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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 31, 2005

Kuroda reflects on abstract art, life

By Victoria Gail-White
Special to The Advertiser

"Aka Moon," 18 by 50 inches, acrylic on canvas, reflects a commitment by the artist to balance in painting.

Tom Tierney

Artist James Kuroda and his companion, Charlie. Kuroda, who recently suffered a heart attack, says the experience made him less judgmental about his work.

Lynn Mayekawa

"The Rhino Looks at the Moon," 20 by 24 inches, acrylic on canvas, takes its name from a tai-chi pose.

Tom Tierney


James Toshikazu Kuroda has been an important part of the local art scene for 30 years. His recent recovery from a heart attack has changed the way he sees the world and his artwork.

A graduate of the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, Kuroda has done his time behind the scenes — working at an art-supply store, teaching and installing art for exhibitions. Presently, he works as an exhibition specialist at the Hawai'i State Art Museum.

But it hasn't been all behind the scenes for Kuroda. He's had his share of prizes and praise for his abstract paintings, some in permanent museum collections, which have evolved into a tour de force of visual language.

Ever true to his passion and commitment to his art and martial arts, he spoke with The Advertiser about his recent solo show ("Grasping The Bird's Tail") at bibelot gallery (see Honolulu Advertiser review, July 24).

Q. Abstract painting is difficult for many viewers to understand. What attracted you to abstract painting?

A. It's not easy to do. It's universal and yet still mysterious. When I felt like I could draw well realistically, and lots of people are amazed that I can draw because I do abstracts, I wanted more of a challenge. I didn't understand abstract painting, so I pursued it. At that same time, in 1974, while studying martial arts, I felt I could fight well enough, so I began studying tai chi. Both abstract painting and tai chi offer challenges in terms of balance.

Q. Your titles are in keeping with your wonderful sense of humor. How do you come up with titles for your pieces?

A. I find a form or some element in the painting that reminds me of something. Normally, I try not to be too serious. The titles may sound sugary or poetic, but this show's titles are primarily taken from the names of tai chi poses. However, in tai chi the titles don't really mean anything because the actual pose changes depending on which style you are doing. For instance, the pose for "Grasping The Bird's Tail" in the popular Yang style is called "Lazily Fastening The Garment" in the original Chan style. They all have double meanings.

Q. Do you sketch things out before you begin a painting or do you paint more intuitively?

A. I paint by memory and intuition, which is actually more difficult and challenging.

In a realistic painting, you have something to look at and you can measure what you are painting by what you see. But in abstract painting, you have to measure with your emotions, feelings and intellect. For example, "city of temples" (a 5- by-6-foot acrylic on canvas) is a painting of my experiential memories of Kyoto: the Golden Pavilion, elliptical shapes from an art gallery's window on the Path of Philosophy, and the red gates. Memories come to us in different layers. This painting mimics that process; I painted images and then covered them up. Here, you can barely see a lotus shape underneath the white paint. I saw a geisha in Kyoto with three fluorescent pink triangles painted at the nape of her neck and it stuck with me. They are in the painting on top of the lotus. The growth of this painting is documented on my computer. It began with a grid; most of them do. I block out colors on the grid and paint over them following my own pathways. I use collage in my work as an anchor, then layer the painted memories. This painting took two years to complete.

Q. It sounds like the process is more important to you than the actual product. Is that true?

A. Yes. In my life, I make a lot of mistakes. I do things over and over again. But I try to leave something in from before, such as a color. Most of the time there are at least five different colors on a shape. I use a lot of sandpaper and alcohol. I spray it when it's wet and dig into the heavier painted surfaces. It's really true what one of my teachers said, "You've got to get rid of the best part." I couldn't understand that. But I do now. Sometimes, if you keep a part you are attached to and try to create things around it, it becomes a problem. I tend to hold onto shapes for a long time and if the painting doesn't work then I know I have to get rid of the shape I like the most. That's hard to do. It sounds easy, but for painters it's not. You have to get your ego out of the way. It sounds cheesy, but it's true — the journey is more important than the destination. For me, the process of painting is enough. But, you can't sell the journey. At some point, I have to make it saleable and get my message across.

Q. How do you see yourself now in terms of your work?

A, I'm pretty happy now. I know what I'm doing, what I want, and I'm more confident. As you age your color palette changes. I think warm colors coming into cool ones are poetic now. Once in a while, when my earlier works are exhibited, I am amazed that I did some of them. But, the truth is, I've destroyed almost half of my work.

Q. Have you experienced a change in your process or your artwork since your heart attack?

A. Yes. Before my heart attack, I used to think drips were cheesy. I did drips, but I felt guilty about them. The newer pieces, like "the wind scatters the leaves," have lots of drips. I am less judgmental of my work now. I think it was actually a good thing for me to have a heart attack.