Interview with Yasuo Sumi: An Artist Who Always Sought "Creation and Discovery"

Yasuo Sumi


A project evolving the digitized archive of the book, “GUTAI STILL ALIVE 2015 vol.1”. The 9th edition features a 2013 interview with Yasuo Sumi, a former Gutai Art Association member who passed away in 2015. The interview recollects on his encounter with Shozo Shimamoto who inspired him to paint, his award-winning works, and creative activities in his later years.

Seeking after "creation and discovery," Yasuo Sumi has always been creative in making paintings with unrestrictedly free spirit.

Yasuo Sumi at 88, an artist who was once active as a member of Gutai Art Association, has still been making paintings. His artistic activity to date for as long as about 60 years started with the encounter with late Gutai member Shozo Shimamoto. In this interview at his home in Osaka, Sumi began to talk about that in a cheerful tone. We found there a flexible spirit consistently seeking after his concept "creation and discovery."

―We hear that in 1954, the time when you at 29 returned to work as a public junior high school teacher after spending 3-year medical treatment of tuberculosis, you met Shozo Shimamoto, an artist active at Gutai then, sitting next to you in the teachers' room. I suppose that the chance, which was, as it were, fated to encounter him, made you determine to be artist.

Sumi (hereafter referred to as S): That's true. Shimamoto then was an artist who had already received a first prize at Modern Art, and since he was proficient at art, he was teaching it there though he was originally a teacher of social studies. Shimamoto was already quite famous as an artist, but he, as a co-worker at the school, was very kind to me just after leaving hospital.

―Is it true that the encounter with him had you paint a picture for the first time?

S: Yes, but art has been my favorite thing since childhood. I would see picture books of Miro, Klee, etc. while I was at hospital. Though I wished I could paint such pictures like theirs, I never dreamed of becoming a painter.

―Was there any definite moment to make you start to paint?

S: As I said before, Shimamoto cheered me up just after returning to work. Shimamoto said that he was active making paintings. Asked about what kind of paintings, he showed me a photo of his work awarded a grand-prize at Modern Art, which was composed of entangled lines. The work interested me. Shimamoto said, "This is a kind of work nobody has tried." In spite of myself, I said, "Is this a painting? If so, everyone can draw." Since I knew nothing about contemporary art, the painting looked just like that to me. Then Shimamoto said, "Everybody, even 2 or 3 yearold children, can paint a picture." I answered, "If so, I would like to paint too." Then he would say repeatedly, "Why not, why not..."

―According to your profile, your work were accepted at Ashiya City Exhibition in Spring, 1954, the year when Gutai was established and also when you began to paint through encountering Shimamoto in spring for the first time. Does this mean that you began to paint in spring and were accepted at the exhibition in just less than 1 month?

S: You’re right. Frequently advised by Shimamoto that I should paint, I started to paint with pen or hand in ink or bokuju (Indian ink) on the back of scores of rough writing papers used every day for tests at our school, and showed them to him. Praised, as "Pretty good," by Shimamoto, I was pleased very much, and so painted one picture after another.

―Was it also around that time when you began to use the inventive tool soroban (abacus) for drawing ?

S: The details are like this: one day I happened to turn an inkwell over on paper and wondered what to do. There I found a soroban and, using it, rapidly painted lines by moving the counters on the soroban as if to roll them on the surface of the paper. This action resulted in extremely beautiful lines. I absorbed myself in drawing one after another and showed them to Shimamoto. He said, "This is awfully excellent," even adding, "If you don't use this manner, let me use it instead." I asked him, "You liked it so much?" He answered, "That's excellent because nobody has ever tried." Encouraged by his words, I would make works of that kind everyday and took them to show him. Next, advised by Shimamoto as "Why not try with this manner in oil," I began to make oil paintings using soroban. Seeing them, Shimamoto said again, "This is awfully excellent." He further advised me to exhibit them, and I said, "Such work cannot be accepted." But he said, "Why not." After all I obeyed him on condition that Shimamoto accompany me when I send in my exhibit. Visiting the exhibition place to send in it with him, I found that most of the exhibits were provided with fine canvas and picture frame, unlike my piece. Anyway, leaving the heavy work there, I came back home.

―Anyway, your career progressed smoothly, didn't it?

S: I remember that my younger sister, then a student of educational department, Shiga University, would involve herself in painting landscapes. Since she was sometimes accepted, but mostly rejected, at prefectural art exhibition, I thought that it's not easy to paint a successful picture. But, on the other hand, Shimamoto would say about the paintings I made very quickly, "They're excellent, because nobody has ever tried with such a manner." His praise made me absorbed in painting pictures. One day in 10 days after I exhibited, I noticed that in teacher's room, they were all reading newspapers. I asked Shimamoto, "What article were they reading?" and he answered, "Your name appears in the newspapers." When I said that I didn't do anything wrong as my name would appear there, Shimamoto answered, "Newspapers carry person's name whether doing something wrong or good:" my name appeared in the newspapers because I won a prize at the exhibition for the first time.

―Is it Jiro Yoshihara, who was yet to establish Gutai Art Association, that acted as president of the jury of the exhibition?

S: Yes. at the award ceremony, Mr.Yoshihara highly praised my work, saying, “Though other painters frequently criticize your work as lacking in technique, I think that the use of soroban for painting can be counted as an excellent technique, and also great in your work are discovery of the technique and unrestricted style of painting as if doing with your eyes closed." I felt glad as much as I couldn't sleep, just like a little boy who bought paints for the first time in his life. Mr. Yoshihara also said, "As soon as you made a new work, let me see it again." I let Shimamoto know about that, he said, "Why not visiting Mr.Yoshihara's home with me." It was in 1954, the year Gutai was established.

―And, in 1955, you became a member of Gutai Art Association, didn't you?

S: Yes. It's true that Mr. Yoshihara always praised my work at first, but he gradually became not to do so. I wondered why? I guessed that's because I painted pictures just to let Mr. Yoshihara see, hoping to be praised by him, but it's no good to think about such a thing in advance. And, I thought I had better make paintings as quickly as usual and show them to Mr. Yoshihara. I think it important for artists to make something out of nothing without any preliminary condition: thinking about something for artwork in advance is to make some preparation in your brain, which can only result in losing something fresh in time. That's how I found that no thinking is a new attitude for painting -- you make a painting without thinking, or, if you see your painting for a moment and feel it's good, you can believe that the painting is a result of creation and discovery.

―Anyway, you have established a successful career in very short time, and you are to progress to overseas exhibitions.

S: But, I've never intended to be a painter, only enjoying painting pictures simply because doing so for praise makes me happy and encourages me. I've only absorbed myself in painting pictures.

―In other words, you've been doing paintings to today with free and pure spirit. On the other hand, you have completed your occupation as a schoolteacher.

S: I studied economy at university, and got teaching certificates of social studies and English. I was then a teacher of English and later, like Shimamoto, art. The other day, I met my grownup pupils. They let me know that they would hear graduates of other school say that contemporary paintings were neither interesting nor understandable, but my grown-up pupils who I once taught art said to me, "We are able to understand them."

―How did you teach the pupils art?

S: I remember that pupils often came to show their work made by scattering paints on the paper with a motor of a model plane or by walking on the paper with paints on the back of their foots. That's how I taught them art making, so I've never seen the official guidance for school teaching nor textbooks of art. (laughter)

―Your class reminds me of Gutai's way of art making. I understand that you've voiced contemporary art to the world through exhibitions and education. Your works will be shown more and more at various exhibitions here and abroad. We wish you fine and active even more.

(Mothly Gallery, July 2013)

Read more about the “Gutai Art Association »

*Information in this article is at the time of publication.

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