tsuneko kokubo

Tsuneko Kokubo’s Retrospective: Of Light Itself

Curatorial Essay by Maggie Tchir

Tsuneko Kokubo is a Canadian artist of both regional and national significance. Her dynamic vision, whether in her visual art or in her theatre performances, is captivating to the eye and to the heart, and explicit in detail. As the title of the exhibition, Of Light Itself, reflects, the study of light and colour are paramount in the artist’s work. Kokubo describes herself as a ‘seasonal painter’, working with seasonal changes of light and weather. Drawing inspiration from her art school mentors, or from French Impressionism or from BC’s own Emily Carr and Takao Tanabe, Kokubo’s art reflects her memories of place. Whether from nature in her beloved Kootenay forests, or deep within her interior landscapes through fragmented or abstracted forms, the work expresses the heartbeats of a renaissance woman, choreographing her life through paint and movement.

early life

“A tiny girl with a loud voice came into this world. Father was so excited he fell into the mighty Fraser River…”

Tsuneko was born in the fishing village of Steveston BC in 1937. In 1940, she journeyed across the Pacific Ocean with grandparents to visit relatives. Stranded in Japan and separated from her parents during the war until they were re-united, she did not return to Canada until 1954. Those 14 formative years were a kaleidoscope of experiences of both war and peace. Her young self, shaped by her inner moral compass of compassion, insight, and curiosity, guided the young artist to see beauty in all things, even in small insects in the middle of air raids. She chose a path “to explore and offer a way out of strife, and into beauty, if only for an instant.”

vancouver years

“the most wonderful period of my youth – 10 hours a day of art studies”

In 1956 Kokubo enrolled at the Vancouver School of Art (Emily Carr University of Art & Design) She was exposed to many critical art influences from her instructors, Don Jarvis and Jack Shadbolt, among others. Her world opened up exponentially over these four years of intense studies. She was highly influenced by a new era of optimism of the new beat generation which rejected the standard values of the post war era.

choreographing life through paint and movement

Tsuneko is a storyteller. Her visual work has primarily been narrative - feelings and memories caught in time, presented through metaphor or personal symbolism. Often the human form is injected into landscape, creating tensions - a half hidden person, or face, or gesture offers a world of subtle nuances, building layers of mystery and storyline. She also enjoys working with abstract concepts in ‘collage’ – mixed media techniques, reaching for what is at hand – venerable Japanese papers covered in hand-inked calligraphy, fragments of personal letters, or cotton and silk gauze layered over paint. These works contain references, she says, “to the transience of message, the disruption of cultures, and the fragility of experience”.

In 1977, the artist meets her significant life-partner, Paul ‘Garbanzo’ Gibbons, who introduces her to the world of the sacred fool and to physical theatre. Her world expands as she turns her attention to the arena of costume, set design and performance. The influence of street theatre, circus, and mime is obvious in her performances. Movements are pared down, figures are simple, the ‘sets’ often a piece of cloth or clothing, or a single object. She offers a fluid ever changing style that emphasizes the joy of a theatrical experience. For the audience we are asked to work with our imagination and the ‘magic’ offered.

In 1978, Gibbons and Kokubo form the celebrated west coast Snake in the Grass Moving Theatre which went on to become the resident troupe at the UBC Museum of Anthropology for 13 years, and toured nationally and internationally. She has worn many hats over the years as visual artist, as set and costume designer-maker, and as performer. The ease in which she moves through her creative process is imagination writ large. The power of the imagination is at the core of her making and re-making the world she inhabits. The artist participates in a process of standing ‘inside’ the world. She is not a divided subject /object looking out, but sits comfortably inhabiting a space which dwells within a matrix of relationships.

Over time, she has continued to work in physical theatre even into her 86th year, performing occasionally at festivals and events. The importance of her vital imaginative life is expressed in her unwavering relationship between performance and painting. Her sensibility, values of beauty and deep reverence for the earth all speak to our human need to be included in the ‘dance of life’. When asked to describe her style the artist replies, “I dance on my canvas.” These values emerge from the paintings and performances in simple or complex forms, but always in harmony with her interior mythos of Beauty and Movement and the interplay of light and dark.

japanese canadian experience

“moving from below sea-level Steveston to the highlands of the Slocan Valley”

In 1994, the artist moved from Vancouver to the West Kootenay region, where Japanese Canadians, including her mother and sister, were interned during the Second World War. She resumed her painting full time, setting up a studio situated high on a mountain cliff. She speaks of her mountain home, “I have become immersed in the stark majesty of this elemental place and its ever-changing beauty. An incredible energy seems to emanate through the landscape – at times fluid and welcoming, at times stark, almost overwhelming.” With the assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts (1994), the artist explores memories of her childhood in war torn Japan and her separation from family in Canada. These explorations resulted in numerous exhibitions in the ensuing years. In her series, Regeneration (2015/2016), in particular, she combines impressions, abstractions, and narrative elements related to early Japanese immigration, family memories, and the internment of the Japanese Canadians in the Slocan Valley, “all the while striving for beauty in unexpected places.

In Plant Memory (2017), the artist explores ‘immigrant plants’, edible and medicinal, as repositories of history and culture. Over centuries, humans have moved plants intentionally through trade, migration or accidentally. “I am not a botanist; I am simply a gardener who also loves to paint.” And adds, “I began to wonder how the seeds had made their journeys – perhaps tucked away in a suitcase, or even concealed in a bridal gown of a ‘picture bride’. These ‘foreign’ plants were not just sources of food and medicine, but reminders of Japan, and later [for those who had to leave their homes during wartime], reminders of their BC coast homes.”

Tsuneko Kokubo offers us a study of memory in action. Through her painted works and performances she helps the wider community see and understand how Japanese Canadians lived during the dark and estranged times of World War II. Twenty two thousand Canadians of Japanese descent were evacuated from the coast in 1945 to ‘ghost’ towns in the interior of the province. Left to cope in the freezing winter mountains and sweltering summer heat of the interior, these resilient Canadian citizens were monitored as prisoners by both the federal and provincial governments of the day. Some, like Kokubo’s own father, were sent to even harsher prison camps in Ontario.

After the war, they were ordered to uproot for a second time and either go to Japan or move east beyond the Rockies. In the fifties, however, people began to return to the coast. The majority of these Canadian citizens had lived for generations on the west coast and the pain of not being allowed by law to return after the war created much suffering. When we speak of place and identity in this context, we must remember the forces at work are systemically traumatic and indelibly present in the psyches of these interned Canadians and their future generations. The world dramas which played out in Canada define the dismantling forces towards the ‘Other’. There are many historical examples to the present day that point to abuse from standard colonial laws/culture. Kokubo’s various bodies of work, and other performances speak to this trauma but at the same time, to the great generative beauty of lives lived, and places that speak of healing and truth – of gardens and plants, of forests and the ocean and kinship between neighbours.

influences: a kin-centric worldview

An early influence for the artist was learning to write Japanese calligraphy. She studied how to be fluid in execution by concentrating on the movement of the whole brush with the whole body. Brush strokes cannot be corrected and the calligrapher has but one chance to create. To work this way, one is taught to clear the mind and let the letters ‘flow out of themselves’. This way of working with the brush has highly influenced the artist’s very fluid style in her own brush-work.

The artist also has been influenced by French Impressionist, Pierre Bonnard (1867 – 1947). Bonnard is known for his intense use of colour. He was described in The New Republic (2009) as "the most thoroughly idiosyncratic of all the great twentieth-century painters ….. with his perceptual wit, voluptuous colour, and poetic allusions”. Tsuneko follows him in these qualities. She emphasizes that his use of colour excites her, along with his humour and “eccentric nature of his compositions”. He found it funny to sneak a figure into a corner, or have a cat staring out at the viewer. Listening to Kokubo speak of Bonnard, you understand why he is so important to the artist and her development. She too enjoys hiding Japanese script and faces, figures and other elements. These merge with the ground in her paintings, suggesting what might lie behind a scene, while at the same time, often utilizing, like Bonnard, a vibrant palette. Her calligraphy, too is 'hidden in plain sight’ on the canvas – for instance the ‘prayers' in the water of the artist’s Crazy Dipper (2022) series.

Jack Shadbolt and Don Jarvis both had a strong influence on the young student. Seeing the world and landscape through their lens, she took the essence of their ideas of a kin-centric worldview of connectivity and reciprocity, investigating the whole of life as a nuanced and complex work of art. Both instructors’ personal histories are explicably tied to the British Columbia landscape. So too is Tsuneko Kokubo’s own history, which is tightly anchored to this forested place she calls home in Canada’s far western province. As a student, she was encouraged to notice the interconnectedness of all things, and to ‘take note’ of the relationships between place, identity, and the imagination, and also between the artist and her canvas. She was encouraged to experience the artist as a conduit of the essential play of the imagination. Hearing her instructors speak about connectivity back in the 1950s surely must have reminded Tsuneko of her early childhood in Japan, witnessing the interplay between Shinto and Buddhist principles of interdependence. We are all interconnected and interdependent. The knowledge and practice of interdependence is one of the most vital laws of the natural world and Kokubo has cultivated a fierce commitment to these ideas. Over her creative life, she has enfolded these principles into her own signature, encoding her art with ideas of interconnectivity and beauty.

She also carries Don Jarvis’s beliefs further into her own sensibilities. He believed and taught that artists are ‘instruments’ and function like an ‘electrical conduit’. He is known for his lyrical abstractions, especially for his Encounter and Rain Forestseries of the 1960s and 1970s. He said of his process, “My work is metaphor, never simile. I make no distinction between subject and object, inner and outer, maker and viewer.…. I am not a 'creator'. How can one create what is already there? I am mist, trees, rain, sun, brush, canvas..”

On the other hand, Jack Shadbolt’s interests lay in studying the interior of forms, and the dark passionate ‘underworld’ of B.C.’s fecund landscape. Roots, bulbs and bones, and the material and spiritual culture of Indigenous peoples were his focus. Kokubo has internalized her teacher’s fierce passion for BC’s landscape but through a softer lens. As a rural resident living close to the earth, she too loves roots, bulbs, and bones of both the wild interior rainforests and her cultivated gardens. Her daily practice and focus is to BE that living conduit of reverence and reflection for the earth and its mysteries.

To live in this landscape one does not easily escape it’s tendrils of influence; influences of colonial-settler post war economies, and also the heart-call of the wild of mountain meadow, forest, rivers, and lakes. Kokubo’s own relationship with the topography of this southeast corner of British Columbia engages the full play of her inner landscape of a healthy living web of life with concerns for the land and all who live here.

the world has a desire for us

“and here we are, our journey continues, tasting fine dust from the rough road of memory"

A retrospective exhibition functions as a means of highlighting the achievements of an artist and carrying that information beyond regional parameters into a broader arena. The Langham Japanese Canadian Museum and the Langham Galleries first presented the exhibition recognizing Tsuneko Kokubo’s achievements in 2022. Of Light Itself then moved to the Grand Forks Art Gallery in 2023, and the Penticton Art Gallery in 2024.

The artist’s unique response to being alive in these troubling times touch people in unexpectedly grounding ways. It is through her art, distilled from her private and collective experiences, where we arrive at a threshold, beholding a life fully lived. Over the years she has achieved balance between the poetic, the visual, and a strong social conscience. Each brush stroke, and each physical movement is charged with a particular fluid energy and life of its own that affects the whole field of the imagination. We too, become a part of something larger in ourselves when viewing her visual and performance work. Tsuneko Kokubo’s dedication to her artistic practice over these 66 years is evident in all aspects of her life, as she takes seriously the human and cosmic questions that touch us all. Her pursuit of meaning in her life is generative, creative, and spiritual. Her offerings to us, the viewers, are nourishing and life-affirming.

Maggie Tchir