Nobuo Kitagaki

Name Nobuo Kitagaki
Born February 10 1918
Died September 22 1984
Birth Location Oakland, California
Generational Identifier


Nobuo Kitagaki (1918-84) was an artist who built his postwar career in San Francisco in the heart of North Beach, integrating Japanese design techniques and reductive and geometric formalism in a variety of forms including paper collage, shoji screens, and costume design. Kitagaki born in Oakland, California, on February 10, 1918, to parents from Kumamoto prefecture, and was one of five children who would grow up in the San Francisco Bay Area until World War II broke out in 1941. With the passage of Executive Order 9066 in 1942, Kitagaki and his family were forced to move to Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California, and then to a concentration camp in Topaz , Utah. During his incarceration at Topaz, Kitagaki established the camp library and also applied his literary and artistic interest to camp publications, Tanforan Totalizer in San Bruno, and Trek at Topaz. [1]

Kitagaki volunteered for service in the U.S. Army in 1943. He eventually ended up in the Military Intelligence Service and later in the Special Services when the army took note of his artistic abilities. [2] After his honorable discharge, he moved to New York, where he enrolled at the Cooper Union art school. He later attended the Chicago Institute of Design (1947–49), where he studied under Hungarian painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy, under whose influence he moved from more traditional watercolors to collages and abstractions. In 1949, he returned to San Francisco to attend the California School of Fine Arts and finally concluded his formal education at San Francisco State College (now University), where he received a B.A. in fine arts.

Kitagaki was a memorable character who haunted the sidewalks of San Francisco's bohemian North Beach neighborhood, particularly because he was blind in one eye as a result of a mugging. Kitagaki had an apartment on Romolo Place and a workshop on the corner of Union and Grant and supported himself by working as a transcriber for the California Social Welfare Department. Working with his father, he built Japanese shoji screens, which they sold from a shop on Grant Avenue called Tokanoma Gallery, which also served as a showroom for Kitagaki's modernist collages. [3]

Throughout the 1950s, he exhibited his collages in numerous important solo exhibitions: at Henry Lenoir's Vesuvio (1950); Lucien Labaudt Gallery, San Francisco (1950); the Berkeley Garden Library (1952); California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco (1953); and group exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Art (1948, 1951). He was awarded ten design awards and was well-known for his annual "Teahouse in the Trees" from the jury of the San Francisco Art Festival one year, and also actively applied his design work to the Oshogatsu Festival and Nihonmachi Fair in Japantown.

In later years, his eyesight may have impacted his ability to continue as a professional artist, and he made his living by typing and working as a transcriber. [4] He also gave lectures on his internment experience at various California state universities, and on his career as an artist at San Francisco State University.

Kitagaki died on September 22, 1984, in Portland, Oregon.

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.

Kitagaki, Robin. An Interview with a Japanese American Artist , Nobuo Kitagaki. San Francisco State University/Artist Project, May 1982.

Nakamura, Jobo. "Space Composition in Two Dimensions." Pacific Citizen , Dec. 22, 1951, 51, 55. .


  1. For Kitagaki's role in establishing the library, see Andrew B. Wertheimer, "Japanese American Community Libraries in America's Concentration Camps, 1942–1946," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 2004, 129–35.
  2. Topaz Times , March 6, 1943, 6, Utah Digital Newspapers, , accessed on November 20, 2014; Pacific Citizen , Apr. 15, 1943, 8, , accessed on Jan. 12, 2018; Jobo Nakamura, "Space Composition in Two Dimensions," Pacific Citizen , Dec. 22, 1951, 51, , accessed on Jan. 12, 2018.
  3. Gordon H. Chang, Mark Dean Johnson, and Paul J. Karlstrom, editors, Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970 (Stanford University Press, 2008), 357; Nakamura, "Space Composition in Two Dimensions."
  4. Asian American Art', 357.

Last updated Jan. 12, 2018, 6:13 p.m..