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Virtual Asian-American Art Museum Project

Alexei Taylor, Author

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Responding to Racism

Could you speak a little bit about how your role as a professor at the University of Kansas has shaped your career and your approach to the artwork you’ve produced?

 It was a location-location thing. By that I mean the lack of ethnic diversity in the Midwest. As relatively liberal as Lawrence is and has always been, there were still elements of racism that were quite visible. I wasn’t used to that. I started going to auctions [in Lawrence] and buying not only the household items we needed but also things that I was starting to collect, like tin windup toys, Disney memorabilia, etc. At one of those auctions I found a farmer standing next to me. During a break in the auction he said, “Excuse me sir, I was overhearing you speak the language, and I was wondering how you came to speaking it so well?” And he said, “Where’re you from?” And I said, “I’m from Seattle,” and he said, “That’s not what I mean.” He said, “Where are your parents from?” And I said, “Well, my father was born in Seattle, my mother was born in Idaho.” It was pretty clear what he was after, but I thought I would just answer with straight facts. So then he broke into this sort of G.I. Korean, when he found out that I had served in Korea—he said he bought pictures of “them gishy [spelled phonetically] girls” when he was there. And they were wearing “them kimonas.” He wanted to know if I did pictures of that sort. I just kind of nodded my head and moved away. I’d had enough. This was a conversation I had heard so often in the short time I’d been in Kansas, but this one struck at how people had made me feel intensely foreign since moving there.
Had you had other types of run-ins along these lines?

 Almost on a daily basis.

Right, but this one was really pivotal.

Yes, this one was complete. It covered everything. So, anyway, for the first time I decided that I would go home and do a painting about this. I got a book called the Coloring Book of Japan, and it was about ukiyo-e woodblock prints. 4 I combined prints from a lot of different Japanese woodblock artists and put together this composition that I called, with tongue in cheek, Oriental Masterpiece #1 (fig. 8). I had a show scheduled in Seattle [Manolides Gallery, 1971] and I was able to include Oriental Masterpiece #1. I put in seven other paintings that referenced comic strip identity—sort of comic surrealism. That’s what I was working on at the time. What was interesting was that the people that went to the show all gravitated to the painting of Japanese imagery. They said, “It’s so good to see you working like this.” And I said, “Why?” And they said, “Because you look like your work now.” That’s the first time I recognized the full creative potential of my ethnic identity to my art. So I decided that it would be worth doing more paintings that looked like that when I got back [to Kansas]. That’s what led me to doing over one hundred more of the Oriental Masterpiece series.

If I’m not mistaken, in addition to paintings, you also did a related series of prints.

Right. In a period of one semester, I challenged myself to do two suites of editions called the Oriental Master Print series (fig. 9). I think that in the period of a semester I did about thirty editions in that series.

 Did anything change as a result of that incredibly intense activity and thought?

 Well, I never turned back, you know? It just sort of fed off of itself. And it’s been like that ever since.

That’s the period right around 1975 to 1977.

Yes. However, the big change from that point was when I decided to do the Minidoka series, which was the first time that I dealt with any kind of narrative in the work (fig. 10).
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