Benji Okubo


Name Benji Okubo
Born October 27 1904
Died April 15 1975
Birth Location Riverside, California
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Born and raised in Riverside, California, on October 27, 1904, Benji Okubo (1904–75) was an accomplished oil and watercolor painter, illustrator, and landscape architect. He was one of seven children born to Issei parents: his father was a scholar but supported the family by working at a candy factory and as a gardener. His mother was a calligrapher, painter, and graduate of the Tokyo Art Institute who encouraged the children to pursue their artistic interests and skills. Okubo's younger sister, Mine Okubo, would also become a successful and influential artist and illustrator.

In 1927, he moved to Los Angeles to attend the Otis Art Institute of the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art on scholarship, building friendships with other Nisei artists Charles Isamu Morimoto, Hideo Date, Kiyoshi Ito, and Tyrus Wong. When the college published El Dorado, Land of Gold, a history of California illustrated by Otis students, Okubo was selected to design the front cover.[1] Starting in 1930, he also began taking classes at the Art Students League of Los Angeles, studying with influential painter Stanton Macdonald-Wright, and eventually became an instructor there and the league's director before the war began. In the '30s, Okubo also befriended Eddy See, owner of the Dragon's Den restaurant in Los Angeles' Chinatown. See commissioned Okubo, Marian Blanchard and Tyrus Wong to paint a mural of the Eight Immortals and a dancing dragon in the popular restaurant that was a popular gathering place for artists and members of Hollywood circles.

Okubo participated in numerous group exhibitions including the second and third annual California modernist exhibitions in 1934 and 1935. He also was included in several exhibitions for Asian American artists, including a four-person show of the Oriental Artists Group featuring work by Okubo, Date, Wong, and Gilbert Leong held at the Los Angeles Museum in 1936 and numerous other popular exhibitions.

With the onset of World War II, the momentum of his career came to a sudden stop. He was incarcerated at Heart Mountain in Wyoming, where he, with the collaboration of Hideo Date, Robert Kuwahara, and Shingo Nishiura, began teaching art to fellow inmates, which they called the Art Students League of Heart Mountain. In the January 22, 1944 issue of the Heart Mountain Sentinel camp newspaper reported that, "There is a bit of Los Angeles and yes, a bit of Paris at Heart Mountain. The Art Students League of Heart Mountain is a branch of the Los Angeles League which is a direct 'import' from the Art Students League of Paris. Poor in everything but talent, and in its modest surroundings, this center group is a far cry from its pretentious parent leagues."[2] Okubo and his colleagues exhibited their work in a group show at Heart Mountain in January 1944.

He married Chisato Takashima in Wyoming and they returned together to Los Angeles after the closing of Heart Mountain in 1945. Back in California, Okubo worked as a landscape architect, designing gardens for prominent businesses and celebrities. While Okubo continued to paint, his professional career in art did not resume its prewar level of activity and recognition. He died in Los Angeles on April 15, 1975.

Authored by Patricia Wakida

For More Information

Chang, Gordon H., Mark Dean Johnson, and Paul J. Karlstrom, editors. Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970, Stanford University Press, 2008.

Benji Okubo Collection at the Japanese American National Museum. http://www.janm.org/collections/benji-okubo-collection/

Footnotes

  1. Gordon H. Chang, Mark Dean Johnson, and Paul J. Karlstrom, editors. Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970, Stanford University Press, 2008. 406.
  2. "Art Exhibit Hailed Success." Heart Mountain Sentinel, January 22, 1944. 8.