Arthur Okamura passes in Bolinas

Another remarkable Nisei has passed on. I conducted two interviews with Arthur last summer as part of my research on Shigeyoshi Murao. While Arthur did not know Shig beyond a nodding acquaintance, he was just bursting with a vitality and playfulness about the world, the risks we take in living, and in seeing beauty. One of my favorite memories of Arthur was encountering him a wild party in honor of the wandering poet, Nanao Sakaki (who also passed recently). Butoh dancers clanged pots, people chanted and waved basil, and Arthur showed us how to make ten people walk through a crisp dollar bill. I will always recall the gorgeous backdrop banner he painted for the annual "Watershed Environmental Poetry Festival" and his appearance in the film, "Farewell to Manzanar" as 'artist'.

A full oral history of Arthur Okamura resides with the City of Bolinas public library (I believe), and he was recently included in the retrospective exhibition on Asian/American/Modern Art at the DeYoung Museum. It grieves me to see him gone- his talent and his generosity were immense, making an indelible mark on both the art world and the book community.

postage stamp portrait of Arthur Okamura by Stu Art, photo by Bill Braasch

Arthur Okamura, Bolinas artist and teacher, dies at 77

Paul Liberatore

Posted: 07/11/2009 12:33:59 PM PDT


Arthur Okamura, a renowned painter and art teacher who enlivened the social and cultural life of Bolinas for 50 years, died unexpectedly on Friday of an apparent heart attack while walking his dog near his home. He was 77.

Mr. Okamura, a prolific painter who also worked in screen printing and drawing, rose to prominence with the San Francisco Renaissance movement in the 1950s.

An abstract expressionist, his work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Whitney Museum in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Mr. Okamura taught at the California College of the Arts in Oakland for 31 years, retiring in 1997 as professor emeritus.

"He was a master teacher," said Ron Garrigues of Bolinas, a fellow artist and friend. "He knew more about painting than anyone I've ever met."

Three days before he died, Mr. Okamura taught his weekly art class at the New School at Commonweal, a health and environmental research institute in Bolinas.

Involved in Commonweal since its inception in 1976, he served on its board of directors for more than a decade, and had several exhibits of his work in the Commonweal gallery.

"Arthur was an absolute central figure in the Bolinas community for 50 years," said Michael Lerner, Commonweal's co-founder and president. "He was universally respected and admired. He was an extraordinary artist and a beloved man."

Born in Long Beach, Ca., in 1932, Mr. Okamura was 10 years old when he was interned with his Japanese American family during World War II in relocation camps in Southern California and Colorado.

After the war, the Okamura family settled in Chicago. After graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. Okamura studied painting on a fellowship in Mallorca, where he became friends with writer Robert Creeley, one of the originators of the "Black Mountain School" of poetry in the '50s.

The Wheel of Analytic Meditation (Sems kyi dpyod pa rnams par sbyong ba so sor brtag pa' i dpyad sgom 'khor lo) and Instructions on Vision in the Middle Way(dBu ma'i lta khrid zab mo) by Lama Mipham. Published by Dharma Pubishing, 1973. Cover and frontispiece illustration by Arthur Okamura

In his career, Mr. Okamura illustrated books of poetry by Creeley, Robert Bly and other writers. Known for his playful nature, he wrote and illustrated "The Paper Propeller, the Spinning Quarter, the Jumping Frog and 38 Other Amazing Tricks You Can Do with Stuff Lying Around the House."

In 1971, he created the pastel drawings for "The People," a television movie directed by West Marin's John Korty.

"Arthur was so multifaceted," Lerner said. "If he came to a party, he would spend his time making things and doing tricks of all kinds. He would create rings out of dollar bills or balance forks on toothpicks. He was constantly inventing and creating. It was at the heart of his being."

Mr. Okamura was represented by the Braunstein/Quay Gallery in San Francisco and had numerous solo and group exhibits since his first show in Chicago in 1953. Known for his tireless creativity, he had completed a series of 30 new paintings in the past six months, friends said.

"He was very well respected and totally dedicated to his art," said Ruth Braunstein, Mr. Okamura's dealer. "After he retired from teaching, he kept on working and was always looking for new ideas. He worked right up to the last moment."

Mr. Okamura is survived by his wife, Kitty Okamura, sons Jonathan Okamura of Petaluma and Ethan Okamura of Bolinas; daughters Beth Okamura of London, England, Jane Okamura of San Rafael and Stephanie Coupe of Oakland. He also leaves his former wife, Elizabeth Tuomi of Bolinas, and eight grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to Commonweal, 451 Mesa Rd., Bolinas, 94924. A celebration of Mr. Okamura's life is being planned for later in the summer.