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Margie Masako "Koho" Yamamoto

Name Margie Masako "Koho" Yamamoto
Born 1922
Birth Location Alviso, California
Generational Identifier

The artist and Japanese sumi-e and calligraphy teacher "Koho," the artist's name for Margie Masako Yamamoto, is a Kibei Nisei artist who taught Japanese sumi-e painting and calligraphy in New York. She studied Japanese and Western painting under Chiura Obata and artists in the Tanforan and Topaz concentration camps during WWII and the Art Students League of New York, where her work turned toward Abstract Expressionism. She opened her own studio in the 1970s, where she taught many students sumi-e and Japanese calligraphy, and had many exhibitions of her own work synthesizing Abstract Expressionism and sumi-e.

Masako Yamamoto was born 1922 in Alviso, California. She was the fourth child of calligrapher and poet father Wataro Yamamoto, and highly-educated mother Sayo. The family moved back to Japan soon after she was born, so Masako spent her early childhood in Fukuoka, Japan. She has practiced calligraphy since then. She lost her mother when she was four. She returned to the US in 1931 at the age of nine with her brother and two sisters. Wataro remained in the US while they were in Japan, working and sending money. He was operating a restaurant in San Jose by the time they returned from Japan.

With the outbreak of WWII, the family was first removed to the Tanforan Assembly Center, where Masako started taking classes in both Japanese and Western painting taught by Chiura Obata and George and Hisako Hibi . Masako and her family were then transferred to the Topaz concentration camp in Utah. She continued to study under Chiura Obata in the Topaz Art School which he opened on October 6, 1942. The artist name "Koho" was conferred on her by Obata as one of his top students. The name is composed of the characters for "red" (紅 ko) and "harbor" (浦 ho or ura) from his name Chiura (千浦thousand harbors) . Despite the severe hardship for most in the camps, she said her time there was liberating: "I had a lot of time to create." [1] And looking back, she recalled, "I miss my teacher, Professor Chiura Obata. That was one of my most memorable periods." [2] Being a fluent Japanese writer, she also joined a poetry club at Topaz.

About a year later, she was transferred with her family to the Tule Lake Segregation Center on September 28, 1943. After the war ended, she left for New York on September 24, 1945. There she worked as a nurse's aide, a ceramic painter, and other jobs and studied art at Taro Yashima 's art studio along with other Japanese American artists, including Hideo Kobashigawa whom she married in 1951. They were both awarded an 18-month scholarship to study at the Art Students League of New York where she studied for seven years. During this period, Masako's art moved towards Abstract Expressionism.

Still struggling economically, the couple lived in a public housing project in Brooklyn. Masako quit painting during this period to earn a living while Hideo worked in a Japanese restaurant and continued painting. They were separated for a period when she left for San Francisco to look after her father, but she returned to New York in 1955 and resumed her study of art. They divorced in 1964.

The year she returned to New York, Masako joined "Gallery 84," one of the original 10th street Cooperative Art Galleries, presenting a one-woman show. An Art News critic described her paintings then as "fantastic dark landscapes." [3]

She opened her own school of sumi-e and Japanese calligraphy under the name "Koho" in 1973 at 64 MacDougal Street in New York City. She was in the vanguard of artists taking advantage of the lofts and cheap rents in SoHo, when the streets were mostly deserted and the storefronts empty. When Koho was struggling to run her sumi-e school, after seeing her work, Isamu Noguchi sometimes called her studio and encouraged her. In a letter expressing his support for her abstract sumi-e, he wrote, "I find your paintings to be exceptionally beautiful." [4] As a teacher, she emphasized the Notan style of sumi-e with its dark and light tonalities, only allowing more advanced students in incorporate watercolor and Abstract Expressionism. Her school, the only one of its kind in New York, survived for 37 years on MacDougal Street, closing in 2010.

Koho has exhibited her work in many solo and group shows, including

1973 Japan Cultural Center, NY
1975 Japanese Art Museum [Sato Sakura Museum]
1978 Fairleigh Dickinson University
1979 New York World Trade Center and Bizen Gallery, NY
1980 traveling exhibit to China
1983 Charles Evans Gallery, NY
1985 Koch Gallery, Lincoln Center, NY
1986 Kukwao Gallery, Tenafly, NJ
1987 New York Open Center
1989 Kenshaw Gallery, Woodstock, NY
2004 Evergreen Gallery, Spring Lake, NJ
2008 Japanese American Internment Art Exhibit
2012 Interchurch Center Corridor Gallery
2013 Aaron Davis Hall, CCNY; 2017 Cubico, Soho, NYC
2014 Japanese American Association of New York, NY

She has also been featured as a guest lecturer at Columbia University and New York University and has been exhibited in Japan.

Masako is alive and well in New York, meeting with students and continuing her artwork.

Authored by Ben Kobashigawa , Emeritus, Asian American Studies, San Francisco State University

For More Information

"Koho – School of Sumi-e website: http://www.koho-schoolofsumi-e.com/ .

"KohoArt" Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/kohoart/ .

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

Farmer, Ann. " Reflections on a Stilled Paintbrush. " New York Times, May 27, 2010.

Hideo Kobashigawa, a Retrospective: A Kibei Nisei Artist’s Life and Dream . Okinawa Prefecture, 2000.

Hill, Kimi Kodani, ed. Topaz Moon: Chiura Obata's Art of the Internment . Berkeley: Heyday, 2000.

Koppel, Lily. " A Philosophy Runs through Each Brush Stroke. " New York Times . Dec. 27, 2005.

New York Handmade Collective. " Sumi-e Artist Koho Yamamoto, New York City’s Treasure. " Oct 24, 2017.

Koho Yamamoto interview by Frank Debourge, ca. 2018.

Footnotes

  1. Ann Farmer, "Reflections on a Stilled Paintbrush," New York Times , May 27, 2010, accessed on March 23, 2020 at https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/27/reflections-on-a-stilled-paintbrush/ .
  2. Koho Yamamoto, interviewed by Frank Debourge, ca. 2018, accessed on Aug. 18, 2019 at https://frankdebourge.com/pages/koho-yamamoto .
  3. Farmer, "Reflections."
  4. Isamu Noguchi to Koho Yamamoto, May 30, 1985, Koho Yamanoto’s Facebook page, accessed Mar. 21, 2020 at https://www.facebook.com/pg/kohoart/photos/?ref=page_internal .

Last updated Nov. 30, 2020, 8:56 a.m..