George Tsutakawa

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"For me, 1960 or thereabouts was a time to take another look at the philosophy and art of the Orient--particularly Japanese art--that I had become familiar with in my youth. Through my travels and my studies of traditional Japanese arts I was able to reaffirm my conviction in the Oriental view of nature which sees man as one part of nature, a part that must live in harmony with the rest of nature.

From 1960 on, I attempted to express this relationship between man and nature in my works. My sumi-e drawings are a direct response to nature; my fountain sculptures are an attempt to unify water--the life force of the universe that flows in an elusive cyclical course throughout eternity--with an immutable metal sculpture."

--George Tsutakawa footnote 1

George Tsutakawa, sculptor and painter, is perhaps best known for some sixty public fountains created and installed in North America and Japan since 1960. Tsutakawa served on the faculty of the UW School of Art from 1947 until his retirement in 1976. Perhaps as much as for his body of artistic works, Tsutakawa is beloved as a "treasure of the Pacific Northwest" for the contributions he and his family have made over the years to the cultural life of the region.

Through his painting and sculpture, Tsutakawa explores the relationship of man to nature. In a book about his life and work, UW art historian Martha Kingsbury chronicles the development of the artist, elucidating how his work has been shaped by--and has transcended--the influences of his dual cultural heritage.footnote 2

He was born in Seattle in 1910 on George Washington's birthday--the inspiration for his first name. His earliest years were spent on Capitol Hill in Seattle, in a house near Volunteer Park. At the age of seven, he was sent to Japan to live with grandparents. It was there that the young George gained an intimate knowledge of Japanese arts and cultural traditions. He watched his grandparents perform the tea ceremony, practice calligraphy, and create flower arrangements; he took regular lessons with a Zen master, watched traditional Japanese theater performances, and learned to make pottery. By the time he was a teenager, George had decided to become an artist--a decision that didn't sit well with his father, who sent him back to Seattle in 1927.

Tsutakawa lived with his uncles in Seattle and helped with the family business while attending high school and college. Thrust back into the western world, having forgotten English, Tsutakawa set out to "reinvent" himself. "He clearly chose to construct himself as an American and an art student," notes Kingsbury. During the summers, he would work in the Alaska canneries. For about the next ten years, he became increasingly involved with printmaking and sculpture, taking inspiration from the sights and sounds of life around the docks in Alaska and in parts of Seattle.

In 1932, Tsutakawa went to the University of Washington, where as an art major he studied with sculptors Dudley Pratt and the internationally-known Alexander Archipenko. After undergraduate school, he became deeply involved in managing a retail outlet for his father's import-export company, located at the intersection of Jackson Street and Rainier Avenue South in Seattle. In the ensuing years, Tsutakawa's artistic life became focused on the downtown arts scene, where he grew close to a group of up-and-coming artists including Mark Tobey and Morris Graves, among others.

With onset of World War II, Tsutakawa was drafted and served a four-year tour of duty; ironically, the family's business was confiscated. The years spent away allowed him to travel and tour major museums, broadening his exposure to the larger world of contemporary art. He returned to Seattle in 1946 with a new dedication to art, going to graduate school at the UW on the GI bill.

"One of America's most internationally prominent sculptors and one of the most celebrated Asian-American artists in our history."

--Jerome Silbergeld, UW School of Art

The year 1947 marked two major milestones in Tsutakawa's life: he married Ayame Iwasa, and joined the faculty of the UW School of Art. Beginning in 1950, he taught part-time in the School of Architecture as well. "Teaching was an arena for the collaborative and public tendencies that were increasingly preoccupying him," writes Kingsbury. Through these activities he became involved in collaborations with engineers, architects, and designers--a forerunner of his work with public fountains and sculptures in the years to come.

During this time he also extended his work to other media. In the late 1940s, Tsutakawa created a number of chairs, tables, and lamps. The light fixtures were constructed with bamboo cylinders, with sections cut away in various shapes and filled with translucent paper or plastic. "These strongly sculptural abstract forms would be seen to relate to cylindrical and symmetrical sculpture Tsutakawa executed much later," writes Kingsbury. "Perhaps the interplay of matter with light anticipates this later counterpoint of metal and water," she notes. He also made a series of reliefs in cedar, and a variety of abstract and representational paintings.

The late 1950s marked a turning point in Tsutakawa's career, when two events converged to propel him on a new course. He returned to Japan after nearly three decades to rediscover his Japanese artistic heritage. During the same period, a friend had given him a copy of a book by U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Beyond the High Himalayas, in which Douglas describes the ritually stacked rock structures, called obos, left by pilgrims to celebrate a successful crossing of a high mountain pass.

These rock forms, at once both public monument and private, spiritual statement, served as a major part of the inspiration for a series of Tsutakawa's sculptures and later, for his fountains. Those works also show the influence of the stone towers and pagodas of Japan, and the vertical-stacked image-units of the totem poles of the native peoples in the Pacific Northwest. "In these Obos, then, Tsutakawa achieved a deeply satisfying synthesis of many components of his experience--the Asian with the western, the informal vernacular with the deeply individualized, the personally meaningful with the publicly accessible," concludes Kingsbury.

By this time, the Tsutakawa family had moved to a house in the Mt. Baker area of Seattle, which became a regular gathering place for university colleagues and artists like Tobey and Paul Horiuchi. "Some dinner parties at the house in 1957 evolved into group painting sessions exploring the quick fluid effects of sumi ink," notes Kingsbury. In later decades, Tsutakawa would further explore that medium, creating a range of works, including landscapes, still-lifes, and plant and animal forms. His sumi landscapes are vigorous, bold; some are almost kinetic. Landscape subjects include Mt. Rainier, the Cascade Mountains, and the rugged coastal rocks at Point of Arches on the Olympic Peninsula.

In 1958, the Board of the Seattle Public Library invited Tsutakawa to design a fountain for the plaza of the main library in downtown Seattle, then under construction. The result, Tsutakawa's Fountain of Wisdom, "is essentially a stack of abstract forms on a single vertical axis. These basic shapes as well as this fundamental structure are reminiscent of the Obos. Here, from the bottom up, are a footed base, a shallow bowl, a pronged remnant of a sphere, a hollowed ovoid, and another shallow bowl.…Water piped to the top spills over the lips and edges in a cascade of sheets and planes that add their own geometry to the bronze forms," notes Kingsbury.

Fountain of Wisdom was the first in a long series that would come to include works such as the Waiola Fountain at the Ala Moana Center, Honolulu; the Song of the Forest fountain, Sendai, Japan; the Lotus Fountain at the Fukuyama Fine Art Museum, Fukuyama, Japan; the Joshua Green Fountain at the Washington State Ferry Terminal, Pier 41, Seattle; Fountain of Reflection, MacKenzie Hall, School of Business, UW; Safeco Fountain at the Safeco Plaza, Seattle; Fountain of Pioneers, Bentall Centre, Vancouver, B. C.; and Hanging Fountain in the KING Broadcasting Building, Seattle, among many others.

  1. "A Personal Statement," George Tsutakawa, Pacific Northwest Artists and Japan, Exhibition catalogue, The National Museum of Art, Osaka, 1982, in ref. 2.
  2. George Tsutakawa, Martha Kingsbury, University of Washington Press, Seattle, and Bellevue Art Museum, Bellevue, WA, 1990.

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