Ken Nishi

Name Ken Nishi
Born June 7 1916
Died December 7 2001
Birth Location Salinas, CA
Generational Identifier


Ken Nishi (1916-2001) was a Nisei artist who worked in a wide range of media including watercolor, oil, gouache, wood and stone. He was educated and raised in California, but following the war, he lived seasonally in Nova Scotia, which strongly influenced his later work.

Nishi was born on June 7, 1916, in Salinas, California, where his father was a pioneer in the modernization of farming and his mother was an accomplished tanka (an ancient Japanese poetry form) poet. [1] Following graduation, Nishi studied art at Salinas Junior College before moving to Los Angeles in 1937 to attend the Chouinard Art Institute, where he studied with Millard Sheets and graduated with honors. In 1939 he assisted Sheets in his 20'25' mural for Treasure Island.

He served in the U.S. Army during World War II while his family was incarcerated in an American concentration camp. While stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Nishi painted murals in recreation facilities; a newspaper photograph from the time shows his forty-foot mural in the library of the Service Club, depicting a rural Missouri scene and features an African American farmer. [2] He also exhibited during this period in St. Louis and Springfield, Missouri, and later in the Chicago area, where he met and eventually married Setsuko Matsunaga, who would become a distinguished Asian American scholar and professor of sociology. In Chicago, he also ran a Friday night art club and was a member of the Gaka Art Guild, a group of predominantly Nisei artists who exhibited regularly. [3]

His family settled in New York in 1952, where Nishi found work as a printer, sculptor, furniture maker, educator and art director for the Rockland Center for the Arts. Beginning in 1949, Nishi and his family would also live seasonally in Nova Scotia.

Nishi's solo exhibitions included shows at the Ozark Arts and Crafts Gallery in Springfield, Missouri (1942); St Louis Public Library, St. Louis, Missouri (1943); Ruth Dickens Gallery, Chicago, (1950); and the Rockland Center for the Arts, West Nyack, New York (1963, 1970-1978). A major retrospective of his work, Ken Nishi: Reflections in Time, was held at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax in 1999.

He died in Tappan, New York, on December 9, 2001.

Authored by Patricia Wakida

For More Information

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

"Ken Nishi Memorial Exhibition." Rafu Shimpo, May 15, 2004. 5.

Ken Nishi: Reflections in Time . Halifax: Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1999.


  1. Gordon H. Chang, Mark Dean Johnson, and Paul J. Karlstrom, editors, Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970 (Stanford University Press, 2008), 396.
  2. Chang, et al., Asian American Art , 396; Fred Fertig, "Some Notes for the Nisei," Pacific Citizen , Apr. 8, 1943, 5, accessed on Jan. 12, 2018 at .
  3. Jobo Nakamura, "Chicago Notebook: It's Not Only Windy, It's Hot in the City in Summer," Pacific Citizen , July 27, 1946, 5 and Pacific Citizen , Jan. 10, 1948, 7, both accessed on Jan. 12, 2018 at and .

Last updated Jan. 12, 2018, 5:55 p.m..