The Irony of Being American

By Michi Itami

For The California Printmaker

The Quarterly Journal of the California Society of Printmakers

Issue No. 3, September 1994 (with a cover photo of “The Irony of Being American”)

As a printmaker and painter, my work has always drawn from my observations of nature. I eschewed any outwardly depictive imagery because I was convinced that the abstracted form was more truly “real.” However, when I began to work on the computer, I found that certain depictive images’ haunted me. My father, who died in 1950, was a documenter. He kept photo albums with pithy statements penciled under the pictures. He was also an amateur photographer, his pictures and the photographs of him chronicle a time in American history –WWII – that I felt was important to the formation of my own identity as a Japanese-American. This period was also of extreme importance to my father’s experience of being American. The ability of the computer to combine and resize images inspired me to make a series of works dealing with my family and its history.

Since I have been making prints and teaching printmaking for many years, I chose to investigate various printmaking processes to produce the images. The earliest prints were made by “drawing” the image on the computer screen and making transparencies in order to transfer them to a photosensitized silkscreen. Later images have been produced solely on the computer monitor, output to a Linotronic service bureau, and then enlarged by photocopy onto vellum paper or reproduced by giant blowup photography.

These 36 x 51 inch Xerox on vellum pieces shown here were produced this last way. I have been using old family photographs and electronically cutting and pasting them into an “electronic” collage. The Irony of Being American is about my father, who was born in America, sent back to Japan to be educated, and then returned to America at the age of nineteen. (Japanese-Americans who were educated in Japan were called Kibei). The first picture on the right is of my father at sixteen in Japanese dress, the second photograph is of him at twenty-five in a double-breasted suit, and the third is of him in American uniform with an American flag draped over him. All of these are superimposed over a photograph by Ansel Adams of “Manzanar,” a concentration camp where the American government imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II. During the war, my father volunteered for the American Army, taught in Army language schools since he was proficient in both languages, and eventually was awarded the Legion of Merit (Medal) by the U.S government for his military intelligence work. He went on to become the head interpreter of the Tokyo War Crimes trials. I usually exhibit this piece alongside the letter I received from President Bush, which came with the compensation money. (Recently, this work received a prize from the San Marcos, Texas, Works on Paper Exhibition selected by critic Lucy Lippard.)

Kimi is another computer-generated Xerox on vellum piece about my mother. She was born in the Territory of Hawaii, where her mother had gone to marry her sister’s husband when her sister died. My grandmother could not endure the hard life on the pineapple plantation, as she had come from a samurai household. Leaving her husband in Hawaii, she took her sister’s three children and her own four and went back to Japan. Her life there was one of struggle, and my mother has told me many tales of her difficult childhood. My mother was sent to nursing school in Japan because my grandmother wanted the girls in the family to have a profession so that they would not suffer as she had. Many of the pictures are from that time in my mother’s life. She was the only one in the family who decided to use her American citizenship to return to America. She later became a nurse in Los Angeles. I have used the saya pattern in the piece because it is a pattern derived fro a symbol that is about transmigration.

This series about my family is just one of the ways I am working using the computer in my artwork. I have made both etchings and silkscreens and lithographic prints, all from computer-generated material. From the proceeds of a research grant I received from The City University of New York, two of the prints are lithographs printed by Devraj Dakoji at Bob Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop. They are of my mother and father at sixteen before they met. I named them Sadame and En, which means “identity.”

In the last year, I have attempted to bring the family saga up to recent times. I have taken photographs and hi-8 videos of my mother and daughters and have combined the images in the computer with images of my paintings. I have also been combining my computer-generated images with printmaking techniques such as woodcut. In one of the latest pieces, I have adhered the computer-generated images of my daughters to wood by photocopying onto heat transfer paper, which I then adhere to the wood by an iron. The wood is then carved and painted with oil and encaustic; various stencils are also employed. I am also experimenting with having the images “printed” on the Iris inkjet machine.

The way I work, using both my hand and gesture as well as the technology of the computer, is very much an expression of my interest in duality. We, as humans, are both blessed and cursed by our intelligence; the computer is a revolutionary tool invented and engineered by humans, which provides us with another way of using our faculties of hand, memory, and imagination.

On Michi Itami, Works on Paper: A Retroprospective

By George Nelson Preston, Ph.D.

Professor, Department of Art CCNY/CUNY

Catalogue essay for Michi Itami: A print Retrospective 1972-2003

A.I.R. Gallery November 4-29, 2003

A writer about art feels honored when his idea comes to fruition at the hand of an artist. In 2001, when Michi Itami was contemplating her exhibition schedule, I suggested a retrospective. I became familiar with the work of this remarkable artist for the first time in 1991 when she joined the faculty of The City University of New York at the Department of Art of The City College. In 1996, I acquired three Itami works, a diptych in acrylic and two aquatints.

A retrospective fits into a chronological framework and is an established form for looking at how the past has brought us to the present and perhaps what is to be anticipated. Here, space allows only a summary view of this flow of accomplishments since 1989.

Michi Itami’s work has undergone several permutations since she began her career as a ceramic artist in 1963. What are the changes and continuities since then? What has changed is the degree of dominance of the recognizable vs. verisimilitude; abstraction and narrative. In terms of medium, it is the increased use of computer generated images starting around 1992. In works of the late seventies such as Mummyo, and Misshu, her complex printing techniques prevail as vehicle for the expression of shifting contemplative references to evocations of landscapes based on the calligraphic lines which the traditional Chinese commentaries described: diagonal strokes like drunken deities, verticals like upright soldiers, horizontals like the horizon. Then there were the prints in which a geometry derived from Japanese textile stencils took over such as Monemeki and Manji, 1980. During the eighties several paintings were made in which the above ideas converged and this set the stage for the early computer generated prints 1992-1997 in which there was increase in the use of archival family photographic images and a falling away from the more obvious traditional Japanese forms (The Irony of Being American, 1995). (Tsuioku, Kekka, Kazoku, 1997).

While the photographic density, if I may call it as such, has continued its dominance presently, I think it is safe to say that the layers of ethnic memory not just in archival photos but in form and conventions of montage continue in the vision of this artist whose mother was a ceramist [sic] with one foot in old japan and other in Berkeley and whose husband’s grandfather participated in the Satsuma Rebellion that took place on Kyushu in 1877.