Howard Ikemoto:  The Last Show  from June 2-4 at Cabrillo College Gallery honors a beloved artist and teacher who is unlikely to paint or teach again. In a long history of Ikemoto art exhibitions throughout the region, this one is unique.

Here, the artist is shown not in a measured and curated slice of an era, nor the best of this year’s cohesive paintings on a theme, nor a new direction awaited by old admirers.  No, this exhibition presents the artistic residue of decades:  What of his drawings and paintings is not now already in museums or corporate or private collections, what is not so personal that the family will keep it,  is here for three days, with the intention of making it all accessible for colleagues, students and collectors to purchase. The  Gallery is selling the work to ensure that all of his art has a loving home. Any funds raised will be used toward Howard’s care.

“Howard Ikemoto was an extraordinary teacher, I can’t tell you how deeply he influenced at least two generations of Santa Cruz artists”, says Lynda Watson, herself a nationally exhibited and collected artist, fellow faculty member and longtime friend of Howard Ikemoto.  “For us, his colleagues, we are glad to see such powerful evidence of his creative force.  This is difficult: this exhibition is so intimate and revealing that I hope aspiring artists and those of us who just keep going will benefit from this, the workshop of an artistic life.”  

“Most of Howard’s most powerful and accessible work is safe in museum collections, or with people who will care for them for generations.  But here, from the family and from Howard’s own collection, there is so much that reveals his thinking, his discovery, his process,” says Jeanne Ikemoto, the artist’s wife of 24 years, and mother of his two children.  Ikemoto had retired in 2000 after almost 30 years as full-time faculty at Cabrillo to focus on his own studio work, still teaching occasional extension classes for Cabrillo before moving to Los Angeles in 2014.   Following the death of his second wife, he suffered a decline. He is now in residential treatment center for patients with dementia.  

Perhaps most notable among Ikemoto’s decades of exhibitions in museums and galleries throughout the region was an extensive retrospective in 2010 which occupied the entirety of Triton Museum in Santa Clara.  The themes and styles of his mature career were explored in great depth.  A score of energetic landscapes in oil and watercolor summoned in an inbreath the vastness of a familiar plain:  wet clouds, a lonely stand of trees and glistening rivers, conjuring a mood of expansiveness and hope.  Dozens of large-scale oil paintings showed a thousand moods of water and perhaps one still white boat shimmering  in the reflection, calling on the viewer to contemplate the solitude, the mystery.  He returned to this theme in many forms.  Giant action paintings boldly expressed his early fascination with calligraphy and a lifetime of playing and listening to jazz.  All revealed a passionate eye and hand of a complex man with a tangled history.  The retrospective was perhaps the pinnacle of his artistic career. 

The missing piece was the beginning.  That tale was told in a 1996 exhibit at The Art Museum of Santa Cruz County and later in other California museums.  Howard Ikemoto:  Chi—A Family Divided  chillingly but fondly recalled his earliest memories--of the Tule Lake Internment Camp where he was imprisoned along with his family for five years, from age 2 till he was 7. 

In an interview with Betsy Miller Andersen in 1990, Ikemoto recalled, “In the camps I was raised as a Japanese and I was taught in school as a Japanese would be taught.”  He began drawing at age 4:  “we learned to use the brush before we learned to use the pencil…Teachers talked about marks that had character, inner character…Gesture was very important—the gesture of the mark itself.  It’s a full-on language.”

It became his language at age 7 when U.S. concentration camps were closed after the war and he entered first grade in a Sacramento public school.   Without speaking English, “the only way I could be understood was to make pictures,” and this ability bridged the gaps--gaps that yawned wide in that raw postwar era.  “It had a tremendous impact on my psychology…I had to prove myself to belong.  The key to growing up safely was to be not noticed...there was still a lot of anger about the war in ’46 and ’47.”

This ability to translate himself in images and to be both powerful and invisible are gifts to which many colleagues and friends attribute not only Ikemoto’s prodigious output as an artist but also his almost mythical stature as teacher. 

Mattie Leeds whose own art spans painting and sculpture encountered Ikemoto just as he began to draw figures.  “I became very obsessed….and Howard was right there cheering me on,” he said.  “He had a way of inspiring people without directing them, a very soulful guy.”  The two became lifelong friends.

As a teacher, Ikemoto stayed as invisible as possible.  In the 1990 interview with Andersen, he admitted that he was careful”…not to over-teach. That’s a tendency that a lot of people have, they feel like they’re in charge so they…provide so much that the student doesn’t have a chance to reflect on things and put forth their own experiments.  One of the most difficult things to do as a teacher is to listen.”

For all of his calm as a teacher, Ikemoto’s artwork was full of energy and power.  “I want it to be passionate…dramatic, quiet, subdued, …then I also want it to be passionate in its quietness.”

The Last Show spans this art life in scores of works ranging from small unframed drawings, prints and paintings to characteristic landscapes and calligraphic expressionism  including a giant homage to the jazz of Art Farmer and a curiously disturbing series representing his lifetime fascination for the horse. 

Here too can be seen almost in its entirety that challenging, poignant and hauntingly relevant Tule Lake series marking his childhood in an American concentration camp. The family is seeking placement of this series in the permanent collection of a national art or history museum.

Howard Ikemoto : The Last Show opens on Friday, June 2 and continues on Saturday and Sunday June 3 and 4 from noon to 5pm.  The intention is to find a home for every work.    

Cabrillo College Gallery, Cabrillo College, Library Building,
6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos, CA 95003.  
Call (831)479-6308 for further information.

–Maureen Davidson