Lewis Suzuki

Name Lewis Suzuki
Born November 29 1920
Died January 24 2016
Birth Location Los Angeles
Generational Identifier


Watercolor and printmaking artist, World War II veteran and peace activist.

Iwao Lewis Suzuki (1920-2016) was born in Los Angeles, California, on November 29, 1920. His father, Koshichi (Frank) Suzuki, arrived in San Francisco in 1912 as an unauthorized immigrant, and left the ship without permission. He eventually traveled to Los Angeles, where he supported himself as a musician. He returned to Japan to get married and brought his new bride, Chiyo Enomoto, back to Los Angeles, where the couple operated a dry-cleaning business. In 1929, Suzuki's father died, and his widowed mother went back to Japan with her six children, including nine-year old Lewis. In the Japanese schools, Suzuki showed a natural talent and excelled in the art programs, which led him to attend the Kawabata Art Academy in Tokyo in 1939. That same year, as he was researching the possibility of studying art in the United States, he met a fellow passenger on a commuter train who noticed Suzuki looking at a catalog of American art schools, and upon learning of Suzuki's American citizenship, encouraged him to leave Japan immediately, warning him of the dangers of being drafted into the Japanese military. He gave Suzuki the name of a man to contact in Los Angeles, which he did when he returned to the United States in 1940.

The man he was told to contact was a writer, activist and actor named Edo Mita, and he helped Suzuki get settled in Los Angeles where he finished high school and took classes at the Otis Art Institute for a year. To support himself, Suzuki worked as a houseboy, did farm labor and worked in a produce market. Edo also invited Suzuki to attend Marxist study groups at his house to discuss Japan's growing militarism with a group of intellectuals including Japanese members of the film industry.

After one year of college, Suzuki moved to Washington D.C. in 1941, where he found work at the Japanese embassy as a "tea boy." He also took classes at the Corcoran School of Art to continue his art studies. When Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan on December 7, 1941 , all embassy officials were instructed to return to Japan; however, Suzuki was allowed to remain in the United States. He moved to New York and found job with the Japanese section of the Office of War Information , where he worked with artist Taro Yashima , among others. He also became a board member for the Japanese American Committee for Democracy . On October 22, 1943, Suzuki joined the U.S. Army and from 1943–45 he served as a Japanese language instructor for the Military Intelligence Service at Camp Savage in Minnesota.

After the war, Suzuki returned to New York, where he studied at the Art Students League and earned a living as a cabinetmaker. He quickly became active in issues of peace and justice and politically involved with an organization known as Nisei Progressives (the New York chapter of the Nisei for Wallace, a national group formed in 1947 to support Henry Wallace as a third party presidential candidate) and believed that art had a vital role in educating others about these causes. After traveling to Hiroshima, Japan, in 1949 he later created a series of anti-nuclear peace posters such as an iconic "No More Hiroshimas" and other peace images for the American Friends Service Committee that incorporated graphics and calligraphy.

As a peace activist, he was a delegate to the Asian Pacific Peace Conference in Beijing and to the World Peace Conference in Vienna. In 1952, Suzuki traveled to China with the American Peace Crusade and met Mary Bonzo, an American citizen who had grown up in the Philippines and who was in China with a Quaker group. The couple married and moved to Berkeley, California, where Mary attended school. They had two children, a son, Masao, and a daughter, Fumi. Suzuki supported the family in Berkeley with his cabinetry work while continuing to paint, teach and exhibit widely, throughout the 1950s. His paintings were included in the Society of Western Artists at the de Young Museum for three consecutive years (1966-69), and were exhibited at the California State Fair in Sacramento from 1968-75. His paintings were included at the National Exhibition of Watercolor, USA at the Springfield Art Museum in Missouri in 1971 and in 1995. In 2003, the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco mounted a featured exhibition of his work, titled Nikkei Journey: Retrospective by Watercolorists Lewis Suzuki and Lawrence Yamamoto .

From 1953–63, Suzuki was an active member of the politically active group Graphic Arts Workshop in San Francisco and he later served on the Berkeley Art Commission. Suzuki's bold and imaginative use of color and loose brush style won him numerous awards, including two at the Society of Western Artists show at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. He worked primarily in watercolors, painting still lifes, landscapes, or city scenes, but his poster work was mostly done using screen printing methods.

Over the years, Suzuki was active with numerous anti-nuclear organizations, from Ban the Bomb in the early 1960s, to the Bay Area Asians for Nuclear Disarmament (BAAND) in the 1980s. He was an antiwar activist and also supported liberation movements in Third World countries, from South Africa to the Philippines. Even well into his eighties, Suzuki was an outspoken opponent of the U.S. war in Iraq in the 2000s. Suzuki's activism was a family activity, as his wife Mary Suzuki, as well as his children, Fumi and Masao, were active in various movements, such as the farmworkers struggle for labor rights.

In 2010, Suzuki was recognized for his art and activist work by the City of Berkeley, and in May of that same year, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO) awarded him an honorary membership. On August 14, 2011, he was inducted into the La Peña Cultural Center Community Hall of Fame for his lifelong cultural activism for social change.

He actively painted, exhibited, and sold his work at his Berkeley studio until his death on January 24, 2016, at the age of 95.

Authored by Patricia Wakida

For More Information

"Bay Area Artist, Peace Activist Suzuki Dies at 95." Rafu Shimpo , Jan. 28, 2016.

Bryant, Dorothy. "The Suzuki Odyssey." Berkeley Daily Planet , Jan. 28, 2005.

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

Suzuki, Masao. " People's Artist Iwao Lewis Suzuki Recognized for Activism ." Fight Back News , August 16, 2011.

WWII Veteran Lewis Suzuki Speaks In Support Of Ehren Watada. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43VXeYsPwRY .

Ko, Nalea J. Ko. Lewis Suzuki: A Lifetime of Painting. Pacific Citizen , July 2, 2010.

Last updated Jan. 8, 2024, 7:51 p.m..