Isami Doi


Name Isami Doi
Born May 12 1903
Died November 29 1965
Birth Location 'Ewa, Hawai'i
Generational Identifier

Nisei

Painter, printmaker, and jewelry maker Isami Doi was one of the leading artists in Hawai'i over a thirty year career and one of the first Hawai'i-born artists to attain an international reputation. He also became known as the "spiritual father" of Hawai'i artists, mentoring a large number of younger artists who would emerge after World War II.

Early Life and Career

Isami Doi was born in 'Ewa on the island of O'ahu, but raised in Kalaheo on the island of Kaua'i. He was the first son of Japanese immigrants who ran a general store. Though the family wanted him to study business so that he might take over the store, he took an early interest in art. He would forever be influenced by the natural beauty of Kaua'i which would be reflected in his art.

He enrolled at the University of Hawaii in 1921 and studied ceramics, drawing, and design under Minnie E. Chipman. Drawn deeper into the art world, he moved to New York City in 1923 with the financial support of his parents. He enrolled at Columbia University, where he studied painting and drawing under Albert W. Heckman at Teachers College and also studied printmaking, pottery, clay-modeling, industrial design, and art history. He also studied at the Winold Reiss Art School.

While attending Columbia, Doi began to make his way as an artist in New York City in the late 1920s. His early success was as a printmaker, having one of his prints selected for the "Fifty Prints of the Year" show by the American Institute of Graphic Arts in 1927. He exhibited with the Downtown Gallery, owned by Edith Gregor Halpert (1910-70) and apparently had an exclusive contract with Halpert for a time in the 1930s. Halpert's Downtown Gallery, opened in Greenwich Village in 1926, was to become one of the most important venues for modern American art and key in the promoting and selling of the work of its associated artists. Perhaps through his relationship with Halpert, he became acquainted with Yasuo Kuniyoshi, an Issei artist who would come to have a great influence on the younger man.

In 1929, Doi returned to Kaua'i to visit his family and his future wife, Blanche Doi. (Though they had the same family name, they were not related.) While in Hawai'i, he had the first of many one man-exhibitions at the then newly opened Honolulu Academy of Arts. The exhibition included fifteen prints and landscapes of his native Kaua'i. Still wishing to continue his art education, he traveled to Paris for a year with the apparent support of his family.

Wanderings

In Paris, he studied both historical and contemporary works at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Grand Chaumiere, and the Louvre. He also took in the Paris art scene where currents of Cubism and Surrealism blended with the continuing influence of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Doi did many drawings and watercolors while in Paris and enjoyed his stay so, that he did not want to return. Friend and fellow Hawai'i artist Hon Chew Hee was dispatched to Paris to bring Doi back. He came back to New York City in 1931.

Upon his return to New York, he established a studio and continued his involvement with the Downtown Gallery. He was part of the Nika-kai group show in Tokyo and also had a solo show of prints, watercolors, and drawings at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. In 1932, he and Blanche married in Kalaheo, Kaua'i. Blanche put aside her job as an elementary school teacher to join her husband in New York, where she took on odd jobs to support him. In 1933, their only child was born, a son named Yuichiro.

The family returned to Hawai'i in 1934, where Doi became a sought after dinner guest given his study and travels in New York and Paris. But given the small number of local art collectors, he was unable to make a viable living. After another one-person show at the Honolulu Academy of Arts in 1935, he returned to New York by himself. Though he thrived there, Blanche preferred sunny Hawai'i where she could raise her son near her family and where she enjoyed teaching. She continued to support Isami's work while he was away.

Over the next three years in New York, he studied wood engraving with his former Columbia professor Heckman; he also studied metal work and jewelry making at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with John P. Heins, hoping that he might be able to sell to the tourist trade back in Hawai'i. He was supported in his work partly by his wife, partly by the WPA (Works Progress Administration, a depression-era government agency that supported the work of artists), and partly by working as an illustrator of children's books. His WPA work included oils and wood engravings.

War Years and Later Life

In 1938, he returned to Hawai'i to rejoin his family. He would remain in Hawai'i for the next eighteen years, splitting time between Honolulu and Kaua'i. During World War II, he remained at home, focusing on graphic art and jewelry making. Much of the jewelry was produced for the upscale S. and G. Gump store in Waikiki. He also taught metal crafting and drawing at the YMCA. In 1941, he self-published the book Random Vintage: Twenty Original Wood Engravings by Isami Doi, a collection of prints, in an edition of 100 copies. He also issued yearly Christmas cards featuring his wood engravings. But these were apparently difficult years for him; as he later wrote, "[t]he war years passed like an agonized dream, and my creative efforts leaned heavily to jewelry-making. After a series of forced changed in avocation [including driving a truck], painting was becoming more of a luxury than a need."

In 1946, he returned to Kaua'i to help care for his ailing father and to take over the family business for the next four years. After returning to Honolulu, he had another one-man show at the Honolulu Academy of Arts and designed jewelry for Ming's in Honolulu from 1951 to 1953. Also in 1951, he published The Wayward Muse: 15 Original Miniature Wood Engravings by Isami Doi, which included his poetry as well as his engravings.

This period also saw the beginning of his influence over a new generation of second generation Asian American artists in Hawai'i, many of whom were World War II veterans. His friend, Takeo Gima, opened an art gallery in Waikiki where Doi had a studio. Gima's became a gathering place for the young artists who looked up to the older Doi. Many of these young men—among them Satoru Abe, Jerry Okimoto, Keichi Kimura, Tetsuo Ochikubo, and Bumpei Akaji—would journey to New York themselves in the 1950s and 1960s and would go on to outstanding careers as artists. Doi became a mentor and friend to these artists and would later rejoin many of them in New York.

Perhaps the central event of his life and career took place in 1953, when his 20 year-old-son Yuichiro died of a head injury suffered while playing football in college in Nebraska. The death of his beloved son plunged Doi into a depression that he never really came out of. He stopped painting for months. When he did pick up the brush again, the resulting work spoke of death through recurring symbols of grief and mourning and through color choices that ranged from black to blood red. In part to deal with his grief, he returned to New York again in 1954. To help finance his trip, friends such as Gima and Abe arranged a sale of his work that nearly sold out on opening night.

This time, he would not be alone in New York. Setting up shop in the shadow of Columbia University, Doi was surrounded by a group of his younger Hawai'i artist friends, many of whom were studying at Columbia, at the Arts Students League, or at the Brooklyn Museum. Having been away from New York for nearly twenty years, Doi found a different city, transformed in large part by the Abstract Expressionists. Though Doi himself did not practice that style, many of the other Hawai'i artists—along with a good many other Asian Americans—did take on the style, which shared many characteristics with elements of traditional Asian art.

Despite his frequent sojourns to New York and other places, the natural beauty of Kaua'i remained a constant motif in his work. Indeed, his time in New York served to sharpen his memories of Hawai'i. "In that dark apartment where the electric bulb had to be kept burning even during daylight," he once wrote, "my brushes were picking up colors of sunny Hawaii. It seems outrageous to think that one has to go to New York to paint Hawaii, and yet that was exactly what was happening."

He returned to Hawai'i in 1958, settling in Kalaheo where he would live for the rest of his life. He returned in part because of failing health. In addition to persistent shoulder problems exacerbated by his printmaking, he suffered from stomach ailments undoubtedly worsened by his depression. He continued to paint and exhibit in his last years, producing some of his strongest work. By the mid-1960s, his career had reached a peak, as he exhibited throughout the country and was finally able to make a decent living. But after a trip to Japan in 1965, he took ill. He died on November 29, with Blanche at his side.

In the years since his death, his reputation has grown. A major retrospective of his work was mounted at the Honolulu Academy of Arts in 1966 and the 1968 Hawaii Japanese Centennial Arts Exhibition was dedicated to Doi. Additionally, the success of the artists he mentored also kept him the limelight. Indeed, one of Satoru Abe's most famous works was a tribute to Doi titled Isami Passed By. As Abe said about Doi, "I sort of went through all the masters, modern and what not, and finally came back to Hawai'i and found for me a very true artist. For me, he'll remain the greatest artist."

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Artists of Hawaii, Volume 1: Nineteen Painters and Sculptors. Photographs by Francis Haar, interviews by Prithwish Neogy, with an introduction by Jean Charlot. Honolulu: The State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and the University Press of Hawaii, 1974.

Behlke, David. "Isami Doi." Bamboo Ridge 73 (Spring 1998): 41-65.

Charlot, Jean. "Art: The Isami Doi Memorial Show." Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Nov, 30, 1966, B-1.

Isami Doi 1903-1965: A Memorial Retrospective Exhibition, December 2-31, 1966. Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts.

Forbes, David W. Encounters with Paradise: Views of Hawaii and Its People, 1778-1941. Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 1992.

Morse, Marcia. "Legacy: Facets of Island Modernism. Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts 2001.

Artists of Hawaii, part 1: Isami Doi. Video. Produced by Ed McNulty, directed by Bob Barnett, written and narrated by Devon Guard, content advisor, Stanley Yamamoto. "A production of the Hawaii State Department of Education," 1984.