old." In the next years, she appeared increasingly frail. With health concerns she preferred to dismiss, in 2006 she and Mukai were forced to move from her beloved Greenwich Village to the uptown Isabella House on 190th St, where daily assistance could be provided to her. The NYU AAPI-Asian-American Pacific Islander Institute hosted a last show in 2007 honoring her and George Mukai as artists, which touched them immensely, as the opening was fully attended. Ms. Okoshi had many professional admirers as well as personal friends in New York, including her family of alumnae from St. Margaret's School in Japan. Many young artists and others arriving in New York City from Japan appreciated her help. She had no children, but in her last decades she loved frequent weekend visits with a grandniece, sharing the fun of present moments and passing on the "secrets" of her art techniques.
In 2008, Ms. Okoshi was hospitalized after becoming weak in public. She declined further medical therapy and accepted hospice care in Isabella House. She passed away in July, 2008.