In Italy, when I answered ‘I’m an artist,’ that was it. You didn’t have to justify your life. And you didn’t have to hear the second question that most artists in America hear – “What do you do for a living?”
From an interview with James Leong by Keith Raether in the August 24, 1997 issue of The News Tribune.
Trudging up the uneven wood steps of a fourth floor walk-up doesn’t prepare the visitor for what he will encounter upon opening the door. In a large loft, one sees an artist’s lifework arranged phase by phase in a gallery display. One marvels at the passions of a man as shapes, colors and composition depict the changes. I met James Leong shortly after he and his wife Dean moved back to America after a long residency in Europe. As I recall, they wanted to move back so that their son would come to know his home country of America. After considering Ballard, they came to Pioneer Square where the cobblestones and older environs of Pioneer Square reminded them of their home in Rome. Though Jim was to spend his last 20 or so years in Seattle, it was not exactly a time of retirement. He continued to paint vigorously, inspired by the Northwest landscape and a family trip to China. He exhibited at a gallery in the same building and was also active in the arts community, serving several terms on the Seattle Arts Commission. He did not exactly keep his thoughts to himself either. When Barbara Lazaroff and her husband, the L.A. celebrity chef/entrepreneur Wolfgang Puck opened a Chinese Fusion restaurant called ObaChine, replete with her private collection of stereotypical racist portraits of Chinese, Leong didn’t hesitate to join the picket line that eventually forced the restaurant to close.
For me Jim was always a touchstone to earlier eras of American culture and history and a reliable witness. His more than eighty years encompassed some dynamic eras in American history filled with change and conflict. Though injustice and racism still rears its ugly head today, it sometimes wears a more subtle disguise.
When Leong grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown coming out of the grips of the Great Depression, this was truly a ghetto where one step outside the boundaries of your neighborhood could result in beatings and verbal assaults. And amidst this gritty reality, arts were not exactly encouraged. Leong’s parents wanted a doctor much like my mother would supply me with books on lawyers, architects and scientists as a child in case I didn’t get the hint. To be an artist, one not only had to fight society but sometimes your own community. It couldn’t have been easy in the 1950’s with the Cold War as a backdrop. Residents of Chinatown were actively encouraged to rat on each other by the zealous J. Edgar Hoover-molded F.B.I., turning in any denizens with progressive or communist sympathies. When the young artist became the first painter to depict the history of his people in a community mural, controversy ensued. Though he accurately depicted Chinese laborers with queues, the local citizens were so ashamed of this history that they lambasted the artist for doing so. The cold wind of conservatism aided by Senator McCarthy swept across America. Later he would have to struggle all over again when his marriage to a white woman drew the wrath of anti-misegenation laws. Getting a grant to go to Europe must have seemed like a breath of fresh air.
In Europe, the young artist thrived, soaking up a myriad of influences, first in Norway and eventually in Rome. Expectations of friends and family fell by the wayside as people accepted him for what he was, an artist. Friends with composer/musician Igor Stravinsky who would later acquire a painting by the artist, Leong also met and befriended many known artists both European and American as he offered parts of his large studio rented from the Vatican to a multitude of other artists from around the world. The building became a small cultural center where concerts and readings were held. Ironically when the University of Washington bought the building to use for a study center abroad, he came back to the West Coast and ended up in Seattle.
As Arts Editor for the International Examiner, I couldn’t help but take advantage of Jim’s comprehensive knowledge of art. I loved to give him books that really touched upon eras of history of which he had intimate knowledge. That personal understanding of the material added immeasurably to our understanding. Whether he was writing about artists he personally knew such as senior watercolorist Dong Kingman (“before his fame, he would trade a watercolor for a bowl of soup at a San Francisco restaurant.“) or a colleague such as landscape painter Reuben Tam or the memoirs of a Chinese houseboy, Leong wrote with care and understanding (and yes, a wicked humor) in a sophisticated yet old-fashioned language that flowed over the senses like a fine wine. As a younger artist finding my way, discovering examples of earlier Asian American artists lives and work inspired and encouraged me to continue on. So when I was able to meet and actually talk to artists like Hisako Hibi, Mine Okubo and Arthur Okamura in California and later George Tsutakawa, Paul Horiuchi, John Matsudaira, Val Laigo, Frank Okada, Johsel Namkung, Roger Shimomura, Patti Warashina, James Leong and so many others in Seattle – it really meant a lot. All of a sudden hearing them talk about their artist friends and colleagues made them all seem so much more human. And I even began to believe that yes, the path of an artist was one I, too, could manage to walk down.
For James Leong, art was more than a hobby or a passing pleasure – it was life itself, a passion and a religion.
I’ll leave you with some words by the artist himself: “I am a visual magician. I feel if I can convince myself that space does exist, then I have achieved my goal in helping a viewer enter my world of beauty.”