One of the many benefits of working in an academic environment is the opportunity to discover artists through colleagues in different disciplines. I was introduced to the graphic work of Seattle-born artist/poet Munio Makuuchi (born Howard Munio Takahashi, 1934–2000) by Floyd Cheung, a professor of English at Smith College, who had unearthed examples of Makuuchi’s poetry in 2006 while doing archival research for another project.1 Together with the artist’s son, Jamie, Cheung arranged for Makuuchi’s unpublished collection of autobiographical poems, From Lake Minidoka to Lake Mendota: and back to the Northwest Sea, to be acquired by Smith’s rare book collection. This magnum opus is liberally illustrated with reproductions of the poet’s prints, and I was transfixed by Makuuchi’s large-scale, energetically layered, black-and-white drypoints. In 2007 the Smith College Museum of Art acquired its first print by the artist, On Boy’s Day I “I.D.” with Rocky Mountain Salmon…/…So where’s the Salmon? (Fig. 1). Since then, our collection has grown to 16 pieces, perhaps the largest group of Makuuchi graphics in any museum.
Makuuchi’s work, both visual and literary, directly relates to his personal history. The eldest son of Japanese-American parents, Makuuchi and his family were confined in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans in southern Idaho from 1942 to 1945. One of ten facilities designed to contain around 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast, the Minidoka Relocation Center housed some 9,000 men, women and children from Alaska, Oregon, and Washington (where the family had been living).2 This forced relocation set the stage for a later life full of geographical and cultural dislocation.
The Takahashi family remained in Idaho after the war, although Munio went to boarding school in Oregon. It is unclear when he began making art, although he attended a summer program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago while studying at Valparaiso University in Indiana (1953–56). Sometime during this period, he changed his name from Howard Takahashi to Munio Makuuchi, adopting his middle name and his mother’s surname.3 In the late 1950s he enlisted in the army, where he suffered a head injury that friends believe was responsible for some of Makuuchi’s erratic behavior as well as the often fragmentary and disjointed nature of his texts and images.4
After receiving his BA in art education at the University of Colorado (1961), Makuuchi studied etching under Mauricio Lasansky at the University of Iowa (MA, 1964). Lasansky’s influence is evident in Makuuchi’s large-scale figurative drypoints with surreal and personal content. After a brief period of study at the University of Pennsylvania (1965–66), he moved to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he earned an MFA in painting (1975). Makuuchi then relocated to Nigeria where he was a professor of art at Adeyemi College and the University of Ife for nearly ten years before returning to Wisconsin in 1984, and eventually returning to Seattle in 1994 (the “Northwest Sea” mentioned in the Smith College manuscript title).
Because he often worked and reworked his plates, dating Makuuchi’s prints can be difficult. He generally did not print editions, and he marked many of his prints “artist’s proofs” or as part of a hypothetical edition of 32 that was never completed. The “1985” inscribed on the SCMA impression of On Boy’s Day is a rare exception.
On Boy’s Day—like much of Manuuchi’s work—relates directly to his personal history and cultural identity: the twin images of Mount Rainier and Mount Fuji can both be seen in the background. A bamboo pole bearing a flag bisects the composition, and a school of fish leaps dramatically across the center of the image. The pole and flag are part of the rituals celebrating the Japanese festival “Boy’s Day” (Tango-no-sekku), in which paper carp in the form of kites or flags are flown to celebrate the healthy growth of sons. Munio, the only male child in his family, represents himself symbolically as the fish that hangs from the pole.
In Japan, the carp is a symbol of resilience and determination, and an embodiment of male virtues. But Makuuchi juxtaposes the stiff, upright paper carp, tethered to a pole and subject to the wind, with free-running Sockeye salmon, a species—like Makuuchi—native to the Northwest coast. The once-potent symbol of the carp reveals its limitations; traditional ideas of strength are shown to be paper-thin, while the salmon jump, leap and bend in both directions, their freedom underscored by arcs of spray that both trail behind and propel them forward.
Makuuchi’s fish are vigorously drawn in lines of varying weights and textures, from the layered, faint scratches that define the trajectory of the leaping salmon to the deeply carved, burr-encrusted outlines that define each fish’s body. Throughout his career as a printmaker, Makuuchi experimented with technique, augmenting etching needles with copper sheathing, for example, to increase their weight, or using natural fish oils to oxidize sections of the plate, as he did in one of his few works printed in color, Landlocked Midwesterners (Fig. 2).5 According to his friend and printer Andrew Balkin, Makuuchi most often sketched a rough design on the metal plate with a lithographic crayon, a step that was often preceded by the application of a grid (Balkin used the term “fields of energy”) to guide him. In some prints, such as Whither Too? [sic] (Fig. 3), this grid is readily apparent as a series of points from which lines radiate, a technique that balances and connects overlapping figures in the composition. Close examination of the salmon in On Boy’s Day reveals a palimpsest of ghost fish underneath the densely worked bodies. In clumsier hands these might read as mistakes, but Makuuchi’s deft touch turns such details into assets.
There are close links between Makuuchi’s visual and literary work, though here again his disinterest in dating makes it difficult to establish sequences; his son, Jamie, believes that many poems were written to correspond to earlier prints, and that his father only began writing poetry in earnest after his return to Madison in the mid-1980s.6 On Boy’s Day corresponds to a poem about Makuuchi’s Japanese-American heritage and the lasting effects of the internment experience:
On boy’s day I I.D.
with slant/Sockeyes of
Steelheads/hearts of the
Rocky Mountains rather
than flying paper Carp…
They tagged and released us
after four years
in a USA reeducation camp…..
They tried to drum out the drums of the
And the Latino still speak
and eat Spanish
500 years later…..
We went 1000 miles
up inland Rocky Mountains
with special long enduring
genes and chromosomes
only to be watered down
Only a few are reaching
When it comes to our kind soul vittles—
“No you can’t take that away from me!”
As in the print, Makuuchi identifies with the restless, instinctive migrations of northwest salmon and views the postwar cultural assimilation of Japanese-Americans in a dubious light. Makuuchi’s “soul vittles,” the innate sensibilities through which he identifies as both an artist and as the product of two distinct cultures, allow him to stand above and apart from this integration. In the last line, he quotes Ira Gershwin (an icon of popular American music who was also born to immigrant parents) and defiantly asserts ownership of his memories and individuality.
Makuuchi’s experience of internment was clearly pivotal to his artistic and personal development—his art is replete with images of movement and symbols of his Japanese-American heritage—but it would be a mistake to reduce such a heterogeneous career to a single defining event.7 Makuuchi’s own frequent migrations, his idiosyncratic approach to printing (or not printing) editions, his premature death at 65 and his generally antiestablishment attitude have all worked against widespread recognition of his work until now. Much remains to be discovered about this talented and intriguing artist.
This article is part of the series, “Treasures from the Vault,” which was made possible with the generous support of the IFPDA Foundation.
All images and words by Munio Makuuchi are copyrighted by the Estate of Munio Makuuchi and are reproduced courtesy of Jamie and Constance Makuuchi. This article is indebted to oral interviews conducted by Ariella Frishberg, Smith College class of 2012, as part of her coursework for American Studies 230, The Asian American Experience: Narratives of Internment, taught by Floyd Cheung. I am grateful for astute editorial comments from Michael Degener and Jessica Skwire Routhier.
- Email correspondence from Floyd Cheung to the author, 18 November 2013. Cheung was at the University of Connecticut archives consulting the papers of Fred Ho, which included examples of Munio Makuuchi’s poems.
- For more information on the Minidoka Relocation Center see http://www.minidoka.org/ww2internment.php.
- Transcription of interviews conducted by Ariella Frishberg with Munio Makuuchi’s relatives, 9 April 2012. One of Makuuchi’s obituaries cites this as having happened when the artist was twenty years old. Sarah E. Richards, “Munio Makuuchi, poet, artist, drew praise for etchings,” Seattle Times, 5 June 2000.
- Telephone conversation with Andrew and Reneé Balkin, 19 November 2013.
- Balkin. The following discussion of Makuuchi’s printing techniques was informed by this conversation.
- Email from Jamie Makuuchi to the author, 15 November 2013.
- For a full discussion of the concept of mobility in Makuuchi’s poetry and visual work, see Floyd Cheung, “Relcaiming Mobility: Japanese American Travel Writing After the Internment,” Studies in Travel Writing 12, no. 2, 2008): 137–165.