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Virtual Asian-American Art Museum Project

Alexei Taylor, Author

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Shimomura and Pop Art

That’s wonderful. Well, clearly the diaries that your grandmother kept, particularly during the period of your family’s internment, have had a major impact on your imagination, a point that I’d like to return to later. I am also interested in thinking about the degree to which your career as a commercial designer may have influenced your aesthetic and perhaps other aspects of your work.

Maybe I should back up a little bit, to the mid-1960s, when I decided to give up commercial art and become a painter. I decided that to do this I needed to take painting courses from the University of Washington, where I had received my undergraduate degree in commercial art. I spent about a year doing all these paintings, for the first time feeling the joy of what it was like to be a painter. I showed [this body of work] to one of the professors at Washington. I had no idea what I was doing. I was painting sort of abstractly. He saw promise and said, “I think you ought to come and take a lot of painting courses in the period of one semester. And then, if things go well, apply for the graduate program.” So I did that. I took five painting courses simultaneously from five different teachers and did well. I loved it and ended up being accepted as a full-time graduate student.

But I was having one big, serious problem, and that was that my paintings started to become very pop. I was doing paintings depicting TV dinners, putting different kinds of things in each compartment, and just sort of playing around. Meanwhile, the drawings I was doing were very abstract expressionistic. And I’m doing this amongst this social climate that favors the funk ceramics movement that was going on in California with Bob [Robert] Arneson. It just blew my mind. Strangely enough, funk art gave me a starting intellectual basis for my work. Many of my best friends up there [in Seattle], like Patti Warashina and Howard Kottler, were forerunners of the funk ceramics movement. I was just in love with what they were doing. So I’m looking at the drawings and paintings that I’m doing and I’m thinking about funk art. One of my teachers told me, “You know, you really ought to just drop out right now and try to get your act together.” So I decided that since I had never been back east in my life, I was going to start graduate school all over again, and I applied to a few eastern schools. But I knew that I had to get this pop art/abstract expressionism conflict in my work resolved, so I went to Stanford for the summer, and they were good enough to give me a studio with all the graduate students.

Right. That was 1967, I believe.

Yes. All of a sudden the possibility of combining painterly imagery with popular imagery, I saw, became feasible by what they were doing at the Bay Area figurative school, which was sort of painterly pop. I went back east [to Syracuse] and taught myself how to photo-silkscreen and then just let pop art sort of take me over.

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