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NIKKEI ENTREPRENEUR SPOTLIGHT: Artist Opens a Window on Life in Little Tokyo

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Edwin Ushiro’s joyful illustration offers vision of First Street North.

Edwin Ushiro’s piece for “Windows of Little Tokyo” can be found at Cafe Dulce. (Photo by Mieko Beyer)

By MIEKO BEYER, Rafu Contributor

As a teenager growing up in Maui, Edwin Ushiro was not your average high school student. Instead of preparing college applications, he was busy practicing comic book illustrations with the thought that he’d go on to become an artist in that medium.

It wasn’t until a college recruiter, David Correa from The ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, came to visit his school that his life took a different turn.

Correa, along with Ushiro’s art teacher, Janet Sato, pushed him to apply to the competitive program. Ushiro however, was so surprised by the suggestion that it took a second visit by Correa during his senior year to convince him to apply. “He showed me what ArtCenter students did,” recalled Ushiro. “I saw that there was more out there than comic books.”

However, the move far from home as well as the intense workload made for a challenging transition. He found out quickly that many students in his class already had degrees and even professional experience. “One of my favorite comic book artists was also a student at the same time!” Ushiro laughed.

Ushiro incorporated many real-life people from the community, but also included his pet cat, who shares a celebratory “meow!” in the piece. (Photo by Mieko Beyer)

By the time he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration, he had adjusted to the rigors of the school, turning in three paintings instead of the assigned two for homework assignments and trying to match the bar set by other competitive students. The hard work put in during those undergraduate years prepared the young artist for a challenging time ahead of him. Although the school introduced students to studios like Dreamworks, a slow economy at the time of his graduation stalled promising job opportunities.

In fact, one of his first jobs out of art school was nothing like what he could have imagined. “My first job was painting belt buckles,” he laughed. “I think it was sort of like a sweatshop…It didn’t pay much and it was very difficult.”

Ushiro’s work is influenced by the myths and superstitions from his childhood in Maui. Pictured: “Staring Directly Into the Light to See the Dark That Floats Amongst It,” mixed media. (Courtesy of Edwin Ushiro)

But the Hawaii native never thought of giving up on his artistic career. He drew strength to keep going from his education and talent. “I just had to pull through,” he explained. “I had made it all the way through school and it was the only thing I knew how to do.”

After almost a year of searching, he landed work at Jim Henson Studios, where the creative director was very supportive of his work. The people he worked with sent his portfolio around and helped him find other job opportunities in entertainment. “It helped being around people who were encouraging,” Ushiro said.

This experience led Ushiro to his career in storyboarding for everything from commercials to television shows. Today he splits his time between TV work and fine art. “I didn’t know about the gallery scene until a friend who did it introduced me,” he said. “I had no idea there were galleries showing stuff that we liked!”

Ushiro had his first group show in 2006 and his first solo show in 2007 at Gallery Nucleus in Alhambra. His work is a mixture of drawing and painting that draws from his childhood in Maui. “Maui is a melting pot of myths and superstitions,” he explained. “It’s part of the culture there and those are the kind of stories that go into my work.”

Most recently he contributed a piece for “Windows of Little Tokyo,” an outdoor art exhibition that features work from 10 artists on windows in the historic neighborhood. The community art project run by Sustainable Little Tokyo officially opened on Nov. 2 and will run until April 26, 2020. Ushiro’s piece, titled “Re Up,” can be found at Cafe Dulce in Japanese Village Plaza, 134 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, Los Angeles.

He named his piece after a youngster in his Gardena neighborhood who had chosen the name “Re Up” as his graffiti artist moniker. Thus far the budding spray-painter has not left any drawings, just the name “Re Up,” which Ushiro finds both curious and relatable. “Usually a graffiti artist signs their name on a piece, but they’re just signing a name,” he explained. “I think they’re trying to be part of something, and that’s why I named my piece after them.”

The theme for the outdoor art exhibition is “The future of First Street North,” which Ushiro interpreted as inclusivity, thus the name and subjects of his piece reflect this. “My interpretation is that the future is now,” he added.

The artist uses hybrid techniques as well as traditional drawing and painting to create mixed-media works of art. Pictured: “You Have the Rest of Your Life to Figure Out the Consequences, But Right Now Is Not the Right Time,” mixed media. (Courtesy of Edwin Ushiro)

The figures in the joyful, colorful piece he contributed are based on real life. The diverse group stands in unity, cheering on Little Tokyo. The energy and passion of the piece comes from Ushiro’s vision of its subjects as the ones he thinks of as fighting for Little Tokyo. Going from the left side, the first figure is Ushiro’s wife, Lynn Yamasaki, a Santa Clarita native whom he met while working on his first major exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum, where she did educational activities. “In English we read starting at the left, and because she’s my wife I thought it would be right to start with her,” he said.

Other figures in the piece include Japanese Village Plaza favorite Arthur Nakane, the legendary one-man band. Ushiro also put in his friend Flex Lowery, a manga and anime buff who runs a children’s program at Little Tokyo Public Library. “I put him in there because I always felt he was looking for his community and he’s really made a home here.”

A little to the right of Ushiro’s wife is a father with his son on top of his shoulders, the boy’s arms raised victoriously. “I looked at publicity photos to get him right,” Ushiro said. “I thought he had a really kind face but commanding figure…He’s passing torch to his son.”

This figure is a depiction of the late Dean Matsubayashi, who tragically passed away during the creation of Ushiro’s piece. Matsubayashi was the executive director of Little Tokyo Service Center and his leadership was felt strongly in the community.

Though Matsubayashi’s posthumous appearance in “Windows of Little Tokyo” seems to strike a sad note, the pride and joy in the eyes of his mother and father when they view the piece serves to remind us how the depiction celebrates his memorable personality and contributions to the community. While arriving to meet with Ushiro for this piece at Cafe Dulce, we ran into Dean’s parents, who had come to the plaza that day to see it in person for the first time.

Ushiro’s “Re Up” truly lives up to his vision of capturing the spirit of Little Tokyo and the people within it. “You know, it’s funny we ran into them. Another time I was reading the description they put up for the first time and I hear ‘Behind you! Behind you!’ and the person turned out to be Arthur!” he laughed.

Without a doubt, “Re Up” has succeeded in reflecting the community this artist has come to feel connected to. “For the most part being an artist means it’s just me in the studio, something like this gets me out into the world and creates a bond with other artists and a community,” said Ushiro.

For a complete map of all the artwork in “Windows of Little Tokyo,” visit Sustainable Little Tokyo’s page at http://sustainablelittletokyo.org/projects/windows. To see more of Ushiro’s work, visit http://www.mrushiro.com/ or follow him on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/edwinushiro/.

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