Son carries torch for his father's artistic legacy -- Back from Japan, Paul Horiuchi Jr. wants to write a book

Paul Horiuchi Jr. says people don't pop the inevitable question - "Are you related to the artist?"- as much as they once did.

"My dad's name is disappearing with the old guard," Horiuchi Jr. said.

For those who don't know, the name of Paul Horiuchi, who died in 1999, is linked with what is often called the Northwest School, the group of artists who came of age and maturity in pre- and post-World War II Seattle.

The Horiuchi name might not be as bankable as Graves, Tobey, Tsutakawa, Anderson and a few others, but Horiuchi's paintings and collages are treasured and in demand for their beauty and elegance.

And Paul Horiuchi's life story is a parable of the artist who struggles to overcome impressive odds.

The 67-year-old Horiuchi Jr., a Queen Anne resident of 22 years who just moved to upper Fremont, is concerned that his father's legacy is fading in the town where he staked his claim to fame. The affable son of the artist bristles when he speaks of the Seattle Art Museum.

"What I think is lacking and shameful is that they've never had a retrospective," Horiuchi Jr. said. "They should have a long time ago."

That sentiment is underscored by a recent trip Horiuchi Jr. took with his 90-year-old mother for a major exhibition of Horiuchi's work in Kofu, Japan. The exhibition, "Japanese Sensitivity Preserved in the Pacific Northwest," opened Sept. 28 at the Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art and will close later this month.

The show features 75 of the artist's works, ranging from collage on paper to watercolors, oils and mixed media. The exhibition catalog, unavailable in this country, is a stunning, full-color ode to beauty.

Horiuchi's frustration with SAM is not uncommon in local artistic circles: On any given day, the works of the Northwest masters are more available in the corridors of Swedish Hospital or the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner than in Seattle's premier exhibition space.

Ironically, one of what Horiuchi Jr. considers his father's less impressive works, the outdoor mosaic mural at the Seattle Center installed for the 1962 World's Fair, is the most familiar touchstone for people who are unaware of the artist's life and work. Most often a backdrop for musical acts, the mural ensures, in its fashion, a measure of immortality for the man his son calls "sensitive and humble."

On the road

Paul Horiuchi was born in 1906 in a Japanese village with a view of Mount Fuji. His father immigrated to the United States right after his birth. His mother joined her husband four years later, leaving Horiuchi and his brother with their grandfather.

The two brothers reunited with their parents in Wyoming, where their father worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. At 14 the future artist found himself in a strange country without being able to speak the language. Things got even stranger when his father died and his mother returned to the old country a year later. The two brothers stayed behind. Horiuchi did railroad work to pay off his father's gambling debts. All the while he was painting, mostly landscapes.

The young Horiuchi may have been humble, but he was not especially retiring.

As Delores Tarzan Ament writes in her book on Northwest artists, "Iridescent Light": "A rock face along the Wyoming railroad line still bears the giant double image of reclining nymphs that he etched with a railroad spike, topping it with Japanese characters that read, 'People of the world, watch my future.'"

Horiuchi would need that sense of destiny for the days ahead.

He met his future wife, Bernadette, described to him in advance as beautiful, "like the Mona Lisa," in Seattle. They married in 1935. The couple moved back to Wyoming where Paul Jr. was born in 1936.

After Pearl Harbor in 1941, people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast were put behind barbed wire. The Horiuchis, as inlanders, were exempt. But Japanese were barred from railroad work, and the family lived a hand-to-mouth existence.

Sometimes they visited relatives in the camps. "We were envious of them," Horiuchi Jr. recalled. "They had a roof and three square meals a day." The artist's petitions to move into the camps were unsuccessful. The "free" life on the high plains, where Horiuchi worked menial jobs, was tough.

"We moved five times in my first five years of school," Horiuchi Jr. said. He remembers being teased and baited at school, but he also remembers others who came to his defense.

During one difficult stretch, the family lived in a chicken coop owned by the only black family in a small town.

In 1944 Horiuchi went to work in an auto repair and body shop in Spokane. After the war he opened his own shop in the Central District. He won his first painting prize in 1947 and was recognized in SAM's annual exhibition the following year.

Critics and other painters started taking notice.

In 1950 Horiuchi fell from a ladder, shattering his left wrist. At age 45, the accident changed his life and career: it was the opposite of a fall from grace.

Horiuchi had three children, no money in the bank and no work. A friend started selling some of his paintings to help support him. Horiuchi's true career was born.

SAM mounted his first solo exhibition in 1958.

Growing success allowed Horiuchi to build a house in Rainier Beach in 1966. From there, as a lover of bonsai, he haunted nearby Kubota Gardens. Bernadette, after a series of menial jobs to help put bread on the table, found a career with Seattle First National Bank.

In 1995 The Wing Luke Asian Museum presented Horiuchi with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

As San Francisco art critic Thomas Albright once wrote and Ament's book notes, "No one has ever crowded more subtle nuances in an overall atmosphere of foggy Northwest luminosity - accents of bright transparencies, dusty flockings of metallic silvers and golds. The forms seem to tumble and float through a space of softly modulated Byzantine gold like a Stonehenge in levitation."

Those who took in last year's SAM exhibition, "Mark Tobey and Friends," might have been struck by the transcendent beauty of Horiuchi's calligraphic paintings, as opposed to Tobey's thin attempts in the same vein hung on a nearby wall.

A son's search for passion

Horiuchi Jr., who earned a music degree from Seattle University, wishes he had his father's focused aim in life.

"That's the one realization I know I've looked for, a passion to be like that," the four-times-married Horiuchi Jr. said.

Horiuchi Jr. has taught elementary school, has been a chorister for the Seattle Opera (and a sometimes singer at the old Sorry Charlie's piano bar), and is slowly retiring from the court-reporting business.

He wants to write a book about his father. He wants the world to know what kind of man his father was, and to keep the flame of his artistic legacy burning.

"Occasionally he was moody when things didn't work out in the studio," Horiuchi Jr. said. "He had an incredible sense of humor. He liked to make people laugh."

Unlike some of his peers, "he never liked to blow his own horn," the son of the artist said. "He was not press-release conscious."

Horiuchi Jr.'s September trip to Japan with his still strikingly beautiful mother, who had shared her husband's early struggles, seemed like poetic justice. The local arts community feted mother and son.

"I felt comfortable in Japan," Horiuchi Jr. said. "The realization hit me: this is inspiration for a lot of my dad's work."

For Horiuchi Jr., who never found his father's artistic passion, certain of his father's words still ring true: "He painted from the heart. He cared a lot for other people. 'Whatever you do,' he said, 'be good to other people.'

"He walked the talk," Paul Horiuchi Jr. added.

Publisher Mike Dillon can be reached at

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