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With America As His Muse, Kansas Painter Roger Shimomura Gives People Something 'Stirring'

Julie Denesha
Artist Roger Shimomura's new show 'Roger Shimomura: American Muse,' subverts Asian American stereotypes with Pop Art.

Roger Shimomurasays he's found "the deeper meaning of life in Pop Art."

Shimomura is one of the area's most esteemed painters. He taught for decades at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, and his work is in the permanent collections of more than 100 museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian.

During the American Pop Art movement of the 1960s artists used mass-produced imagery in bold new ways. In his new show "Roger Shimomura: American Muse," his colors are bright and cheery, but the images expose dark stereotypes just beneath the surface.

"The visitor comes and looks at the work that's on the wall and there's a circuit that comes out of both sides of the painting up to both ears of the viewer and then the brain of the viewer is what determines how that circuit is closed and therefore what that painting means to them," Shimomura says. "Of course, every person coming with their own mental makeup is going to read it differently."

In his world, Sumo wrestlers bathe with rubber duckies. Icons like Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse and Goofy play outside an internment camp.

Credit Roger Shimomura
Roger Shimomura
Shimomura uses bold imagery and comic book colors in his paintings to subvert Asian American stereotypes.

Shimomura was born during a precarious time for Japanese-Americans. In 1942, when he was just a toddler, his family was ordered to move from their home in Seattle to the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho when President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. They joined more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans, detained without trials or hearings, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It was a defining experience for Shimomura and it’s been a constant theme in his work.

Gallery owner Sherry Leedy says these new paintings continue this thread.

"He compresses time in that he'll incorporate events from his childhood, or childhood memories of internment camps, and juxatapose that with imagery from our current political scene," says Leedy. "So there’s everybody from Marilyn Monroe to Muslim women to Japanese children so there’s this wide range of people who really do make up America."

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
As gallery assistant Allison King slices through layers of paper and bubblewrap, Shimomura's paintings begin to accumulate along the walls of the darkened gallery.

One section of the show is a series of small paintings devoted to exploring President Trump's travel ban on five Muslim-majority nations.

"The president appears in maybe a third of the paintings," says Shimomura. "But I think when you look at all of those paintings of the president, there are times when you may even wonder: 'Is the artist pro-Trump or anti-Trump?' because I've stepped back so far. And I think when that happens you energize the painting."

At 79, Shimomura is still creating work and exploring new ideas. This new show consists of more than 120 paintings all completed over the last several years. Some of this work has been exhibited in New York and Seattle, but all will be new to Kansas City audiences.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3FM
Artist Roger Shimomura sits amidst his most recent works to date as his paintings are unwrapped and propped up on the gallery walls.

"The challenge will be: do we have enough wall space for all of the work, because it's quite a large show," Leedy says with a laugh. "It's a series of work that he's been doing that are all fairly small, but there's a whole group of them. So there’s going to be a lot of work and it will be sort of like walking into a graphic novel."

Shimomura says his method of layering images that are familiar with the unfamiliar stimulates the mind.

"You sort of hook them," he says of viewers, "and then they look at it and then when they leave the painting something is sort of stirring. You know, they may not get it until that night or the next day or in conversation with somebody else three of four days later. But it's festering. And if you can do that then I think you've done something."

Roger Shimomura: American Muse” opens with a public reception from 7 to 9 p.m on Friday, April 5 and runs through May 25 at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, 2004 Baltimore Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri 64108. 

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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