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Gregory Sumida: Americana

Gregory Sumida: Americana Organized by Heather James Fine Art Palm Desert, California April 5 – May 31, 2018

Gregory Sumida interview by Steven Nash

me because of his synthesis of vision. He wrote that he found my work exciting, with a great

Gregory Sumida is a painter and draftsman highly skilled in different media who, over a 50-

what would speak the truth. Of course, artificial reality and the digital age have completely

year career, has explored a wide variety of subjects from landscapes and scenes of rural America

upset our sense of reality, so I imagine that if he were working today his style and subject

to depictions of the Old West and portraits. Americana consists of watercolors Sumida made

matter would be quite different. But there were many other artists I admired when my interest

in the early 1970s of rural scenes mostly in the countryside around his hometown of Stockton,

in art was developing. To name a few: Winslow Homer and his fluid watercolors, Childe

California. Following in the tradition of Andrew Wyeth, an artist Sumida greatly admires,

Hassam the Impressionist, and the watercolors of John Singer Sargent. Also, the Japanese

he captured through his own interpretive lens a slice of Americana given, by his intensity of

artists Hokusai, Hiroshige, and the ukiyo-e school including Kitagawa Utamaro and Utagawa

detail and superb technical control of earth tones, an atmospheric, autumnal, even nostalgic

Kunisada. In fact, my gouaches of scenes from the Old West, which came after my rural farm

mood. Sumida is a man of many talents. In addition to painting (he is known to grind his

scenes, were inspired by the way Hiroshige painted his landscapes with people and horses. I

own pigments) he is also an award-winning photographer, plays the trumpet and made his own

should add the Dutch masters who were important to me when I was starting to paint with

guitar, and occasionally makes sculptures.

oils. I lived for a while in both Paris and Venice, also traveled to London, and I visited all the

sense of color, and told me to paint what I know and feel, what is around me, because that is

main museums. SN: You were born in Los Angeles? GS: Yes, in L.A. in 1948 to Japanese/Tibetan parents who were both born in California.

SN: You have worked over the years in an amazing variety of subjects, styles, and mediums. The current show focuses on early watercolors of rural America, and you mentioned your

SN: When did you first take a real interest in art?

Western themes of Indians and other frontier subjects in gouache. What are some of the other

GS: Among those who raised me it was said that it was as if I was born with a brush in my

themes you have explored, and other media you have used.

hand. I think it was at five or six years of age that I was first drawn to art. My childhood was

GS: I have worked, and still work in watercolors, dry brush, pastels, casein, egg tempura, oils,

problematic in a lot of ways. I lived with different families and spoke nothing but Spanish in

distemper, oil and egg, and charcoal. At this moment I am experimenting with a new form of

my early years. And didn’t learn to speak English until grammar school. So drawing became

distemper. As for different subjects, I have done impressionistic landscapes (I mentioned that

for me a form of communicating at a very early age. SN: I understand that you are essentially self-taught, which I find amazing given your technical prowess. Were there any artists in particular who influenced your development? GS: Yes, I am an autodidact. When I was young I wanted to learn more about my craft so I sought-out teachers and college professors for advice, but to no avail. The first dealer to represent my work was the California Fine Arts Gallery in Pasadena, and their director recommended that I visit a well-known watercolorist in Laguna Beach, but after that person first agreed to see me he later refused, which was very disappointing. I was only about 15. It wasn’t until my association with Andrew Wyeth that I overcame my doubts about becoming an artist. I sent some original watercolors to him and asked what he thought, and upon seeing them, he wrote that I must not study under any masters because I had already found my direction. I now believe that being self-taught has allowed me to constantly change and evolve without answering to anything or anyone—it gave me freedom of direction and vision. SN: Talk a little more about your relationship with Wyeth. Your early rural scenes, like the ones in this exhibition, clearly fall within a Wyeth tradition. GS: It wasn’t until the mid-60s that I learned about the watercolors of Andrew Wyeth, when they were shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was there that I met the actor Charlton Heston, who encouraged me to make contact with Wyeth. He became important to 4

I liked Hassam and Sargent), figure paintings both realistic and more symbolist, and portraits, all of which seems pretty scattered but I like diversity. SN: Concerning your farmland paintings, what were the different locations at which you worked, and how did you choose your particular subjects? GS: I moved to Stockton in the Central Valley of California around late-1969. From there I would go out into the San Joaquin Delta area, and I also worked in the foothills around San Gabriel in Southern California. I did a lot of bicycle riding with a backpack and my sketching materials, sometimes going 50 miles or more. That’s how I found my subjects. Some years later I would return to the spots I painted and find that they no longer existed, replaced by concrete and asphalt or shopping centers—the encroachment of urban life. SN: All of the paintings in this exhibition, with their intensity of detail and impressive control of tonal variations, are done in watercolor. What was it about that technique that appealed to you so strongly at the time? GS: I felt that watercolor was the most spontaneous and directly reactive medium for me at that time. Just pigments, water, and paper, which gave me a sense of direct connection with the subjects. I made sketches on location, mostly in charcoal or pencil and sometimes gouache, and then used these, plus memory, to paint the watercolors. SN: One immediately notices that almost all these works are free of people. This, plus the emphasis on things that are weathered, rusticated, sometimes abandoned and the autumnal, earthy palette create, for me at least, a somber and even nostalgic mood. Would you agree with this? GS: Looking back on these works I see something of an essential nature of temperament or personal interpretation. Quite possibly the naked landscapes with no people represent the direct opposite of urban existence. The limited palette in the works allowed me to be more concerned with values and shapes and form, thereby creating the solitariness that you have commented on. I liked the peacefulness of these subjects. I would later make an allowance for people in my works when I felt a synthesis between them and the landscape or scenery. People fishing, farmers, a boat builder, et cetera. Later, my Native American paintings had that same kind of balance and objective. SN: Anyone visiting the exhibition will see immediately that one of the most prevalent motifs in these works is that of bold, barren tree trunks. They have a very strong formal presence and also a strong expressive presence. Sometimes they are so powerful that they are almost menacing. What appealed to you about this particular subject? GS: I enjoyed very much the simple forms and shapes that I could convert into my own art form. I also got very involved in the texture of the bark. It had a natural strength—rough and hard but alive at the same time. It reminded me of the cycles of life,

SN: I heard stories about the works called Goose Girl and Out to Dry. The former is the only work here that includes a human being. Can you tell me about them.? GS: That’s my wife in Goose Girl. She accompanied me on a sketching trip, and I remembered her listening to a flock of geese. I liked the way she stood. And as for Out to Dry, that’s my wife’s mop outside of my studio window. After I did the painting our puppy hound dog came along and tore up the mop. Good thing the painting was finished! SN: You haven’t seen the works in this exhibition for many years, since they have been in private hands. How do you feel, reuniting with them after more than four decades? GS: I was so young when I made them, but it was a great part of my life. I had a wonderful patron at the time, the oil man and art collector Ted Weiner in Fort Worth, and he gave me the freedom to concentrate on art. I owe a great deal to him. SN: Some years after your work on the rural America subjects, you took up themes from the Old West, mostly Native American scenes focused primarily on Plains Indians but also other frontier subjects. Were there any particular experiences that caused you to make this change? GS: Well, I was very interested in the work of the great western painter Henry Farny. Very coincidentally, I lived at one point close to Daniel Farny, his son. I would go to visit him and study some of his father’s works, beautifully painted in gouache and oils. Daniel even lent me a few of his Indian artifacts. SN: The style of your western pictures is as painstakingly realistic as your rural scenes, perhaps 5

even more so. Did you do a lot of research on Native Americans for the sake of authenticity? GS: Yes, I did do a lot of research just so I could be comfortable with the subjects and be more creative with them. I also studied the Shoshoni language and named my Native American pictures with a sort of pigeon dialect I invented by mixing English with native Shoshoni. I amassed a huge library, not only on Native American history but other subjects that interested me such as philosophy, science, mysticism, religion, and music. SN: At this moment, what are your major interests in terms of art making? GS: I am trying to use symbolism and images to represent ideas but in ways different from what they mean on the surface. For example, I have made paintings of mermaids, but for me the mermaid represents a merger of the human and animal traits, and the ocean is our whole ecosystem. SN: Would you say that there are any basic ideas or philosophies or goals that have led you consistently through your lengthy life in art? GS: My subject matter has always been in flux, changing and moving like waves of different paradigms—like a chameleon that changes its color in its surroundings for protection and survival. Hokusai once stated in his mature years, “I have drawn things since I was six. All that I have made before the age of sixty-five is not worth counting. At ninety I will enter into the secret of things. At a hundred-and-ten, everything—every dot, every dash—will live.” This is what I, too, strive for. I once wrote that “the silent voice of art can be heard above the roar.” But I am beginning to think that we have lost our ability to see and hear the important things, as art becomes more commodified and reality so technological. The creative spirit is always in conflict with the clear order of things, of learning and evolution, because it has its own rhythm, the pulse or breathe of life, the ripple of metamorphosis. Art is about exploration and improvisation, just like music. At its best, painting should be visionary; it should stir the soul and break the myopic boundaries of culture. As with Carl Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious, the artist must nurture patterns of emotion, images, and ideas to reach a universal language. Maybe now you can understand why I call myself an enigma!




Branches watercolor on paper 22 x 30 in. 1971 10

Tree Trunks watercolor on paper 29 1/2 x 39 3/4 in. 1971 11


Geese watercolor on paper 22 x 30 in. 1971


Approaching Storm, New Branches watercolor on watercolor board 30 x 21 3/4 in. 1972 14

Tree Trunk and Barn watercolor on pressed board 24 x 30 in. 1972 15

San Gabriel, CA watercolor on watercolor board 11 x 15 in. 1969



Immutable Torso watercolor on watercolor board 22 x 30 in. 1969 18

Tree with Bare Branches watercolor 30 x 22 in. 1972 19


Exposed, Uprooted watercolor 21 1/2 x 27 1/2 in. 1972


Hollow Tree, Hollow Trunk watercolor 30 x 22 in. 1972 22

Fence Support watercolor 22 x 30 in. 1971 23

Brooks Bend watercolor 10 1/2 x 14 1/2 in. 1975



Supported watercolor on watercolor board 22 x 30 in. 1976 26

The Second Tree, Cut Short watercolor on watercolor board 30 x 22 in. 1968 27


Elephant Tree watercolor on watercolor board 14 1/2 x 19 1/2 in. 1969


Tree Study, Whittier, CA watercolor on watercolor board 30 x 22 in. 1968 30

Distant Shade, Knights Ferry, CA watercolor 21 1/2 x 29 3/4 in. 1972 31

Padlocked watercolor 16 1/2 x 25 1/2 in. 1972



Fresh Supply watercolor 15 x 22 in. 1972 34

Vacated watercolor on watercolor board 22 x 30 in. 1972 35


Out to Dry (or Paulette’s Mop) watercolor 15 x 21 1/2 in. 1971


Plastic Feeder, Lockford, CA watercolor 12 x 22 in. 1972 38

White Shack watercolor on paper 14 1/2 x 19 1/2 in. 1969 39

Gregory Sumida: Americana exhibition catalog  

Gregory Sumida: Americana exhibition catalog

Gregory Sumida: Americana exhibition catalog  

Gregory Sumida: Americana exhibition catalog