Jump to Content

Collection Guide
Collection Title:
Collection Number:
Get Items:
Guide to the Sugimoto (Henry) Collection 1928-1990
View entire collection guide What's This?
PDF (461.05 Kb) HTML
Search this collection
Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Biography
  • Scope and Content

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Henry Sugimoto Collection
    Date: 1928-1990
    Collection ID: 92.97
    Creator: Sugimoto, Henry
    Repository: Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, Calif.)
    Los Angeles, CA 90012
    Language: English.

    Administrative Information


    Collection is not open for research.

    Publication Rights

    All requests for permission to publish, reproduce, or quote from materials in this collection must be submitted to the Collections Management and Access Unit at the Japanese American National Museum (collections@janm.org).

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Henry Sugimoto Collection, Gift of Madeleine Sugimoto and Naomi Tagawa, Japanese American National Museum, 92.97.


    An Issei, or immigrant from Japan, Henry Sugimoto defied convention to pursue a career as a painter. Talent and a persevering drive brought him early success in the 1930s. His rising career came to a halt during World War II when he was confined to American concentration camps. What is striking about Sugimoto is the way he responded to his incarceration. The experience initiated a deeply personal exploration that transformed how he viewed himself and his art.
    "I spent my childhood separated from my parents and was raised and educated by my grandparents. My father immigrated to the United States, leaving my mother, my younger brother, and me behind when I was an infant and had no impression of him. When I was nine, my mother was summoned by my father and, leaving us with my grandparents, went to the United States. I was sad when my mother immigrated, but since my grandparents and my aunts and uncles were still young and lived in the same house, and since they cared for us and loved us brothers as their own children, I did not feel much sorrow or grief." (From Henry Sugimoto's diaries.)
    Sugimoto enrolled briefly in the University of California, Berkeley, but soon left to pursue his interest in art at that California School of Arts and Crafts (now known as CCAC, the California College of Arts and Crafts). He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1928, and shortly afterwards decided to go to France to study his art further.
    Sugimoto quickly made friends among the community of Japanese artists living in Paris. While there, he studied art and French at the Academie Colarossi and Alliance Francaise, respectively, but retreated to the countryside to work after his submission to the 1930 Salon d'Automne was rejected. He stayed and painted with an artist friend, Ogi, in Voulangis for much of the remainder of his time in France. In 1931, one of the two pieces he submitted to the Salon d'Automne was accepted. Shortly afterwards he returned to California, a greatly matured artist with great hopes for the future.
    Sugimoto's return to California was shortly followed by a one-person exhibition of his paintings at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The show was well-received, and San Francisco's Courvoisier Gallery offered to represent Sugimoto. Over the next few years, Sugimoto exhibited widely in California: at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Oakland Art Gallery, and the Foundation of Western Art, his work appeared regularly in group shows. The Museum of Modern Art in New York offered to exhibit Sugimoto's work as well, but perhaps as a result of prior commitments, Sugimoto turned them down--a decision he regretted years later.
    In 1934, Sugimoto married his longtime sweetheart, Susie Tagawa. Two years later they had their first child, Madeleine. Between raising a family and making a living, Sugimoto continued to work diligently on his art. He made several trips around California and in Mexico during the mid-thirties, taking a break from work and devoting time to painting. Carmel, Yosemite, Mexico City all provided inspiration and endless subject matter for Sugimoto's work.
    Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI began to arrest Japanese American community leaders, including directors and staff of Japanese-language schools throughout California. Paranoia and rumors were widespread, and Sugimoto even found himself burning Japanese books from the school in Hanford out of fear that he would be arrested for his involvement with the school. Evacuation orders followed hard on the release of Excutive Order 9066 by President Roosevelt. Japanese Americans from central California, the Sugimoto family among them, were forced to move to the Fresno Assembly Center. Sugimoto was able to include a few art supplies with the small number of possessions they could take with them, and continued to sketch and paint at the Assembly Center.
    Removal to Jerome Relocation Center in Denson, Ark. followed. Sugimoto painted there, as well, but the barren landscape of Arkansas more or less put an end to the rich landscape studies he had immersed himself in during his France and California sojourns. Figures, portraits, and allegories took center stage, with the physical environs of camp ever-present in the background.
    With the outcome of the war still in question, Sugimoto also had concerns about his future as an artist. He had concealed his work from the authorities for some time, for fear of the consequences of being found depicting scenes from camp. Eventually, however, he painted freely. His work came to the attention of the art community outside of camp, and through their efforts his work was shown at the Hendrix College art gallery in early 1944. This recognition did much to restore Sugimoto's resolve to continue his life as a practicing artist.
    Political issues played a greater part in Sugimoto's work after this, as well. The loyalty questionnaire administered by the government in 1943 brought confusion, distress, and fear to all ten WRA camps, and even resulted in physical violence.
    The Jerome camp closed in 1944, and the Sugimotos were subsequently moved to Rohwer. They stayed there nearly until the end of the war, when they left Arkansas for New York and a new life.
    After leaving Rohwer in 1945, the Sugimotos struggled through their first lean years in New York. Sugimoto eventually found work in a textile company creating fabric designs--work he did not enjoy, but which supported the family for years. He continued to paint in his spare time and made a point of keeping current with the active arts scene in the city.
    In 1962, Sugimoto retired, intending to devote all his time to art. With his family's blessing, he went back to France for a year; he followed that trip with an excursion to Japan, where he visited relatives and friends he had not seen since emigrating more than forty years before. These experiences were just as formative as the travels in his early life had been, and Sugimoto began to develop a more historical and personal approach to his work during the 1960s and '70s.
    The Japanese American community's growing willingness to talk about the incarceration experience had an effect on Sugimoto and his work, too. He testified in 1981 before the U.S. Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. His testimony helped achieve one of the primary goals of the redress movement: a formal apology from the government and recognition of the mistakes that had been made in the treatment of Japanese Americans during the war.
    Sugimoto's work during this time also reflects his growing perception of himself as an issei, or first-generation Japanese American. His visit to Japan had made his American identity clear to him, and many works from this later period in his life reflect a new interest in the history of Japanese immigration.
    When Sugimoto had his work exhibited at the Hendrix College gallery, it was the first time the paintings had been seen by anyone outside of camp. Henry and Susie Sugimoto, under the escort of the camp's director, were allowed to attend the opening of the exhibition in Conway, Arkansas.

    Scope and Content

    130 paintings by Henry Sugimoto, a Japanese American artist who flourished in the 1930s and continued to paint well into the 1990s.