Art In Conversation
Koho Yamamoto with Amanda Millet-Sorsa
“If youre a true artist you just become one. There was no other way, just art. I feel so blessed that I have art.”
New York CityNoguchi Museum,
Koho Yamamoto: Under A Dark Moon
March 10, – May 23, 2021
We discuss the life and work of Japanese American artist Koho Yamamoto through several conversations over sushi and tea in her apartment above Bar Pitti on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village, in anticipation of her centennial birthday in April 2022. After seeing the artist’s first big show at the Noguchi Museum, Koho Yamamoto: Under a Dark Moon (May 2021), I started as her student to learn Japanese calligraphy. Though she is a dedicated teacher of traditional sumi-e subjects and has taught for over fifty years, her own work stems from the ideas and thoughts developed in postwar Abstract Expressionism in New York, where she has lived since 1945 after being held in the internment camps in Utah during WWII. Abstraction through calligraphic rapid strokes and gestures of pure expression, beginning from the void and nothingness, has become the basis of her work from the late 1950s until the present. She has chosen to paint with sumi ink, brush, and rice paper as she prefers to use the materials and vocabulary from her Japanese heritage.
Koho Yamamoto: Well I don’t have much to talk about. [Laughs] All I do is paint. It comes from nothingness. I don’t think beforehand, I just make myself into nothingness and something appears and I continue.
Amanda Millet-Sorsa (Rail): How did you know that it started from nothingness? Is it something you feel inside or see?
Yamamoto: Well I make my mind into sort of a blank, and I just do it, and something comes out by itself. I also discard most of my paintings. I find that if I’m not one hundred percent satisfied, I throw it away. I may have thrown out better ones. I’m very fast!
Rail: How do you know when to stop?
Yamamoto: Well, I feel it. If I don’t feel it just the way I want it, then I’d rather destroy it than to keep it.
Rail: Do you miss some of the paintings you’ve thrown away? Is that how you’ve always lived your life?
Yamamoto: I don’t think about it. I keep moving forward. No use thinking about the past or my mistakes, I just try to go forward.
Rail: I remember you were talking about your teacher Chiura Obata, and how he was your main teacher when you were young.
Yamamoto: He taught me a lot. Once he made a speech and pointed to me and said, “She makes very good work sometimes.” I was pretty courageous, you know. I just delved into it. Some works I had to discard, others came out beautifully. I was about nineteen or twenty years old. It was in the camps.
Rail: You spent your time making art in the camps; was this a painful time?
Yamamoto: It was good for artists, writers, poets—we need time, it’s so important. If you work, have a job, you won’t have much time to think. We had enough to eat and it was very good for artists. I didn’t feel too much about it. I was still young and I was glad I had a chance to paint without having to worry about making a living. It didn’t feel like a prison, I was so ignorant. We lived in the barracks, just a temporary wooden shack-like thing, small, with four of us living in a tiny space. There was no kitchen, we would all gather together and eat at the mess hall outside. For a while they gave us the worst parts of meat, like intestines, so we had a demonstration, a simple protest, and then the food got a little better. The people in charge didn’t want to spend too much money and kept it to themselves.
Rail: You worked mostly in black and white, then later, you used color a lot too in your work. Where do you think that shift came from?
Yamamoto: I did oil painting for quite a long time. It was the only thing they were teaching in school. I went to The Art Students League; it’s more realistic when you paint from the model.
Later, yes I use some colors. There was a time I used a lot of red. My name is “red harbor.” Red has a lot of power to it. My teacher, Obata, gave that name to me. His name was “one thousand harbors” and he gave me part of his art name. He gave me “red harbor.” It gave me more confidence and I felt very grateful that I got the name.
Rail: What do you remember about Obata?
Yamamoto: He was very strong, happy, and something like “who cares?” He didn’t care about small things. He did some figurative work and landscapes. His paintings are not to his character, I think. More sweet and nice.
Rail: When did abstraction come into your work? Did you learn from Obata?
Yamamoto: No, he didn’t do any abstractions. He was very good in strokes and all that, but I never saw him doing anything abstract. I went my own way—I did it my way! [Laughs]
Rail: That’s strong, to go your way into abstraction. Did you start doing that when you came to New York or before?
Yamamoto: In New York. I did it my way! Frank Sinatra! [Laughs]
Rail: What made you become an artist?
Yamamoto: It just happens, if you’re a true artist you just become one. There was no other way, just art. I feel so blessed that I have art. It gives me something to think about, to live on, and gives me life. Without art, there’s nothing. It would be such a dull uninteresting world without artists. We need artists. We add colors to it, we have more excitement!
Rail: So you came to New York and you started to do abstraction, that’s so wild! Was there something about the city that catered to you and abstraction?
Yamamoto: Well I like to go my own way and I liked abstraction because you could be more free. I was the youngest in my family, so I was being scolded quite often! They used to call me “Margie.” Even in the camp when a newspaper reporter was there he could hear everything, we could hear each other. And my father was always saying, “Margie!”
I was the youngest, so I always felt I wasn’t treated too well, but maybe that was my impression.
Rail: Sumi-e is so disciplined as a practice. As a young person you weren’t so disciplined?
Yamamoto: I guess I had to be disciplined because when you do sumi-e you have to, you know. You can’t do things your own way, but I went my own way into abstraction.
Rail: The discipline disappeared in the abstraction?
Yamamoto: No, there is still discipline. You can’t be so free.
Rail: Why did you come to New York, did the city give you freedom?
Yamamoto: Yeah. I’m so glad. When I was young I really enjoyed being independent. After we were in the camp we could go anywhere we wished with government expenses in 1945. And I picked New York, something new and far away. I got a job at Mount Sinai Hospital uptown as a nurse’s aid where you get free meals and a place to stay. So that was good for me.
Rail: And you were painting as well?
Yamamoto: I tried to paint, I was always painting. I went to The Art Students League where I got a scholarship with free tuition. I also took abstract oil painting classes there, with a teacher called Richard Bove. I chose New York because it’s an art city. I did most of my painting in New York. For me art was the most important thing.
Rail: Did you make some paintings from live models?
Yamamoto: Yes, at first I was rather embarrassed! I was hiding, but then I got used to it. I never saw a nude model, man or woman!
Rail: It must’ve prepared you for marriage!
Yamamoto: Marriage! [Laughs] Maybe. When I was young I had a chance to get together with a young man whose mother was very rich, but he was not an artist. So I picked the poorest of poor men for my husband. I admire artists. Art was most important for me. I don’t think my husband, Hideo Kobashigawa, was such a great artist. I went to Mexico to get divorced. In 1964, unless you had a lover on the side, that was the only reason to get divorced! He didn’t want to get divorced, but I did.
I felt he was too much into himself. He was a good person, he never raised his voice or anything like that. We talked, we had coffee and cake at night and then when we talked, all he talked about was himself, his art and then when I started to talk about myself for a change he unconsciously walked away and came back and talked about himself again! He didn’t do it on purpose. But he was a good person. The only way I could get divorced was to go to Chihuahua, Mexico.
Rail: Was it at The Art Students League where you first did abstract work?
Yamamoto: Yes I guess so, the teacher’s work was pretty abstract.
Rail: So sumi-e came much later, and then you started your school?
Yamamoto: Yes, I started to teach at Koho School of Sumi-e founded in 1974. I had a studio and rented the storefront on MacDougal Street and I taught there. Sometimes I was asked to teach temporarily in art schools. By teaching you learn a lot. Bamboo is not easy, you have to have it round and sharp, but that is the first thing you learn.
Rail: I heard from some students that they only learned how to paint bamboo for an entire year! That’s a long time!
Yamamoto: Yeah, there are different ways of painting bamboo. I have a book here and the students copy from the book. The first thing I taught was the strokes for bamboo, pine, and plum blossoms. Those three are the main basic strokes and you paint them throughout your whole years: sho-chiku-bai (bamboo, pine, plum blossom).
Rail: Do your students start with nothingness?
Yamamoto: They start from bamboo and things like that, and when I start doing abstraction it starts from nothingness. I don’t like to copy, so you just make your mind into nothingness and do a circle or whatever.
Rail: Is this something Obata talked about?
Yamamoto: No, this is something I learned by myself.
Rail: There seems to be a connection with Buddhism.
Yamamoto: Yes it has some. Many Zen Buddhists were artists. Simplicity is very important. In sumi-e you do it very simple and discard all the unnecessary parts. If the true feeling comes out, then it’s a success. It’s not easy. It’s hard to do simplicity. I try to be simple and take the essence of things.
Rail: New York isn’t a simple city.
Yamamoto: I like New York. I chose New York. When I first came to New York, I didn’t know how to dress. I came from warm California and in the winter time I was shivering. I didn’t know how to walk on the ice.
Rail: Has it been a tough life in New York?
Yamamoto: I had a job at Mount Sinai, and I had been working as a nurse’s aid in the camps, so I took the same kind of job just helping patients.
In Japan another thing is the older you get, the more respect you get. So you can’t wait to say how old you are. The older you get, the more they cater to you. I’d say “Do you know how old I am?” Forty … now fifty now sixty-five! In America we tend to hide our age, especially women. But we are changing too now, I think.
I’m ninety-nine. I look pretty strong for my age! I can still go up and down the stairs!
Rail: I love the poem you wrote that was included in your show at the Noguchi Museum last spring…
Yamamoto: “Don’t say I’m old, don’t say I’m weak, I will kick you in the ass, I’m a grand old soul of a lioness.” I like to brag! Talk big!
Rail: As you turn one hundred, what kind of wisdom could you offer the younger generations?
Yamamoto: Life just happens, let it be. Time passes so fast! I have to realize I’m an old woman. It’s just another day passing by. I’m surprised I lived so long. Just getting old—it doesn’t mean much. I don’t feel old, it’s just a number! I’m pretty lucky to have time for my painting. When you have a job to go to it takes up most of your time in your life. I’m lucky right now, I should make use of my time to do my work, my painting.
Rail: But you can walk down all those stairs to your fourth-floor walk-up?!
Yamamoto: Yes, I’m pretty good for my age. I love to go out once a day, in the afternoon. I don’t get up early that easily. I don't walk too far, just around the corner. Sometimes I notice myself walking “yochi-yochi,” we describe yochi-yochi as the old woman waddling. Yeah, it’s no problem for me. I don’t even huff and puff. I’ve been pretty blessed. In New York we have to be pretty strong to survive.
Rail: What is it about this city that makes it that way?
Yamamoto: I like the really different people around. You’re free. I used to live in San Jose, California where everything had to be the same, boring. I love New York.
Rail: It’s very sad that you lost your mother very young. What was she like?
Yamamoto: I was only four years old. She was very much respected as a school teacher. A long time ago girls didn’t have much education, but my mother was a graduate of teacher’s college, so she was pretty accomplished and people thought well of her. Her students wanted to give her a memorial stone or statue at the school to honor her, but my father said “no thank you.” He should’ve let them, but it could be male ego, who knows! I wish she didn’t go away so soon. Why did you leave me? She would’ve been a good mother. I wish I knew her more, but I don’t remember. She got cancer. Maybe someday I will meet her in another world.
Rail: What do you consider a happy life?
Yamamoto: A happy life is to have a real mother. I guess it did affect me, because a mother is important, for anyone. My stepmother loved me because I loved her. I was the only one she loved. I was the youngest, and it was the first time in my life I had someone to call mother. She was not very educated or pretty, and my father married her because she couldn’t have any children.
Rail: You became a teacher yourself, so in some ways you followed your mother’s spirit?
Yamamoto: My family has many teachers. My aunt and my brother were teachers. As a teacher you just give your best.
Rail: You said your father was a calligrapher?
Yamamoto: He owned a counter and he did calligraphy. He was quite educated. If anything was going on, a celebration, he was always asked to write the name of the donors, and it was strung across the hallway. You have to know the characters and how to do the brush strokes.
He was an excellent calligrapher. Many people don’t know the calligraphy part. Japanese last names are often Chinese calligraphy. We adapted Chinese calligraphy for the most important words, so we write Hiragana with Chinese characters to make sentences. We use both.
Rail: Did you learn calligraphy from him?
Yamamoto: I remember when we were young, we were in the camp during the war. My sister and I went to someone who taught calligraphy. My father was a little displeased, he said, “I could've taught you!” [Laughs] I had two brothers, two sisters, they all passed away. I’m the only one that survived.
Rail: You said your sister was in your dream last night?
Yamamoto: In the dream she was here and I wondered where she was sleeping. I got up and came out to the living room and nobody was around. So maybe she meant another place. I went outside, everything was the same, every door was locked. This was my middle sister, the nicest in the family. It was such a strange dream! Then I came back and went back to sleep. That was a curious, very unusual kind of dream. Maybe my sister is talking to me. Why don’t you come around? No thank you! [Laughs] I want to stay here for a while, a little bit more.
Rail: Maybe she was checking to see. And what about poetry?
Yamamoto: I was pretty good at Japanese poetry, haiku and tanka (short poems, longer than haiku). In the camps people seemed to know me, there was a prominent Japanese man always in the newspaper called Nishimura Kantaishi who came to see me outside, and he had heard about me and called me a genius! I must have had a reputation as a poet because I used to be book crazy. I was always reading. I read everything in Japanese, so I knew all the words to express myself in Japanese. I belonged to a poetry club, a new way of writing new styles of poems. That was many years ago!
We had a small counter restaurant in San Jose, California in a Japanese town, so most customers were Japanese. I was always reading and my father wanted me to help. I was about nine or ten years old and he was short-tempered and he threw my book in the trash!
Rail: Do you find that there is a connection between calligraphy and your abstract work?
Yamamoto: Yes, I think calligraphy came into my abstractions. When you write in calligraphy it’s all black with no variation, and when you paint, there are different shadings— dark, medium, and light [notan]—to make landscapes or something else.
Rail: You mentioned there was a samurai painter, Miyamoto Musashi?
Yamamoto: He was a great samurai and at the same time a wonderful painter. He had samurai swordsmanship with two hands. You can see the swordsmanship.
Rail: Do you think the brush is like a sword?
Yamamoto: Yes, he fought with two arms, two swords. He used psychology when he had to fight this great swordsman. He picked a place where he came with his boat, which made his opponent wait for him as he took all his time making his sword, and made the other guy irritated and lose his skill. He fought with wooden swords, so he was making his swords for fighting. The other one was a great swordsman as well and this artist and swordsman [Musashi] made him wait.
Rail: Do you think he painted with two brushes? His painting has this long slash of the sword.
Yamamoto: I don’t think so. I think there were many samurais who became painters and did calligraphy.
Rail: Is sumi for you a kind of battle?
Yamamoto: I don't think of it that way, but probably it is. I don’t put much thought into that. Comes from nothingness.
Rail: Is that a plum tree? [Pointing to painting in the catalogue]
Yamamoto: Yes, I can see a lot of plum blossoms. This is swordsmanship. Here is the sharp line. You cannot make a mistake. But If you make it too realistic it’s not interesting!
Rail: And what about this calligraphy here?
Yamamoto: I don’t know if I can read this. It’s too abstract. It’s his own style and feelings. I cannot read it. It’s fast and his own way of writing, very creative. Most people cannot read as they’re so abstract unless you’re very educated. The crazier, the better.
Rail: Do you feel crazy when you have the brush in hand?
Yamamoto: Maybe a bit crazy.
Rail: You teach sumi-e to your students and you learned from your master Obata. You talk about how all the work that you do is fast. Is that fastness related to your understanding of sumi-e painting?
Yamamoto: Yeah, you have to work fast because if you hesitate everything comes out in your painting. It loses its strength and life, and I guess in sumi-e you have to work rather fast.
Rail: Do you think there are specific themes that come out in your work?
Yamamoto: Each painting is different, you have to put different names, different titles.
Rail: I read once that there was a man you had encountered that made you really angry after criticizing your paintings, and you couldn’t say anything back to him. And so you went home and put all of your anger into the painting.
Yamamoto: Everything comes out in your painting. Emotions, feelings, you cannot tell lies. It’s good to paint your feelings, your emotions all come out and make you feel better.
Rail: Do you think that art is a form of healing?
Yamamoto: I don’t think of it that way, but after I paint, my feelings come out. If they don’t, I don’t think much of my painting.
Rail: So each of your paintings becomes a record of your feelings? That means throughout the years you have a whole diary of feelings.
Yamamoto: Yes. I don't have to write, it shows in my paintings!
Rail: What kinds of materials do you use?
Yamamoto: I use sumi, I came back to it. It’s already there in the bottle and if it’s a stick you have to grind it and make sumi yourself. I like the quick results. One stroke and you express something.
Rail: You use ink from the bottle?
Yamamoto: Yes, I use such big strokes and large paper, it can catch up with it. This is not bad [pointing to one of her past works]. This is a large painting. I remember I had it in the storefront studio.
Rail: It’s not as dark as that other painting of yours you like. It feels more joyful. The circles…
Yamamoto: It was a large painting. Maybe I was feeling happier at that time. When you’re happy you tend to draw circles, I think. Circle is a more peaceful feeling.
Rail: It evokes eternity?
Rail: You mentioned the circle has to do with life. Is there anything you would like for your work? To be in a museum, a gallery, an art show, a poetry book? Do you think about immortality and your legacy?
Yamamoto: I think I had a pretty good life. If it comes, it comes, it doesn’t matter. I don’t put too much thought into it because if they feel I’m worth it, they will ask me. But it doesn’t matter how I feel about myself. It would be nice if it stays, but it just disappears. Only a few artists are known. I could give three paintings here and there. It’s no use leaving the paintings alone and making it into nothing. People who like my art will take good care of it, I hope.
Rail: Have you sold your artwork?
Yamamoto: It’s good to show, we learn from showing to the public. I like to see what they think, their opinions, and I could learn from it. I used to look down on money, but now I admire it! I appreciate it when they pay a high price. [Laughs] I feel it’s worth it. It’s more than just the money, it’s that they feel it’s worth that much.
So many times “give me painting, give me painting … for free,” I don’t like it because it means they don’t think there is much value in my work. You put a whole lifetime into it, so they better put a high value into it. It’s more than the money. They have to sacrifice their money, as they could use it for many other things than to buy my painting.
I remember when a Japanese woman came and was criticizing my paintings—whether they were masculine or feminine. Only two words she could say to criticize my work. There are many other ways to look at paintings!
Rail: Do you think about the masculine and the feminine in your work?
Yamamoto: I don’t think that’s the right way. We have both sides to us. Paintings are not just masculine and feminine, there are many other things involved, beautiful colors, different colors, sadness, happiness, all kinds of things. If it genuinely comes out that’s great. And simplicity.
Rail: Do you think simplicity is something we understand better at the end of our life?
Yamamoto: I think things get clearer. Before you get confused. When you’re young, everything is confusing. By experimenting, things get a little more clear as you get older.
Rail: Your work goes back and forth between the realistic (life-like flowers) and the abstract. Do you find the two are related?
Yamamoto: I study the real thing and then make it into abstractions. I like to study from life and then discard all those thoughts and just go to the essence of things.
Rail: That’s beautiful. I am curious to know more about this relationship between studying the real thing and letting all that go to get to an essence.
Yamamoto: It depends on my mood I guess. Sometimes I want to be free and sometimes I want to study nature. Sometimes I want to throw away everything and become free.
Rail: Abstraction gives you more freedom?
Yamamoto: I think so, sure.
Rail: This doesn’t give you freedom? [Pointing to a realistic flower painting]
Yamamoto: I don’t think much of this painting. This is more like a masculine painting. [Pointing at painting]. Women can be strong too.
Rail: We can be both masculine and feminine!
Yamamoto: Exactly! If it’s only feminine it’s not interesting. If it’s all masculine, it’s not interesting. We should have many inside of us.
Rail: It’s interesting that you paint a lot of nature, like flowers and landscapes, but you live in New York City.
Yamamoto: My imagination. I think we crave for those landscapes. Beautiful trees, grass, and water.
Rail: There is such a difference between the black-and-white painting and color painting.
Yamamoto: You have to use a lot of your imagination in black and white. You have to imagine dark, medium, and light shadings. It has to have life into it! Yes, when it’s painting you have to have different shadings. You have to make your mind into nothingness and become one with what you’re painting with. You have to really concentrate, you have to put your whole heart into it.
Rail: Sumi-e and this kind of painting gives a lot of importance to the white of the paper. Why is that?
Yamamoto: It has to do with composition, dark, medium, and light and spacing: notan in Japanese. If it’s all the same it’s dull. It shows your emotions, feelings, whatnot.
Rail: Do you think color has more sensuality?
Yamamoto: Yes, but black and white has sensuality in a different way. I admire curator Dakin Hart very much, he called my paintings “dark moon.” I guess I have some darkness in me. I don’t think I had such a happy life.
Rail: Would you like a cigarette?
Yamamoto: Sometimes I really need to but right now I’m okay. Besides, I don’t think I’m a real smoker because I don’t inhale. I like the feeling of smoking! It’s like kissing a young man.
Rail: It’s very sensual.
Yamamoto: I just puff away and you know I have to do something with my hand! [laughs]. I’m old enough, I went through a lot, at my age nothing scares me. I don’t look my age do I? I’m almost one hundred! Maybe I might find a nice handsome young man. Or a rich old man. Either one is good. I think I better take the rich old man, it would be more practical. I can offer my art! If he’s not interested in my art, I’m not interested in him. Nah, I’m through with them!
Rail: So you’re fearless?
Yamamoto: What will be, will be.
Rail: Has there been anything that has scared you?
Yamamoto: It scares me when I do something embarrassing, but it doesn’t affect me that much. Take it or leave it! That’s my motto.
Rail: When’s the last time you painted bamboo?
Yamamoto: Oh, a long time. When I paint bamboo now, it would be an abstraction. Abstract bamboo.
Rail: Not so academic? Are your days of painting bamboo academically done?
Rail: But you make your students do it!
Yamamoto: Yeah. [Laughs] You have to start from this tradition and then later on you can destroy and make more abstractions and put life into it.
Rail: Are there any painters today you admire who do that? Or in history, painters you admire who have gone down this traditional route and destroyed everything to make their own?
Yamamoto: I like van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse. I should study more of those contemporary artists but I’m a little bit away from it.
Rail: Didn’t you have a pigeon as a pet and make an illuminated book commemorating her story?
Yamamoto: I used to teach at a storefront. I rented the place for many years. One day this little bird walked in, she looked so old, poor looking, and she could not fly. She was injured, I guess, and lost. And she saw the doorway was open and walked in. Isn’t that interesting? I put her in the cage. From memory I wrote what happened, I wrote on the window “Is anyone missing a pigeon?” A young couple walked in and asked, “Is that some kind of saying?”
She was so sweet. I gave her to this couple, who liked birds. When I visited them later, oh she loved me, she kissed me all over, my face, head, everything. Lloyd and Kathy adopted my bird and said “Oh, you lost her to Koho,” as she was very happy to see me.
Rail: What was her name?
Yamamoto: I named her Pabla after Pablo Picasso and she turned out to be a beautiful bird.
He was talented and very original. He was his own. Picasso did what no other artist did. He was really influenced by African art. Bold, courageous. He is not afraid. You can’t be afraid.
Rail: Did you find a connection between Picasso’s work and sumi-e?
Yamamoto: I think he has some feelings towards sumi-e. In simplicity, dark and light, I think he learned quite a bit from sumi-e. I think so, I never thought of it.
Rail: You’ve been here downtown near MacDougal Street a long time. Were you familiar with the New York school of painters that were near MacDougal Street? Like Jackson Pollock?
Yamamoto: Yes, I had that storefront for thirty-seven years. Yes everyone knew, but I never met him. De Kooning was about the brushstroke. Most of them seemed to have been influenced by brushstroke.
I think many abstractions, like this brushstroke, are very simple, and you express something. Before, there used to be more detail and slowness in painting, but then it got simpler and closer to sumi-e. Because life is faster, sumi goes fast, as you know, with quick strokes. So it appeals to the modern age and the modern artist. As these strokes are very fast, sumi-e painting is more accepted by oil painters.
Rail: Do you like the work of Franz Kline?
Yamamoto: He was influenced by brush painting. I think they were looking at sumi-e art, Franz Kline, and many modern artists were influenced by sumi-e artists. East and West are getting closer and we learn from each other, and I feel I’m part of it.
Rail: What do you have to say about the brushstroke?
Yamamoto: It has to be alive!