Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Paintings that comfort: the work of Japanese artist Fumi Komatsu

We spent the better part of the last few months in Phoenix, where my husband's family lives and where my mother-in-law passed away, a month ago today. The final weeks of her life were spent at Hospice of the Valley's Sherman Home on the Mayo Clinic campus, a place we all felt so lucky to have found. It's a wonderful facility--not only does it have an amazing staff but it has generous places (both indoors and out) for families to gather and process their grief. The purpose-built building puts the emphasis on nature (every patient room has a private patio and an always-filled bird feeder) but what I most fell in love with were the many naturalist paintings by Japanese artist Fumi Komatsu. I'd never heard of her, and still don't know much, but I loved her brushwork, palette and subject matter.

I don't know why Sherman House has so many of her works... perhaps they belonged to the Shermans, who funded the facility, or perhaps they were donated by another local collector. No one I asked seemed to know. The little detail I've gleaned on Komatsu is that she was born in 1930 and traveled to New York in the 1950s, after winning a Rockefeller Foundation for International Young Artists award and a one-year fellowship. After completing the fellowship, she entered a New York University competition for foreign artists, which she also won, and for which she received another fellowship. This seems to have been the pattern for a number of years, during which time her work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art, Jenson Gallery and Gallery 75, among others. Patrons included William and Babe Paley, George and Virginia Ullman (with whom she stayed in Arizona during the 1960s) and foreign dignitaries. In a 1961 article in the Arizona Republic, Komatsu explained that she felt “more Japanese in America,” an idea that intrigues me. “You cannot be very Japanese in Japan—at least not in your style of painting," she continued. "In Japan, I feel very tight, very restricted. Here, I feel very free to explain and interpret myself through oils, watercolors, tempera, wood cuttings.”

Maybe it's that uninhibited freedom, a joyful expression, that I'm responding to in her paintings... they provided such an uplifting respite in a time of such sorrow. So why has Komatsu's name all but disappeared? Where have other paintings gone? If anyone knows more about her, or how to find her work, please leave a comment. Until then, I'll just keep watching for one to appear... I'd love to have one.

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