Robert Kuwahara


Name Robert Kuwahara
Born August 12 1901
Died December 10 1964
Birth Location Tokyo, Japan
Generational Identifier

Issei

Robert Kuwahara (1901–64) was a a successful commercial artist and cartoonist whose career highlights included animation work for Walt Disney, MGM Studios, and CBS Terrytoons.

Kuwahara was born on August 12, 1901, in Tokyo, Japan, and immigrated with his family at the age of nine, where they settled first in Santa Barbara, California, and later in Los Angeles. Even at a young age, he showed a great talent and interest in art, and volunteered as an editor and cartoonist for the Poly Optimist, the school paper for Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles, where he was a student. From 1921–26, Kuwahara studied at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. He also found work as an editor of the English section of the "Rafu Nichi-Bei" Japanese American newspaper, but resigned in 1929 to focus on his art. That same year, Kuwahara held a solo exhibition of pastel portraits and pen sketches at the Olympic Hotel in Los Angeles and sold thirty-two pieces. [1] Following this success, he moved to New York City in an attempt to establish himself as a portrait painter and artist for various book publishers, but he was forced to return to Los Angeles in 1931 after he was unable to find steady work.

His career fared better in California, and he was soon hired by the Walt Disney studios as an animator in 1932, joining an impressive crew of Japanese American artists who worked for Disney before World War II, including Chris Ishii, Tom Okamoto, Tyrus Wong, Milton Quon, Wah Ming Chang, James Tanaka, and Gyo Fujikawa. Kuwahara worked for Disney from 1932 to 1936 and contributed to the backgrounds for feature animated films Snow White, Fantasia, and Bambi before moving on to MGM Studios. In 1933, Kuwahara married Julia Suski, a musician, graphic designer and artist for the Rafu Shimpo newspaper, who contributed almost daily pen drawings to the paper throughout the 1920s.

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was especially difficult for Kuwahara, who was born in Tokyo and therefore categorized as an "enemy alien" and unqualified for American citizenship under law. Although he escaped arrest, he and his family were forced from their home in Los Angeles to the Santa Anita Assembly Center and then at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. Kuwahara taught art classes at both camps, sometimes as frequently as twice a week. The Santa Anita Pacemaker, the official newsletter of the center, published an article about his instruction on July 1, 1942 ("Former Studio Artist Now Supervises Art Classes") that profiled his career as an animator and urged fellow inmates to enroll. Once he was transferred to Heart Mountain, he joined a group of well-established Nisei artists that included Hideo Date, Riyo Sato, and Benji Okubo teaching art classes to the residents, painting and drawing, and displaying their work in exhibitions held at camp.

Following his release from Heart Mountain in 1943, Kuwahara moved to Chicago and exhibited a collection of watercolors at the Chicago branch of the American Friends Service Committee.[2] He remained in Chicago for two years, seeking work as a commercial artist, before he moved to Larchmont, New York, where he created a syndicated comic strip titled "Miki" under the name Robert (or Bob) Kay. Debuting in January 1945, the strip, named after his youngest son, was in twenty-three daily newspapers three years later and won a Freedoms Foundation Award in 1951.[3] He continued work on the strip for five years, then worked for Paul Terry of Terrytoons in New Rochelle, New York. From 1959 to 1963, he created and directed fourteen Hashimoto Mouse cartoon shorts about a Japanese family of mice and also directed episodes of another popular cartoon known as Deputy Dawg. Kuwahara continued working for Terrytoons for the rest of his career.

He died on December 10, 1964, in Larchmont, New York.

Authored by Patricia Wakida

For More Information

Aoyama, Hiyuki. "Former Studio Artist Now Supervises Art Classes." Santa Anita Pacemaker, July 1, 1942, 3.

"Bob Kuwahara". Lambiek Comiclopedia. http://www.lambiek.net/artists/k/kuwahara_bob.htm.

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

Sugahara, Roku. "Nisei is Creator of National Cartoon Strip." Pacific Citizen, Dec. 20, 1947, 25. http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19471220_025.jpg

Yoshiki-Kovinick, Marian. A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 1906-1953. Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books, 2008.

Footnotes

  1. Gordon H. Chang, Mark Dean Johnson, and Paul J. Karlstrom, editors, Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970 (Stanford University Press, 2008), 365.
  2. Heart Mountain Sentinel, Nov. 6, 1943, 8.
  3. Larry Tajiri, "Nisei USA: Nisei and Name Changing," Pacific Citizen, Mar. 24, 1951, 4, http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19510324_004.jpg; "Bob Kuwahara," Lambiek Comiclopedia, http://www.lambiek.net/artists/k/kuwahara_bob.htm; Allan Holtz, "Obscurity of the Day: Miki," Stripper's Guide blog, May 28, 2012, http://strippersguide.blogspot.com/2012_05_27_archive.html; Pacific Citizen, Mar. 3, 1951, 1, http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19510303_001.jpg; Roku Sugahara, "Nisei is Creator of National Cartoon Strip." Pacific Citizen, Dec. 20, 1947, 25, http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19471220_025.jpg, all accessed on November 19, 2014.